The Unique Role of the Interim Program Director

By David Lewis, MA

I have had the fulfilling opportunity of serving as an interim program director (IPD), for two years now. Through that time, I have managed four accounts across the US in Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and Colorado. These projects required an individualized approach to interim program directorship.

An IPD serves for a period of about three months to new contracts. We offer an immediate deliverable to the new client through senior management as we recruit for a permanent PD. Generally, that new PD is onsite within 90 days of signing a contract.

IPDs need to be prepared to serve the client in a variety of settings from IP acute psychiatric work to OP levels of care. They need to be prepared to be onsite quickly, many times within one week of notification. I use the affectionate phrase that the “bat phone may ring at any time.”

I believe the most critical role the IPD can play is that of “ambassador” to the new client from Signet. Each client and new account are different and subsequently have their own set of expectations. A common denominator is the need for us to be onsite quickly offering and implementing competent leadership. This key deliverable, manifested through the IPD, gives the client some reassurance and confidence in their decisions to start a business relationship with us. In addition, it also differentiates us from many of our competitors.

Given these parameters, an IPD needs a defined skill set. First, (for pre-existing units), a strong ability to assimilate in an already established work culture is vital. The IPD needs to be well versed at listening and trust building. I assure you, for already established systems which are many times “broken”, having an IPD come in with guns blaring will not work. Don’t misunderstand, we are agents of change, but that change needs to come in a balanced, diplomatic, and respectful fashion. For startups, the approach is different because we are involved in team building from the ground up.

Second, the IPD serves as the first “boots on the ground” representative from Signet. We are truly the first impression the client has in regards to our day-to-day presence. A positive first impression here is imperative. Only through a result driven approach, in meeting defined deliverables, can a client truly feel well served. For me, I have always employed a “culture of urgency” approach to my direct reports and the C-Suite. More specifically, I take pride in arriving onsite fully aligned with all negotiated deliverables and developing a plan to execute. More often than not, this can involve improving ADC within a defined period of time. Knowing that, I go in communicating with my direct reports the importance of doing so and listen to their ideas on how to reach this. I am very transparent with goals and they rest as a central part of my communication with my team. Consistency in this messaging is everything.

Third, although cliché, the IPD needs to demonstrate a “roll up your sleeves” management style. Although not optimal, many times after the C-Suite secures a contract with us, their ability to pass down the basic elements surrounding our presence is not communicated as well as it could be. This is not a judgment, but merely an observation. For me, being keenly aware of this possibility, it becomes so important that I show my team that I am there as a teammate. Understandably, mid management; the same tier we work with daily, can be skeptical and many times uneasy about our presence. I try to mitigate this human trait by being on the floor, having an open door, and helping out when I can.

Lastly, a good IPD passes the baton to the successor with humility and flexibility. The permanent PD, while well vetted, will still have an approach different from the IPD. For me, I let them be them as I close out my work.

I find my time with Signet to be enriching on several levels. I know I provide a key role for our company as we serve our clients. In closing, I also know that I speak for my fellow IPDs when I say that what we do for our clients is something they value for years to come. It remains a pleasure to conduct this work.