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Sometimes it’s just not possible to find the leader you need when you're hiring. But some startups have a backup plan: an interim chief “X” officer — or CXO.

Getting a chief product, technical, people or marketing officer in for a short while can be helpful in several ways. For starters, you’ll have someone to do (at least part of) the job that needs doing. You’ll also be able to work with them to figure out what profile of person you need to do this job longer term — and figure out what should be on their to-do list when they arrive.

Today we talk to one of these professional “gap fillers”.

Over and out from freezing cold Helsinki!
 Amy and Anisah 🧡

\How To

Be an interim leader

There aren’t many interim CXOs out there — but there is Harpal Singh. He’s currently interim CPO at healthtech Ada Health where he’s helping the team figure out their long-term product strategy. He's had dozens of interim gigs — and he thinks heaps more executives, from CMOs to CEOs, should consider becoming career “interimers” too. Here’s his advice for anyone taking on a short-term executive role: 

Set expectations with the rest of the C-suite when you join. In my first couple of weeks, I do a product health check. Everyone has a different perspective, so the aim is to see what’s really going on. I’m figuring out what the areas of concern and opportunity are, and I use that as a starting point to align all the other execs around. 

Pick out one meaty problem to solve — and take complete ownership of it. That might not involve actually building anything for a while; one company I worked with thought they needed product executors to just come in and build — but they actually had a product positioning problem. 

Say no to a lot of things. That will upset a lot of people — but you can’t do everything. 

Get your hands dirty. I’m a consultant, but I don’t think of myself as an outsider, and I don’t behave or work like that. By default, there will always be people who are like, ‘Why the heck [is this person being brought in?]’ People think we’re paid a lot more; some people take it personally, as though they’re not doing a good enough job. I have to address those clichés; for the first two weeks I have lots of conversations and have to prove my value at this point. 

Be selective in who you manage. I tend to stay away from direct line management of mid-level PMs or any sort of mentorship that requires consistent time; it wouldn’t be the best use of my time or that person’s time. Those relationships require a long time to nurture and build. 

Set the team up for success when you leave. Often that means hiring your replacement — but that takes a long time, and many people have three-month notice periods. At Ada, there’s an element of hiring in my role, but it’s also about building the product organisation and function so that as the company evolves, it will have the right structure and processes. It’s also important not to be a blocker — now, or when you’re gone. 

You don’t need domain knowledge. When [robot tech startup] Automata brought me onboard, I had zero robotics knowledge. But the founders knew that they needed someone to apply the right product thinking to hardware cycles. All you need to know is your own limitations — and then you can rely on domain experts in the business to get that information. 

Only go into this if you have thick skin. You need to be comfortable being challenged all the time. You’re going into new teams, new places, and trying to prove yourself over and over. 

Don’t stay for too long. I think 9-10 months is the sweet spot. 

\A message from our sponsor Pendo

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\On The Subject Of...

Interim leaders

Caretaker or changemaker? What is expected of an interim leader and should there be boundaries? Healthtech giant Babylon's interim director of research discusses her learnings. 

Interim leadership through a crisis. Often, CXOs are brought onboard in the early days as an experienced pair of hands to be rocket fuel for a startup, but they're also brought in to make hard decisions to save a company from its end days. 

A day in the life of an interim CTO.
Yoav Flam was at challenger bank N26 in 2019. Here's what a typical day looked like (hint: not that different from a permanent CTO's).

Being handed an interim leadership role. Whether you're taking over as a placeholder for someone else who will eventually get the permanent title or you're "auditioning" for the role should determine the approach to your new position. 

It doesn't have to be a last resort. Interim leadership can bring a lot of benefits to your company; it can bring someone experienced (and expensive) into your startup to guide strategy and help figure out who you need to hire full-time.

\Sifted Talks

Ever considered a subscription model?

The subscription economy has grown by 435% over the past nine years. But with so many to choose from, what separates the good from the bad? Hear from founders from Chargebee, Freda and Oddbox during our next Sifted Talks.

Join us today, for free.

\People Moves

Zoë Chambers is joining VC firm Frontline. Zoë, who’s been on the deeptech investment team at Octopus Ventures in London for the past five years (and made 50% of her investments into women-led businesses 💪), will now be on the lookout for seed-stage startups for Frontline.

Max Bray is leaving Founders Forum. The former chief of staff at Brent Hoberman’s sprawling startup community is taking on a new role as chief of staff at proptech startup Generation Home.

Got any people intel you'd like to share with us? We'd love to hear it... 😉 

\Smart Reads

1) There isn't a tech talent shortage, just an unwillingness to take on junior talent. A Twitter thread — the replies are worth checking out too. 

2) Communicating a pregnancy to your team. Honest lessons from Romanie Thomas, founder of jobs platform Juggle.  

3) Developing climate infrastructure technology. Talent and capital are being heavily invested in combatting climate change, but technological building blocks are needed to make it easier for new companies to grow. 

4) Entrepreneurs in residence. Has their time come to an end? 

5) The ethical startup playbook. A comprehensive 101 for those wanting to start companies without screwing everything and everyone over in the process.

Read something you think everyone else should too? Send it on over to Anisah.

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\Podcast of the Week

The Pick List — with Laura Harnett, founder of Seep 

Earlier this year, Amy sent me Julia Glotz's newsletter about the food and drink industry — definitely not the standard content I consume — and I've been a regular reader since so I thought I'd check out her podcast. Here's what I learnt from Julia's chat about disrupting the "the least sexy part of the cleaning aisle" with Laura Harnett, founder of sustainable household products startup Seep:

We have to reduce plastic packaging. Recycling doesn't solve the plastic issue and brands need to stop using "this is recyclable" as an excuse to use plastics. A lot of plastics do not make it into our reuse and recycling systems — these are known as fugitive plastics and often end up in the ocean.

Plastic offsetting needs to be more mainstream. If you absolutely need to use plastic because there is no alternative packaging (for example, for some kinds of fresh produce), commit to removing an equal amount of plastic from the ecosystem.

Educate and be transparent. Be honest with your customers, even if the "boring" honest content receives the least engagement. As a sustainable company, you'll be held to higher standards and get lots of questions and feedback — you can end up in greenwashing territory if you don't have answers for why you're making certain decisions.

Although it's 100% too long — I'd be tempted to jump in at minute 19 when the podcast gets meaty — the format and Laura's very obvious expertise on sustainable production make it worth listening to.


Amy Lewin
Deputy Editor

Get in touch with her at
She loves a bit of reader feedback.
Anisah Osman Britton
Founder at 23 Code Street

Get in touch with her at
She loves to hear about the latest in startupland.
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