ACLGIM Leadership Forum

Interim Leadership

Lessons Learned and Keys for Success

Dr. Clyburn (clyburnb@musc.edu) is a professor of medicine and chair of the Department of Medicine at Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) College of Medicine.

I was asked to serve as Interim Chair of Internal Medicine in March 2020 and found that there was little written guidance for those who assume “interim” leadership roles. As a career clinician educator, I had trepidation about whether I was the best person to take on this role. I am not a researcher and do not fit the traditional mold of chair. Further, I have always had a healthy disdain for finance. However, there was very little time to ruminate about all of this; the nascent pandemic quickly consumed much of my time. Since then, I have had the opportunity to reflect on my tenure as interim leader and can share a few “keys for success” with others who may also be called to serve.

My first key for success as an interim leader is to understand that institutional leadership values your skill sets and trusts that you can succeed. Recognizing this allows one to effectively advocate for necessary resources and instills confidence that one can do the job. On a personal level, I realized that my 22 years as program director gave me a unique understanding of our department. I have detailed knowledge of our clinical and educational operations. This knowledge has been invaluable this past year.

My second key is to regularly reflect on the reasons that you said yes. Why are you interested in serving in the interim leadership role? This reflection allows one to develop goals and to craft one’s vision. My original motivation to take on the interim role grew out of loyalty to the department and the institution. I wanted to help stabilize things during a time of change. Over time, I also got excited about helping to put my stamp on the department.

My third key for success is to “lean in” on missions that are not in your comfort zone—this reassures others that you are the leader for everyone and not just your areas of expertise. This is particularly important for an interim leader who is a known commodity within the enterprise. Shortly after accepting the interim role, key departmental research faculty and I developed a research advisory group. I have met with this group monthly to make certain that I am abreast of issues facing our researchers. Likewise, I familiarized myself with our budgets and finance and have actively participated in budget discussions at the departmental, college, and institutional levels.

My final key for success is communication. This is critical for all leaders, but the need for good communication is heightened for someone serving as an interim leader. Everyone is uneasy about transition periods and increased information can assuage some of these concerns. I have never been a disciplined sender of regular e-mails or newsletters, so I leaned on our existing staff to help me get information out. I met frequently with departmental leaders in group or one on one settings. We scheduled a virtual departmental grand rounds presentation relatively early in my tenure to communicate goals and review achievements.

Many leaders will be asked to serve interim roles. This is almost always a time of significant change for the organization and angst for faculty and staff. I hope sharing my experience will help guide anyone given the opportunity to lead.


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