Crossing New Frontiers in Transitional Leadership

Third Sector Company Brings Its Leadership Solutions Online


By Mike Mitchell, CAE


The world has changed. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and work, and calls for social justice have changed the way we think about and treat the people with whom we live and work. The team at Third Sector Company believes these changes have significant implications for the needs of nonprofit organizations that are struggling with leadership transitions in this new environment. “How do we introduce virtual technology into the advancement of interim executive leadership in this country?” asks President and Chief Mission Advancement Officer Jeffrey Wilcox.


Recently, Third Sector Company reached out to its active community of experienced interim executives and convened an advisory group to explore the new frontiers of virtual leadership continuity solutions and diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.


Virtual Interim Leadership


Let’s begin with changes in the way we live and work. For many nonprofit organizations, centralized workplaces have been temporarily replaced by decentralized workspaces. Working-from-home has given rise to a new organizational culture that now includes virtual, or remote, working. Many people in the virtual interim advisory group feel that this situation may become permanent for many staffers, so rather than hold our breath until office work returns to “normal,” we should lean into remote work and explore its long term benefits. Here is what we learned from our discussion about the benefits, challenges, and options of remote interim leadership.


Perhaps the greatest benefit of remote interim leadership is access to a wider range of talent and resources. Organizations are no longer constrained by the location or availability of qualified interim executive candidates. Pat McCowan, Principal at Xanthus Nonprofit Consulting, noted, “It might be helpful for boards to know that virtual interims are always available if they can’t find a qualified candidate in their geographic area.” It might also solve timing issues, allowing interims to work virtually for a new organization while wrapping up a previous engagement. Interims participating from outside the organization’s local market can bring a fresh, outside perspective, and can insulate troubled organizations from reputational harm caused by the local rumor mill.


Virtual leadership reduces (or eliminates) commuting and travel, which can attract more qualified candidates from outside the local area, and saves money for the organization.


Cost savings can be a significant benefit for financially strapped organizations, like an all volunteer-led organization transitioning to paid executive management. Remote participation also may help interims maintain a buffer between themselves and the staff and board, reducing personal attachments that can delay the hiring of a permanent CEO.


During our discussions, we discovered that several interims have recent experience coaching interims who are first-timers or lack experience in certain nonprofit sectors. All coaching is conducted virtually, which significantly increases the opportunities for currently engaged interims, as well as incoming permanent CEOs, to seek sage advice and support from experienced interims available to coach from anywhere in the world. One of those experienced interim executives is Jane Garthson, President of Garthson Leadership Centre, who said, “I would have been thrilled to walk into my first interim assignment with a coach, someone who knows the sector and complements my strengths.” Third Sector Company is building a network of interims and interim coaches across North America to meet this growing need.


The Sweet Spot


The advisory group considered what would represent the sweet spot for virtual interim leadership. Initially, it was assumed that rural organizations operating in remote locations stood to benefit the most from expanded access to professional interims. However, we concluded that urban and suburban nonprofits may benefit equally or even more so from a wider selection of interim candidates because those organizations may be more open to “outside” help, may have better access to high-speed internet, and suffer from traffic congestion and decreased staff desire to abandon work-at-home practices.


Financially stable organizations going through healthy executive transitions led by highly functional boards and staff would be ideal for virtual interims, but the reality is that most organizations that call for interim support are undergoing a crisis in one or more of those areas. Our advisory group urged that we offer virtual solutions even when conditions do not appear ideal because the potential benefits of hiring the right interim leaders outweigh the risks of those leaders working remotely.


Virtual Hugs


We all acknowledged that there are times when there is no substitute for the physical presence of an interim leader. As one interim put it, sometimes a staff member just needs a hug.


In certain situations, connecting in person may provide the best opportunity for interims to establish trust and credibility with the staff, gain a true understanding of the organizational culture, observe workflow, and fully diagnose the current situation. Our advisors suggested that a hybrid approach might be adopted where the interim leader spends the first phase of the engagement working onsite, and during that time lays the foundation and sets expectations for a virtual approach that will be used for the remainder of the engagement. That might be the best way for virtual interims to connect with staff when the best they can offer is a virtual hug.


While virtual leadership provides the flexibility to “beam” the interim leader into the organization after having spent time on-site, it also provides an opportunity to beam in other members of the Third Sector Company team to provide specialized expertise when needed, like fundraising, advocacy, and communications. Several advisory group interims have advocated for utilizing a team approach to virtual leadership because it has been effective for their client organizations.


Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access, (DEIA)


By using virtual technology to advance interim executive leadership across the virtual frontier, Third Sector Company can help nonprofits cross another frontier of demonstrated commitment to a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA).


Diversity – Virtual leadership can make it more feasible for the board to recruit a more diverse set of candidates for the interim position.


Equity – The board can remain committed to treating all candidates equally regardless of where they are from.


Inclusion – By recruiting the interim from a more diverse candidate pool, the board can begin or continue to demonstrate an organizational culture that intentionally invites engagement from a diverse group of people.


Access – As discussed earlier, virtual interim leadership will remove barriers to participating in the consideration and selection of an interim executive.


Preparing an organizational culture for virtual leadership also helps the virtual interim demonstrate his, her, or their commitment to DEIA. “Many organizations have a central location and many people in various satellite locations who often feel greatly left out of what’s happening in the organization,” said Jane Garthson, “but if you go virtual, they have the same access as everybody else, and they could be significantly more engaged in the organization because you didn’t forget to include them, and you would be treating them all equally.


Three New Virtual Leadership Continuity Solutions from Third Sector Company


Third Sector Company’s interim executive community agrees that the world has changed, and now more than ever, nonprofits need access to the best talent they can find to lead and coach them through executive transitions. What hasn’t changed is the need for trained interims and coaches who use a proven methodology to get the best results. Now, using standard remote technology tools that have become very familiar during the last few months, Third Sector Company can bring you these solutions from anywhere in the world:

    • Virtual interim executive
    • Virtual coaching for interims
    • Virtual coaching for boards


With these added virtual solutions, Third Sector Company can help the nonprofit sector now, while continuing to learn along the way. As we cross new frontiers in transitional leadership, we will continue to report on successes, challenges, and best practices that will impact the professional leadership needs and DEIA values of nonprofits in transition.


We represent a community of interims who understand a proven and time-tested interim leadership methodology, and if your organization is interested in having a virtual interim executive or coaching relationship, we would like to talk to you about what those options would look like. Contact us today or reach out to me directly.


Virtual leadership continuity solutions by Third Sector Company: always at the right place, at the right time.



Senior Strategist, Online & Virtual Services
Third Sector Company, Inc.


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