An urgent plea to all temporary managers in an acting role!

Coaching many smart managers across government, corporate and nonprofit sectors, I’m noticing a rising and worrying trend that's hindering performance and results.

Increasing secondments, lengthy acting roles and short term contracts are eroding #leadership confidence.

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More than ever before, ‘temporary’ leaders are stepping back, sitting on their hands and playing it safe. It’s as if business is being invaded by a new breed of caretaker leader – leaders who are waiting until…

  • They return to their substantive role
  • Their manager gives them authority and permission
  • They are permanently appointed and given the title

On the surface this seems logical. Why would you actively develop staff and pursue ambitious goals if you’re only going to be there for a short while? It seems safer and easier to keep the seat warm, lights on and daily work ticking over.

Besides, acting roles and secondments are great for broadening experience and gaining new skills.

But as the relentless pace of change shows no sign of letting up any time soon, we’re paying a significant price for ‘waiting until…’

Temporary leadership is often unconscious, covert and difficult to spot. If you or one of your acting managers is experiencing these, chances are it's costing you:

Common Signs, Symptoms and Costs of 'Temporary' Leadership

  • Indecisiveness creating service delays and bureaucratic bottlenecks
  • Delayed milestones, missed targets and failed KPIs
  • Customers increasingly dissatisfied by canned platitudes propping up inadequate service
  • Direct reports, demotivated by a lack of clear direction, are spinning their wheels and achieving less
  • Managers are frustrated by lack of accountability, too many excuses, little real action and slow progress

Lead by Playing it Safe: No Action = Status Quo

Yesterday I listened to Emma who is ‘Acting’ in a temporary management role for 3 months, describe how she couldn’t make decisions because she didn’t have enough knowledge. Fearful of ‘getting it wrong’, she was checking in with her manager constantly.

Two members of her team had recently resigned as their project had stalled and showed no signs of recovery. Emma needs to recruit but doesn’t feel she can make that decision.

Meanwhile, General Manager Mark was also frustrated. New to his role and organisation, he couldn’t understand why his team of capable, well paid, (albeit 'acting') executives couldn’t just ‘get on with it’. Fronting his first board meeting to explain why key project timelines had slipped was embarrassing and did little to build confidence in his ability.

What’s Causing Leadership Inertia?

To understand why temporary leaders are reluctant to step up, make decisive decisions and act, it helps to understand the underlying fear driving this inertia.

I recently quizzed 11 senior, temporary managers, asking what they believed they could and couldn’t do, uncovering the basis for their responses. Covering corporate, government and nonprofit business, their answers were diverse.

But when I collated the results, there were three clear common themes, all related to ‘Fear of..’:

  1. Being perceived as presumptuous when ‘It’s not my role’
  2. Making a wrong decision ("I don’t know enough.")
  3. Being found lacking in some way ("They'll think I'm incapable.")

Each of these beliefs is completely understandable but perpetuating them is doing no one any favours, least of all the temporary leader.

What Happens When You're an ‘Acting’ Leader

Leaders who sit on their hands lose rather than gain traction

Maybe you looked forward to this short-term gig for a change, to learn something new or have a break away from a less than ideal job. But if you get to the end of this temporary role with nothing much to show, you’ll have way more regret for the chances you didn't take.

Procrastination feeds self-doubt

Busying yourself with lower level tasks and indecision may fill your day but others need more from you than that. The more you need to escalate, the less capable you’ll begin to feel. Failing to achieve actual outcomes, you risk losing faith in your own ability to provide strong leadership.

Keeping the seat warm adds limited value

Your leadership reputation will suffer, even if you do nothing wrong! When those you’re working with provide feedback, it’s likely to be a lukewarm ‘She’s OK...’, which doesn’t position you well for future, more exciting roles.

If this role does become permanent, you’re unlikely to be the front-runner or successful candidate.

Thankfully there are simple ways to overcome the challenges of interim leadership.

4 Effective Leadership Strategies for When You're in an Acting Role

How to STOP acting and START leading. 4 simple #leadership strategies for temporary managers

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1. Stop Assuming - Ask What You CAN/CAN’T Do

Even if you received a detailed handover from the exiting manager, don’t assume they fully understood. Ask your manager to clarify expectations at the start and throughout your temporary term.

There will be times he/she wants to be involved or make the final decision. Ask for specific examples to ensure you’re clear about role boundaries, when and how best to engage.

2. Engage Your Team – Discover What THEY Need

Teams are dynamic and respond differently to different leadership styles. You won’t be like their previous manager. It’s worth asking individually and collectively what they need most from you to deliver results.

Check in regularly to ensure you’re being the leader they need.

3. Be Honest With Yourself – Identify What YOU Need to Lead

Worry, self-doubt and risk aversion are often subconscious - we’re not even aware that’s what we’re feeling. If there’s a gnawing dread in your gut or anxiety fueled stress settling in, ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s the ONE thing I need to know or do to be able to move forward?
  • Where could I find the answer/Who could help me?
  • What will it take to trust my judgement, decide and act?

4. Act As If... It IS Your Role!

Many football coaches urge their players to ‘run until you're tackled’ and the advice applies equally to business leaders. How would it be and how differently would you lead, if this was your permanent job?

Sure, you may make mistakes along the way but guess what? So does every leader, regardless of whether they are acting, temporary or permanent. Most mistakes aren’t fatal!

The truth is, you are empowered to lead and many people are relying on you to do just that.

Whether you’re in an 'acting' role for a week, month or 2 years, leadership isn’t a dress rehearsal. The show is live and your audience is waiting for you.

Embrace the responsibility and enjoy the experience because NOW is the time to get out of your own way, step up and lead with confidence.

One of the easiest ways to start is to make confident, decisive decisions.  

Want to know how?

P2R Coaching Tools_Decisive Decision Maker Guide and Template

Complete your details below to receive your FREE copy of HOW TO MAKE DECISIVE DECISIONS Guide and Template

P.S. This technique is particularly helpful for chronic procrastinators! 😉

Are You a Temporary Manager, Leading in an Acting Role?

If you are or have been in an acting leadership or temporary management role, I'd love to hear what your experience was like.

What barriers did you face and how did you overcome them?

Post your experience in the comments below so we can share with others who are in an acting or temporary role.

Carpe diem

Caroline Cameron
About Caroline

Caroline Cameron is an award winning, master certified executive, career and business team coach, workshop facilitator and speaker. Caroline is on a mission to help mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.

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