Evaluating the Executive Director

Are you sighing just from having read the title of this article? Why does this topic make us all feel so tired?

Virtually everyone agrees that boards should conduct performance reviews of executive directors (EDs or CEOs). Even so, the predominant practice is neglect, and the predominant feeling is resentment. The neglect comes from the board: only 45% of nonprofit CEOs have reviews, reported CompassPoint's recent Daring to Lead 2011 study. Resentment comes from the executives, who are too often either resentful of the review process or even more likely and paradoxically, disgusted with the board for not conducting one.

And the agreement that ED evaluations should happen forestalls us from reflecting on why. In fact, in contrast to most performance appraisals, the key goal of ED evaluations is not performance improvement, but instead: a) the chance to reflect on the performance of the entire organization (not just the individual), and b) to spark a calibration of expectations and goals between the ED and the board.

Board evaluations of ED performance are radically different from any other type of performance review and must be thought of differently. For example:

  • While most staff reviews are between two individuals, the ED evaluation is a collective, committee review of an individual.
  • An ED review appropriately is more about the organization's achievements rather than about the individual's completion of a series of tasks.
  • Board members seldom (if ever) see the ED other than at board or committee meetings and are typically highly unfamiliar with either the building blocks or the nuances of the internal and external leadership roles that EDs play.

But despite these obstacles, there's a firm belief that ED evaluations "just should be done!"

But while board members drag their feet, many EDs are seething.

"If I didn't make them give me an evaluation," fumed one former executive director, "I would never have gotten a raise."

Many executives feel similarly: the route to a raise -- or sometimes simply to recognition for the organization as a whole -- requires going through an evaluation which will document the strong performance of the organization and the board's approval, support, and affection for the executive.

When board members are unhappy with the CEO

On the flip side, an all-too-common scenario unfolds when a board is dissatisfied with its executive and some board members raise the question of termination. "But we haven't done an evaluation!" other board members cry, and so first an evaluation process must be devised and then implemented.

We know one national nonprofit at which the board chair -- faced with nearly instant dissatisfaction with a new executive -- felt obligated to initiate a thorough process "to be fair to her [the executive] and to get all of us on the same page." Worthy aims, but during the year it took to complete that process and fire the executive, the organization's reserves were squandered and its reputation was damaged.

Executives who know they are in trouble often stall the evaluation process by making it too complicated or by continually calling the process into question. They even often succeed in delaying the evaluation until the disapproving board members have given up and left the board.

Not mainly about performance improvement

We know that many board members have relatively little appetite for ED performance appraisals. But maybe it's not just laziness. Too often boards undertake executive review only when they are unhappy, or even only when they are considering termination and want to establish a paper trail for doing so.

Second, there is often uncertainty about how to conduct them.

And third, hidden reason for the lack of appetite for executive evaluation is that board members suspect that such a review won't change the flawed behaviors of an otherwise adequate (or even superior) executive, nor will it lead to a sharp turnaround for a seriously underperforming executive. So why do it?

Going back to the limited view of the ED's work that board members have, it's not surprising that the review process isn't an effective vehicle for the kind of coaching and feedback that often occurs in other performance reviews. This is true even when evaluation teams try to conduct interviews and seek input from members of the staff and others who work with the ED. Since board members only observe directly a fraction of the ED's work, they can only judge or play an effective coaching role when it comes to the ED's relationship with the board.

When asked what positives came out of their evaluations by the board (other than a raise or praise), most executives struggled to find an answer, and only a couple could think of an instance in which the review resulted in changes or improvements in their own behaviors.

Surprisingly, we did hear over and over again that positive results came from the executive review, not necessarily related to the executive's performance. We learned that the ED evaluation turns out often to best serve as way for getting everyone -- board and staff -- on the same page about organizational goals for the year. And then, proceeding from those goals, there may be some supporting goals for the executive director as an individual.

Alignment of goals

Veteran executives often realize that a mutual alignment of goals is the real purpose of ED reviews. Such alignment usually occurs no matter what process or instrument is used. Inevitably, a discussion of performance brings up issues of why organizational goals for the last period were met or not and what is expected for the future. Of the many goals and objectives within the plan for the year, the discussion almost always moves to what board members and the executive see as the most important and the most crucial.

So a key message is this: don't worry so much about finding exactly the right instrument or process to assess the ED's performance. But use it as a vehicle for aligning expectations and goals for the coming year -- for the organization as a whole, for the board, and for the ED.

Next issue: Sample surveys for board members and for staff on ED performance review.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Jan Masaoka is the Editor-in-Chief of Blue Avocado. She has been an executive director (of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services for 14 years), a board member and a board chair. She authored the book Best of the Board Cafe Second Edition which has many practical tools and concepts for nonprofit boards. She has suffered through many awkward conversations around executive evaluation, and confesses to having benefited from some hard-to-hear comments from the CompassPoint's board during evaluation.

Comments (11)

  • Anonymous

    This is oddly timely; I just had this conversation with my board chair last week. And I made all the points you made. Although we already have an annual review process, and by all accounts everything is going really well, he thought that adding a survey monkey 4 point scoring type system to collect input from the large board was a good idea. I was able to move him off that idea and towards the idea that this isn't about "performance appraisal" or staff development as much as it is about the overall performance of the organization, based on results and mutual goals, not on a check list & scoring system of tasks performed. We have come to an agreement about how to proceed that is acceptable to all. Thank you for this excellent article; it is now in my archives because you know those board chairs change pretty regularly, and more brilliant (but ill conceived) performance assessment ideas may emerge in the future!

    Oct 18, 2011
  • From this distance, it looks as though you're trying to avoid having the rest of the board involved in your review. Do I misunderstand? What's wrong with asking other board members to make judgements on your performance? Sure, they only see you at meetings, but it's amazing to me how telling an ED's performance at such meetings can be.

    Oct 18, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I coordinated an evaluation for a funders' collaborative where we used a pretty basic tool - i.e. "How is the E.D. doing in her role as the executive director of the collaborative?" The results led us into exactly the kind of discussion this article recommends: a conversation about differing visions for the collaborative, and thus differing visions for the role of the E.D., among board members. That discussion helped get us all on one page, and, I suspect, made the E.D. somewhat less frustrated with us. It also had the effect of clarifying our responsibilities as board members.

    Oct 18, 2011
  • Anonymous

    After two years at my organization, it was time to organize a review process with my organization's board but none of us had been through it before. This article was a great resource: (http://www.practitionerresources.org/cache/documents/36788.pdf). We didn't nail it on the first try ... there were still some vague suggestions for how I could improve that weren't goal-oriented, and a bit of the "halo effect" as well. But it was a good start and will be easier this year. We all knew we should be conducting a review so it was a relief to be moving in the right direction.

    Oct 19, 2011
  • Anonymous

    In a for-profit corporation the CEO if it is a public corporation would have required annual reviews. This is done in order to avoid potential law suits for wrongful termination should the organization need to change course. But more importantly, setting performance goals is the obligation of the board and is essential to keep the organization on plan. The board should want the goals of the CEO/ED to be consistent with the strategic plan of the organization. It is only fair to the CEO/ED to let the individual know what is expected of them in the coming months or years.

    Oct 19, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Why not have the board ask the staff to anonymously evaluate the ED as part of the overall process? We do it at the organization where I serve as the ED and I have found it very effective in terms of providing me useful feedback about my performance and giving the board insight into how things function "between board meetings".

    Oct 19, 2011
  • Anonymous

    My job title is administrative assistant, but as I am the only employee (10 hours a week) I function as the ED. Every two or three years I bring up the idea of a review, but other than 2 years after I took the job, many years ago, I have not had one. My advantage I guess is that I work with many of my board members as colleagues, as I administer the coalition of their respective groups, and do a lot of other work with many of them, so I have a pretty good idea of how the organization helps them every day, and they see much of my work beyond the work I do directly for them. I think this year I quit worrying about the evaluation because of how well the organization is doing, programatically and financially, and because one of the presidents (I work for two sister organizations a c3 and a c4) is someone I work with pretty closely on a variety of projects, and who is a good administrator, so for the first time in ages I can get regular answers to my questions. Maybe in 2 or 3 years, when the new round of officers comes in, I will have to pay attention to this a bit differently again.

    Oct 19, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I was an Executive Director for four (4) organizations over a 27 year period and was usually unhappy with the evaluation process - even when it generated a better than expected raise. In one group, I was evaluated only by the President, as if I had been her assistant. In another, the Board discussed my performance and authorized the President to negotiate a new contract. But I never had the opportunity to discuss my performance with the Board (I think many of them felt uncomfortable doing so). And the evauation was never conducted on time. Ideally, evaluations should be done in a timely manner, should include more than one person (a personnel committee would be fine), and should address the Executive Director's performance, not the organization's performance. The organization's performance should be discussed in another venue - and include Board members and the Executive Director.

    Oct 19, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I am a Program Officer at a medium sized foundation. My current portfolio contains 36 nonprofits which for 2011-12 will receive $1.2 million. Since I do an organizational assessment of each grantee I can tell you this: Of this group 23 have Executive Directors who have been on the job at least four years. Of that 23, only 11 have _ever_ received an evaluation from their Board. The legal liability here is enormous....a major violation of the Duty Of Oversight

    Oct 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Great and very relevant article! A couple notes: - From experience, it's crucial that any annual evaluation feedback from Board and staff be clearly identified as being "IN THE PAST YEAR" - it's amazing how hard that is for people to do! - Our bylaws make it clear that the Executive Committee supervises the ED, and therefore that team does my evaluation. - It's important that the Personnel Committee *not* be the ED evaluation team, because they need to be a resource to the ED on the personnel practices - and challenges - of the agency as a whole. - If overall Board feedback is used, it needs to be analyzed by the ED evaluation team as one factor - for example, the feedback from the Board last year re: "creates long-term strategies and implements plans to meet them" indicated that they were only thinking of the Strategic Plan process we were in... not all the ways that the ongoing activities of the org reflect existing strategies. The lower score on that item indicated a need for Board education, not my performance in that area. - Our policy regarding employee feedback is that it absolutely *cannot* be anonymous. Anonymity both invites irresponsible replies and puts the agency at risk. Instead, the replies are sent directly to an identified Board member, with a promise of confidentiality. The Board needs to be able to seek clarification or to follow up on specific areas of significant concern. (ex: one staff person scored me low-ish years ago on "fairly and consistently applies policies", with no examples. I urged the Board President to follow up on that one, b/c they should be concerned if that's true. Turned out the example was that this staff person was still unhappy with a change we'd made to the leave policy three years before. The Board was able to recognize that staff not liking a policy doesn't equate to unfair or capricious management! - Our employee feedback form makes it clear that this is feedback for the eval; complaints or grievances need to follow that policy.

    Oct 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    It has been my experience, though not as deep as the experience of the other commentators in this discussion, that the Executive Director is also the staff leader. I beg you to incorporate some part of the evaluation in regards to how the executive manages staff. In recent experience, staff management was more than challenging. Staff were pitted against each other, and staff were terminated based, and this is the important part, not on what was best to support the organization's goals, not by what was being produced, but by who was not (and there is no other way to say this) sucking up enough. Tattling was rampant and there was much prevarication in order to deliver words that the leader wanted to hear. In about one year, about 10 people left of their own accord, and about another 10 were let go, in a staff of about 60. In this organization, staff were not allowed to really speak with the BOD on staff issues, under threat of termination. The organization as a whole is in trouble and may not survive current economic challenges, and the infrastructure has been at risk for some time. I would characterize this as a situation that could have come into light if an effective evaluation was conducted. Thanks for the chance to voice this.

    Oct 26, 2011

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