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Living in the interim: an interview with Peg Birk

Birk has unique insights about why change is hard for us and how we can get better at facing it.

Peg Birk knows all about change.

Over the last seven years, Birk has embarked on a self-made career as an “interim,” someone who steps in to fill the gap during a leadership transition, while the search for a permanent hire is underway.

These days, Birk, 60, is serving as Interim Executive Director of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. She recently spent 18 intense months leading the National Council of Churches. Her tenure there involved some tough decisions including significant staff layoffs and closing the organization’s historic New York Office.

As someone who is steeped in the “gift of urgency” that change demands, Birk has unique insights about why change is hard for us and how we can get better at facing it. Here are some reflections she shared with Pollen about what she’s learned across the years in the interim trenches.

Change and the Gift of Urgency

There are those situations that are naturally urgent. For example, in the nonprofit arena let’s say you lose a really large donor. All of a sudden you’re in a crisis and there is urgency to resolve that situation. And I think that one of the gifts of urgency is that people take action.

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Urgency has a negative association in my experience. When you think ‘urgent,’ it’s a crisis; there’s something wrong that needs to be fixed. I see myself as riding the rapids of a void, because the void does create rapids. We don’t like voids. Wall Street doesn’t like voids. Voids create uncertainty. 

I come in to fill that space and to maximize the opportunity to renew, to restore, and possibly to redirect. Also to really look at the systemic pathologies that underlie the organization.

Organizations and people get lulled into safety and mediocrity. What happens if you don’t change? I think a nice way of saying it is you miss opportunities. You see the consequences of inaction. You can become mediocre and ultimately you could die: death of self, death of dreams, death of the organization.

I’ve often said I won’t go into an organization that isn’t really committed to change. Cultures take a long time to build but they can get torn down quickly. That’s my experience.

“There’s going to be some loss for everyone”

I walk the talk. I’m not a permanent person so I’m not going to retaliate. I always say at the beginning, “I’m not a candidate.” And so my only motivation is: what’s in the best interest of this organization?

Often I’ll survey both the board and the staff and say: What are the top three things that need to get done? And then, what are the top three things that must remain that are so essential to the essence of this organization? And then, what three things that absolutely have to be dealt with?

I loved what one of the staff said at my last opportunity: “Every single person on this staff and board will lose something in this transition and that’s what’s so hard about change.” That’s true. You can lose your job. You could lose your position. You could lose an ideology that you’ve held for the organization, you could lose a program you really loved. There’s going to be some loss for everyone.

I think things thrive when you let them go at the right time, just like kids. It’s important that everybody moves on. I need to just let it go too. It allows the next leader to really be his or her own person. I’m not on the sidelines.

Being an interim takes a lot of energy. So I usually take two to six months between these gigs; even though I have learned resiliency practices and how to take care of myself.

“I’m starting to get curious again”

My picture will never be on the wall as president. I stay in touch with the people I work closely with. Staff and even the CEOs that follow me will say, “I could not do what I am doing now without Peg having been here to do X, Y, and Z.” That’s rewarding.

Being a little bit removed from the limelight and more behind the scenes, that has been a theme in my life. One of my values is to be authentic. I have a lot of self-confidence but I’m actually very humble. I’ve made some real big mistakes in my life and I make mistakes in these interims because I’m moving fast.

I’m starting to get curious again about what it would feel like to build something over a longer period of time. Someone said to me, “I don’t want to get married again.” She was talking about a job — to make the commitment to an organization. And I have to just say both personally and professionally, I’m at a point, and I can’t explain it, where I want to explore the possibility of another full-time commitment like that.

I’ve been very selective about the work that I’ve wanted to do. I want juicy jobs. The last two times have taken me across the country and I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to stay in the Twin Cities where my family and friends are. I’ve built a life here.

I want a steady income. The interim work is no longer as life-giving as it was. It’s not draining. It’s just not giving me life; getting my creative juices flowing. I think I might have reached the end of this body of work after seven years.

It’s like having relationships with friends that you know have to leave all the time. You have to keep saying goodbye. Saying goodbye is really hard; and only being able to take things so far.

What I find tough, on the other hand is that I take them as far as I’m qualified to take them because I’m in jobs and in sectors that I’m not an expert in. So I would be deceiving myself to say I could stay. I’m the right person for the interim work and then I go on.

I would like to direct what I’ve learned into a new experiment or a new vessel. Sometimes I’ve said an interim is like a dress rehearsal and it can be magical sometimes and it can be a flop. But it’s going to end. And then we all go our own ways. At least I do.


What have I learned about change?

In my experience, it’s really about practices. If we practice being resilient, we become resilient. If we practice being fearful, if that’s the place that we go to, we become a fearful person. If we practice being creative and using our imaginations, we become more creative.

One of the things I’ve said to more than one staff, I walk the talk. When this is over, many of you, if not all of you, will still have your jobs. I’m the only one here that won’t. And so I have uncertainty all the time. I never know. I have learned practices to face down those moments of fear that there’s never going to be another paycheck. There always is. And I know that now.

When I started this interim work, someone who had been doing it a long time said, “Well there are two kinds of people in this business: those that do it as a vocation and those that are just doing it to find a permanent job.” And he said the problem with being the first is you go off the radar screen when you take a job, and everybody forgets that you do this. And I’ve even had personal friends say, “You’ve been gone for so long, I forget that you’re here now.” And people do forget. They don’t follow my career to know that I’ll be available in September. You then have to re-emerge and remarket yourself.

I love this quote paraphrasing Peter Senge, the big leadership guru: “It is not that people are resisting change because it is change. Rather they resist change because it involves a loss.” Ever since I gave [my children] Lars and Megan over to a stepmom 25 years ago, I learned about the heartache of loss but I also learned about the beauty and freedom of letting people be who they are without clinging. The last thing I’ve learned is how to-with love, compassion, and integrity—let things go.

Peg Birk is President and CEO of Interim Solutions. As an interim leader, she’s held positions as transitional general secretary for the National Council of Churches; interim president for the McKnight Foundation; and co-executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation. Prior to launching her business, Birk served as senior vice president and general counsel for Federated Insurance Companies; city attorney for the City of Saint Paul under Mayor Norm Coleman; general counsel for AIG’s U.S. insurance business; and senior government affairs counsel and senior corporate counsel for The Saint Paul Companies. Birk holds a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law.