In my consulting practice I have learned that THE most dreadful, feared action that faces a board is to implement an unplanned departure of the CEO. Yes, a nonprofit board recognizes that one of the most significant decisions it can make is to select its CEO. But having to do so under duress adds to the process, at minimum, a timing challenge, and at maximum, the eyes of many who will be looking to ensure the board gets it "right" this time, presuming unplanned is code for a dismissal (agreed upon or otherwise).
I focus on this topic following the recent announcement by the President (equals CEO) of the University of Southern California to step-down. This action has been called for by faculty and students after a series of huge "missteps" by the President who has also been touted as an individual who brought fairly positive (although not always welcome) change to the University. The missteps in question are really more than just lapses and include unacceptable behaviors by select faculty and staff. That said, the Board of Trustees states that it has found "absolutely no wrongdoing on Max’s (the President) part". The Board is so convinced that the President is really not "guilty" they are moving him "into the role of president emeritus and life trustee of the university. Nikias will continue to serve as a tenured professor and will help with the transition of the incoming president".
Meanwhile, an apparently very qualified current member of the Board will be stepping-in as interim President. The good news is indeed that this person does appear to have a long list of qualifications that make her an appropriate interim President - former president and chief executive of the Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit considering issues confronting the nation’s space program. She earned her doctorate in systems engineering from USC.
As consultants whose job it is to support executive transitions will cite, interim directors are important "gap" fillers to provide the time and study a board can use to ensure it understands who it should next hire and then complete an appropriate search process. Oftentimes, an interim can also help "clean-up" after the duration of a long-standing exec whose strengths were clear but so too were that person's limitations.
At USC, the board must now not only focus on getting a new president but also consider what must done to address the matters that brought-on the need for a replacement. While the Washington Post article does not speak to this task (except by constituents), this really is the work that should take immediate stage by the trustees. And in the meantime, does it really make sense to ask one of the trustees to serve as interim? Can a trustee who is serving as interim still influence the board in the same way while not wearing their trustee hat? And what about the ex-president who apparently will still be around and "advising"? Also the best move? I lean toward saying the answer is "no". I lean toward thinking that it is best to have a strong thinking trustee remain as trustee; recruiting a professional interim; and not engaging the former president with the interim. If change is the goal, this is a better process. But maybe change really is not the goal....