Playing Another Role—For the Time Being
By Sandra R. Sabo
“You can only play so much golf....” That's how Roger J. Fecher likes to explain his penchant for retiring—twice—and then returning to work as an interim, full-time senior administrator.
Fecher first retired in 1998, after a 35-year career in the business offices of four different institutions. In 2002, he became the interim vice president of administration and finance at Ohio Dominican University, Columbus, where he stayed until he retired again in 2005. These days you can find him commuting weekly from his home in Indianapolis to the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he serves as interim vice president of administration and finance.
“I've found serving as an interim to be hugely challenging and very rewarding—it keeps me young,” says Fecher. “I'm called upon to draw on all the experiences I've had and figure out how to best help the institution. At the same time, I have to be sensitive to the college or university's unique culture and not just do things my way.”That combination of experience and diplomacy is ideal in an interim senior executive, notes Bryan E. Carlson, president of the Registry for College and University Presidents, the Peabody, Massachusetts-based organization that matched Fecher with his current role. “Because of their experience, our interims come in with an authority to move the institution along and the empowerment to make the hard decisions,” says Carlson. “The vast majority of them, more than 90 percent, are retired. So when they go into an interim situation, they are first and foremost serving the institution, not their own careers.”
Range of Options
Typically, an interim assignment lasts for one academic year or up to 18 months. The length of the assignment depends solely on the particular institution's needs. Some institutions, for example, desire transitional leadership—a placeholder to keep the business office operating efficiently while the search for a new CFO is under way. Others want a transformational leader—a change agent to take the business office to the next level.
Since 2002, reports Kevin Matthews, the registry's vice president, “we've filled 31 percent of our placements with retired women who have been senior administrators in other organizations.” Ellen Hall, currently serving as interim vice president of university relations for Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Washington, says that she hadn't exactly decided to retire when she was interviewed by the registry for her current position. But she had left her job as vice president of academic affairs and dean at Wells College, Aurora, New York, after 11 years and “was living for a time as if I had retired,” she says. Hall has served in a variety of positions in college administration since 1975, including the presidency of Converse College, Spartanburg, South Carolina, and finds the interim executive role a good fit. “I enjoy academic communities,” says Hall, “and I've developed a certain amount of expertise as an administrator that allows me to help a college or university size up a situation quickly and provide guidance.”
Scope of Responsibility
Fecher emphasizes the need to clarify the president's or board's expectations before accepting any interim assignment. He asks, “Does the college just need somebody to sign checks and make sure there's money in the checking account? Or does the president expect you to rebuild a system or straighten it out? In either case, you have to be tolerant and come in with an open mind.”
Hall wholeheartedly agrees. “I understood during the interviews with Central Washington University that I would definitely not be a placeholder. I've been able to provide help and ideas to fulfill the original assignment, and now I'm working to replace myself-conducting a search with a university search committee for a permanent vice president for university advancement.”
Caveats and Cautions
Interim administrators often find themselves working in different parts of the country and at different types of institutions, which range from small private colleges to large public research universities. Like Fecher, Hall has had an “extreme commute,” she says. “My home is in the Finger Lakes of central New York, so I have temporarily relocated, taking a trip home each month and teleworking during the time I'm there.” For her next position, Hall admits that she'd like to be closer to home, family, and an aging family member who requires attention.
Hall also notes that the short-term nature of the work has implications for building relationships. “When you are coming in to solve a certain problem, you are less likely to relate to people in the same way that you do when you plan to stay in a position indefinitely.” At the same time, says Hall, “it's very freeing. In this case, since I've been a college president, I've been able to be more direct with both the retiring and the new president, giving them advice as a consultant would. I'm in the place, but not of the place. It's a very tender balance.”
Despite logistics and other challenges, says Matthews, many interim executives may find the variety interesting as well as intellectually stimulating.
“Serving as an interim fits a retiree's flexible lifestyle, because you work for a finite, agreed-upon amount of time and then are free to do whatever you'd like,” Matthews adds. “It's not going to be a vacation—but it will be a growth experience.”
Hall seconds that notion: “The initial charge is usually just the surface of it all, and there is something much more significant that you must work through. All your skills come into play, and you experience some wear and tear. After that, you need a break.”
SANDRA R. SABO, Mendota Heights, Minnesota, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.