EVALUATING THE CEO

The Board Chair was concerned.  The Board, he said, was losing confidence in the Executive Director.  He spent half of our lunch telling me about erratic behaviors, missed deadlines and—most troubling—instances where the ED had kept things from the Board, things that could have had serious implications.

“Have you discussed these concerns with her?” I finally asked.

He gave me a blank look, then shook his head no.  “We don’t think that would be appropriate.  I mean, we don’t want to interfere with her job.”

“What about your job?” I asked softly.

OK, full disclosure here.  I didn’t ask anything softly.  I practically threw my hands up in the air ranting about another clueless Board.  I’m not always politically correct.

But OK.  So Board members and staff alike–let’s think about what a Board’s job really is.  And no, it’s not to put on parties.

Board Source perhaps the best-known organization dedicated to building effective nonprofit boards, lists 10 basic responsibilities.  Number one is to determine mission and purpose.  Two and three have to do with selecting, supporting and evaluating the chief executive. Yet too many Boards only recognize this at the point of no return.

Job evaluations are not something that any of us enjoy, whether we are on the giving or receiving end.  For many reasons, we all think of them as negative—acts of ritual disembowelment. Yet, a good evaluation should just as easily be the opposite.  A way to praise a job well-done, to discuss future goals, to nurture rather than destroy.

Before you do a job evaluation, however, there must be a clear understanding about the job to be assessed.  Too often, job descriptions are merely listings of tasks, and too often, there are too many of those for any one individual to effectively accomplish.

I suggested to my Board Chair friend that the first step would be for the Board and the Executive Director to come to an agreement on the parameters of her job.  Ask the ED to enlighten the Board about what she does, why she does those things, and how well she thinks she is doing.  At the same time, an ad hoc committee of the Board should review any existing job description and develop an entirely new one.

Forget the listings of tasks.  This job description should focus on the things that the ED must accomplish.  Discerning readers will have already figured out that this means that the job description will need to be revisited every year.  Needed accomplishments change, and therefore, job descriptions must change along with them.

Some organizations call this goal setting.  Each year, staff gather to set goals for the coming year, and in the rare places where those goals are reviewed in the next year, it can be a wonderful and useful exercise.  I worked at too many places where we set goals, but never evaluated the outcomes.  It was a day offsite to eat good food, complain about management and come back with a set of totally unrealistic goals for the year.

Still, I am a fan of goal setting.  To belabor the obvious—if you don’t know where you are headed, how in the heck are you going to get there?  But goals by themselves are pretty useless.  They must be measured (and for those of you who have taken my grant training—I know.  I define goals as “broad and not measurable.”   Objectives are specific and measurable.  As my therapist always tells me, “Be flexible.  Go with the flow.”).

What do we need to accomplish this year?  What is the Executive Director’s (or the Development Director or fill in the blank’s) part of this and how will we evaluate success?

Some things will be evergreen.  The ED will always be responsible for the overall performance of the organization.  The program officer will have to maintain integrity of the program.  The Development staff will have to be out there, raising money.  But how and  how much and what focus will change.

Once you have a clear idea of the job description/goals for the year, you do have to develop the metrics by which you will evaluate performance.  Make sure you are measuring the right things.  Years ago, I worked at a university where development staff was evaluated solely on how much money came in on the fundraiser’s watch.  In my sixth month, a $6 million gift came into my hot little hands.  Need I say that I had little to do with the securing of this gift?  Still, it went into my column.  I could have done nothing for several years and by the rules of our evaluations, I would still have been golden.

But a good evaluation also must do more than just measure activities.  It needs to set standards.  Missed deadlines, erratic behaviors, secrecy are all negative actions. But you know, simply pointing out a missed deadline will not change the way someone works—and that may be the larger issue.

The evaluation should help to define areas where the employee needs help, as well as those where all the employee needs are deserved kudos.  That latter is something we too often forget.  While I believe that more lessons are learned from failure than from success, I also know that confidence builds only from positive experiences.  Your evaluation for an employee you want to retain must have enough of the latter.

But back to the beginning—and the role of the Board in selecting, supporting and evaluating the Chief Executive.  Boards must take these roles seriously.  They must be clear and consistent in their expectations of an Executive’s performance and work with the Executive to ensure success.

Good management requires that you can see the forest for the trees.  That means that you understand what creates problems and work to eliminate those issues (as opposed to simply putting out the fire).  Know what your staff should be accomplishing (and yes, Virginia, the Board is the boss of the Executive Director and so the ED is the Board’s staff), and then the good manager gets out of the way and lets the staff go about getting it done.

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