by Tafara Pulse
When it comes to experience, Maree Bullock has done it all during her nonprofit career. She was Executive Director of the W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation for 29 years before joining Alford Group, and has served as a board member for many of Chicago’s esteemed nonprofit institutions. Given her leadership skills, her extensive time as a CEO, and more recently her time as an interim executive director, I was eager to hear her perspective on how interim leadership can help strengthen an organization in transition. I took the opportunity to sit down with her and ask a few questions about her time as Interim Executive Director for The Lake County Community Foundation (LCCF).
Give me an overview of your time with The Lake County Community Foundation and what you set out to accomplish during your time there.
Working with The Lake County Community Foundation was energizing and personally fulfilling for me. My goal as an interim executive director is to lead an organization in ensuring that day-to-day operations continue, to help them create a vision for the future that staff and board members can get behind, and to prepare the organization for the incoming executive director. During my time at LCCF, I focused on five things: programs and services, board leadership, staffing, financials, and communications.
Grantmaking is the core business for LCCF. My first activity was to learn about LCCF’s grantmaking guidelines, procedures, policies, collaborations and partnerships. I think anytime a new CEO joins an organization or company, they look at the programs and services to determine their effectiveness and alignment.
Board leadership and I spent time together and began to build our relationship. We wanted to: determine whether board members were being appropriately trained and whether their talents were being utilized on behalf of the organization; to put succession plans into place; to discover whether board meetings were as engaging and generative in nature as they could be; and to discuss whether the needs of the organization were matched by the composition of the board.
In terms of staffing, I looked at how duties were currently assigned to help determine if portfolios were correctly aligned and whether any additional training was needed.
As a new leader I also had the duty to review the financials, including the organization’s sources of revenue, their expenditures, and whether financial practices aligned with standards and best practices.
Communications are related to all other areas. Together we reviewed communication strategies related both to external communities and to internal groups like board and staff. We looked at how the website was being utilized, and the frequency of LCCF’s communications.
“The Lake County Community Foundation benefited greatly by utilizing The
Alford Group for interim staffing. When our Executive Director resigned we
engaged Maree Bullock, a seasoned Vice President at Alford Group, as
our Interim Executive Director. She was able to continue and enhance the
programs and projects of the Foundation. Her 30-year management experience
provided the exact background we needed to work with our Board, Staff and
the community. With her leadership we had the sufficient time required to
identify and recruit our next leader.”
Chair of the Board
The Lake County Community Foundation
What were you and the LCCF Staff and Board able to accomplish during your time with LCCF?
LCCF had, and still has, a great team in place that was committed to a smooth transition. Everything we accomplished, we did together. We built a strong and robust partnership between the board and staff. Succession planning was put in place at the board level and a new chair person and officers were transitioned in. In partnership with the board and staff we authored a wonderful annual report, which was a first for LCCF, and something I’m particularly proud to have been a part of. We communicated with key constituencies in a brief recap at the end of every month, including key outputs and outcomes for that month. Additionally, we sought press coverage for each month’s successes. Finally, we brought transparency to LCCF’s operations in a number of ways.
Most importantly though, our work created a new spirit and focus for the staff team. The aim of an interim leader should always be to empower, to collaborate and to engage – I believe we did that and built strong groundwork from which the new executive director can operate.
What is your favorite part of working as an interim staff leader?
Serving as an interim staff person, I find it a privilege to be intimately involved with an organization, and to help shape and change it in deep and meaningful ways. It is a true gift to be able to advance an organization through collaboration and a spirit of inclusiveness. Interim staff leaders are allowed to help guide and reshape the organization in a way that strengthens its position with stakeholders.
What is your leadership philosophy and how does it apply when you step into the role of interim leadership?
My philosophy has always been that we can do more together than we can do alone. As a leader you have to surround yourself with individuals who share the same kind of vision you have for the organization, and engage them in meaningful ways. This applies both to staff and board members.
Leaders have to fill many roles, but I think the most important, and the way I approach interim staffing, is to try to be a team builder, inspirer, motivator and delegator. Conversely, and as important, is the trust you put in the people in staff and board positions, empowering them to excel in their roles in ways that keep the organization moving forward.
What is the benefit of hiring an interim staff leader during the transition between the previous and new staff leaders?
I’ve learned that management is a precious gift that can change an institution at its very core. A seasoned professional who understands nonprofit standards and can apply them to the organization as an interim, can do a deep dive into the fundamental areas of the organization. The benefit of having an interim leader is taking advantage of that person’s knowledge and skill to adjust and align the organization in preparation for the new permanent staff leader. That permanent staff leader then enters the organization with much of the critical work done and is able to revamp, reorganize and refocus as needed.
I believe that an interim staff leader serves a very important purpose in the transition process. The right interim leader will ensure that the incoming permanent leader joins a staff team that is ready to hit the ground running and is fully supported by a strong and committed board. An organization can also use the time during the interim leader’s tenure to ensure they find the right person for the job. Securing the right person for the new executive leadership role is much less costly to the organization, in terms of finances, morale and organizational effectiveness.
An interim staff person can be an integral part of an organization’s succession planning, and should be utilized to make necessary changes ahead of the incoming leader’s arrival.