Questions to Ask before Taking an Interim Role

min read

Before agreeing to accept an offer of an internal interim position at your college or university, you should ask your boss and yourself several questions that can help determine both your suitability for the assignment and the assignment's suitability for you.

Note that says 'Interim' next to a magnifying glass.
Credit: bangoland / © 2024

In today's rapidly evolving landscape of higher education, the strategy of appointing current staff to interim leadership or management roles has greatly accelerated. This particular form of leadership transition addresses the immediate institutional need while offering individuals unique opportunities for growth and development within their careers. 

When I agreed to take on such an internal interim position, I moved into a role that both challenged and transformed my professional trajectory. Drawing from my personal experience and insights, this article delves into the intricacies of internal interim appointments in higher education. I identify the critical questions that I recommend you ask both your boss and yourself before stepping into an interim leadership position. Interim roles are not for everyone. These questions can serve as a compass guiding you through the nuanced decision-making process and shedding light on the needed alignment between personal values, career aspirations, and the interim role requirements.

Questions to Ask Your Boss

What is the goal of the interim appointment? You want to have a clear understanding of the goal of the interim appointment. Are institutional leaders looking for someone to hold down the fort and keep the lights on until they fill the role permanently? Are they looking for someone to come in, shake things up, and get the house in order? Or are they giving you a shot at a role that might be a stretch for you? Since there are many different possible expectations for an interim position, you must have clarity on what is expected if you are going to be successful in the assignment. Each different type of role will dictate the approach you should take to succeed in your interim appointment and to decide if the role is even the right one for you. In any situation, you can be assured that leaving the position better than you found it will help define your success.

Are there plans to recruit for a permanent position? Will I be eligible to apply? If you are taking this position to stretch yourself and try on a new role within your organization, you may want to ask about your eligibility to interview for the role on a permanent basis. Your organization or manager often determines whether you are allowed to apply for the position. Some will permit you to take on the role as the interim for a trial period, to see how well you fit the demands of the role, and then allow you to apply for the position when it becomes available. Others prohibit interim appointees from interviewing for the permanent role so as to prevent the interim from having an unfair advantage over other applicants. Asking this question will help clarify your role and help you decide if this position is right for you.

How long will the interim appointment last? And what will happen to me at the end of the appointment? To fully grasp the impact of the interim role, you need to be aware of the length of the appointment and the possibility of any subsequent renewals. You also need to understand what will happen at the end of the appointment. Some interim appointments allow you to revert back to your previous role, while others permit you to apply and interview for the permanent position. If you are not offered the permanent position, can you keep your previous job? It's important to have clarity about the duration and impact of your appointment.

What level of authority will I have in this role? This question closely corresponds with what the goal for the interim appointment will be. Your latitude to make decisions dealing with strategy, purchases, personnel, or other business functions may vary according to the expectations of the interim role. Even if a previous incumbent in the position had that latitude, this might not be granted to you in the interim role. Understanding your level of authority to make decisions in the interim role will help avoid potential missteps during your tenure.

To the extent possible, you should treat your time in the interim position as if you were in the position permanently. Make plans beyond the horizon of your appointment. Craft a vision for the future of your team (in alignment with your manager) and start working to make that dream become reality. The hallmark of leadership is creating a compelling vision and rallying your team to achieve goals; this is no less true for interim leaders. You will be able to demonstrate your leadership ability most effectively when you don't confine yourself to making plans within a very narrow horizon.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Does this position align with my values? If you are an innovator and dreamer, but the position is designed to not shake the boat and to keep the lights on, you might recognize a misalignment between your values and the goals of the position. And while an interim position might offer you the ability to do something new, it's important to understand how the role aligns with your values. If you are willing to help out for a time in an area that you are not thrilled about, an interim appointment may work for you, but be clear to set expectations about how long you are willing to serve. Whatever the circumstance may be, take some time to think about your values and goals and whether they align with the position before committing to an interim appointment.

What do I hope to gain or learn from being in this position? Interim positions are often an opportunity to stretch yourself and try something new. These are opportunities to learn and to grow your professional self. Since the interim role will be for a limited amount of time, it's important to have clear professional development or learning goals in mind. These goals may come in the form of leading a different team, bringing stability during a period of chaos, or learning a new skill set for your future. Whatever your goal is, be clear about it upfront and put a plan in place to accomplish that goal.

How does this position fit into my career plan? As previously stated, many times interim appointments can be used to stretch or prove yourself in a new role. If this is such a case, and the position fits with your career plan, you have a clear alignment for taking on this new role. However, sometimes interim appointments can run parallel to your intended career path. You need to understand if this lateral position will help you grow and prepare for your ultimate career aspirations. Diversifying your skill set and demonstrating your flexibility and leadership qualities may help you achieve your career goals in a way you had not previously anticipated.

Will I be able to make a positive impact in this role? More than any other question, asking yourself if you can make a positive contribution to your organization during your time in an interim position will clarify if this is the right role for you. If you focus your effort on being of service to your team and your organization, you can be assured you will make a positive impact during your interim appointment, leading you to success.

When to Say No

It may be tempting to say "yes" to any interim position you are offered, whether out of a sense of duty or a fear of missing out on future opportunities. But you should always consider "no" to be a viable option. If the position does not align with your aspirations, your values, or your current obligations, you might need to decline a potential interim position. Also consider whether a position is right for you at the time it is offered. You may be in an extra busy season in your personal life and taking on a new role and responsibilities would be beyond your capacity at that time. It's OK to decline an offer of an interim role if the timing is not right.


Navigating the landscape of interim leadership or management roles requires a thorough understanding of both your own aspirations and the expectations for the position. By asking your boss and yourself the questions noted above, you can uncover the degree of alignment between your career aspirations and the expectations for the role. Clarifying the objectives, the potential for recruitment into a permanent role, the duration of the appointment, and your authority level will set the foundation for your success in the interim role. Moreover, treating an interim role with the same dedication as a permanent position can unleash your leadership potential and allow you to make a lasting impact at your organization. However, while the allure of new experiences can be compelling, the wisdom of knowing when to say "no" to a role that does not align with your values, goals, or current circumstances cannot be understated. Ultimately, these deliberations pave the way for your effective leadership and personal growth.

Chris Bradney is Director, Strategic Technology Initiatives, at California State University, San Bernardino.

© 2024 Chris Bradney