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How is the boss performing?

Executive-director and board evaluation invaluable for effective leadership

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Most small-business leaders know and acknowledge that performance management is the worst-managed of all human-resources management areas.

Some defend the lack of performance reviews with the old excuse of "no time, no resources." Others are stymied by personal insecurity because they don't feel comfortable judging someone else or engaging in those "difficult" conversations.

The same situation applies to not-for-profit organizations. I know from experience that many not-for-profits as well as industry and professional associations have not conducted a performance review with their executive director for years and years. When this is the case, I find staff performance reviews are also often neglected.

A performance review of an executive director is usually undertaken by a committee of board members. If board turnover is high, this HR function will be neglected. As well, if the organization doesn't have clear reporting and accountability, it is difficult for review-committee members who are not fully in tune with the day-to-day issues to conduct a performance review. As well, these organizations have traditionally not invited staff for feedback on leadership behaviours and the success of their administrative leader.

The result is that if and when performance problems with a leader and/or staff arise, there will be little or no documentation to support any decisions going forward. I have found many an organization confronted with leadership termination, accompanied by large severance payments, simply because performance was not well-managed, and by the time someone pays attention, it is too late.

For the past 10 years or more, the so-called 360 performance-appraisal process has gained much popularity. This approach invites selected staff to comment on their leader, which in turn provides a variety of viewpoints in addition to those of the board review committee. After all, it's the employees who are working day to day with their leader, and it is they who see strengths and areas of challenge in teamwork, leadership, goal-setting and achievement.

As well, in many cases, I find executive directors and senior leaders take themselves for granted and fail to appreciate their own skills and accomplishments. Thus, a 360 process provides a powerful feedback process that can help to focus future development for a leader and assist them in recognizing and appreciating their own skill level.

Part of the challenge of engaging a 360 performance-appraisal process in a not-for-profit or professional association is the size of the organization. Smaller groups create problems with confidentiality and employees might well be afraid to speak up, as comments could be tracked back to them. In this case, it might be wise to utilize the services of a third party who can explain the purpose and the process, manage the various steps for implementation, ensure the feedback is interpreted in organizational and management terms and individual confidentiality is protected.

Employee participants must be instructed on how to complete the 360 performance appraisal and directed to provide comments that are candid, yet constructive. The executive director must also be coached on his or her own participation as well and helped in preparing to accept constructive feedback.

At the same time, abruptly changing to a 360 performance review process during times of stress and/or where complaints have been raised by employees is not a good idea. That's because implementing a new 360 process during this time would be perceived as a punitive tool and may well solicit many unfair and/or unsubstantiated negativity within the employee-feedback comments. Throwing in big surprises and playing the "gotcha" game with an executive director is unjust and unfair.

As with many larger and high-profile not-for-profit associations, issues that arise from a performance review may well end up on the front page of the newspaper, as has the review of the conflict between the provincial government and Osborne House women's shelter. When a funder and a delivery agent are pitted against each other in a highly public forum, people make their own observations, but overall, it creates a loss of trust on both sides. The result is that clients suffer.

While evaluating an executive director is one board responsibility that is key to overall organizational success, another responsibility is to periodically undergo some sort of board self-evaluation. This is important because it's the board that ultimately provides direction to an executive director, and without good board directors, the capacity of the board itself can deteriorate. When this happens, the role of the executive director often becomes much more "directive" than originally intended and might become unhealthy for the organization. Without good board members and governance processes, some organizations might even cease to exist over time.

An evaluation of the board from a governance and administrative perspective allows the board an opportunity to reflect on its mission, vision, goals, objectives and accomplishments. It can be used to clarify various standards of success measurement, review challenges and achievements and set new goals and objectives. Similar to a general recruitment process, a board review can also identify whether board members are the "right people at the right time doing the right things."

There are different types and styles of board-member/board-governance performance evaluations. On one hand, I've seen an evaluation following every meeting. This review process considers whether meetings started on time, whether attendance was regular, chairmanship was exercised, members were respectful with each other and whether objectives were met. It is a very effective process.

On the other hand, there are very effective self-assessment tools available for evaluating a total board and its operations. One I like to use includes a checklist-style of questions related to governance, administration, human resources, diversity, fiscal, information technology, service programs, consumer awareness and responsiveness, volunteer management, planning and evaluation, fundraising and revenue generation, and marketing. As can be expected, an executive director would also be invited to participate in this process.

A board-governance review can be time-consuming and require an administrator for implementation, document collection, analysis and report-writing, so once again, a board should consider some third-party assistance.

Executive director and board evaluation are two of the key responsibilities of a not-for-profit and/or association board. Implementing an effective process requires clear planning and preparation and the selection of the right tool.

The 360 performance-appraisal format is excellent for an executive director, while a governance/administrative self-analysis tool works well for the board itself.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, M.Ed, CCP is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 H1

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