Getting REAL Feedback as an Executive Director or CEO

Getting REAL Feedback as an Executive Director or CEOIf you are the Executive Director or CEO of an organization, the following may sound familiar: It’s “evaluation time” and the Board President meets with you for a perfunctory, check-off-the-box meeting that lasts maybe 10 minutes, in which the he/she tells you that everything is going well, that the Board members are pleased, and that a new compensation figure has been approved. The end.

While this method certainly removes any potential for conflict, effective leaders know that is no way to provide meaningful feedback nor is it any help in moving the organization forward. As leaders, you seek input from your employees during their evaluations, providing useful commentary regarding goal achievement and performance for the year. In addition, and most importantly, you are providing real-time communication about what’s going well and what’s not, helping employees to stay on track individually and keeping work aligned with the organization’s strategic plan and vision. It follows, then, that if the CEO’s /Executive Director’s job is to operationalize and turn into reality the Board’s policies, the CEO needs and deserves meaningful feedback from the Board.

An effective process for evaluating the Board can provide many advantages:

  • The Board has an active role in the leadership of the organization.
  • Allows for discussion of ongoing goals: What was accomplished during the year? What is ongoing? What new goals need to be identified?
  • Creates understanding (and documentation to support) the Board’s insights regarding strengths, challenges and even specific areas identified for professional development and/or executive coaching.
  • Fosters a strong working relationship between the CEO and the Board that can be drawn upon during successes as well as crises.
  • Builds a fair, reliable process that focuses on accomplishments rather than any affinity or dislike for the Executive’s personality.
  • Enables the Executive Director to align the work of the organization in real-time, ensuring that the Board’s strategic plan and vision are at the forefront of all work being conducted.

There is no one process for evaluating the executive that works best for all organizations. However, several components are critical when developing or updating your approach to this important task. A formal review (including an in-person meeting as well as the appropriate documentation) should take place at least annually. However, this should not preclude the CEO from seeking additional and ongoing feedback nor the Board from giving it. Consistent communication prevents “gotcha” moments. Even the most savvy leader will not adjust practice if he/she is not aware that it is problematic.

Making the executive’s review part of the larger evaluation process for all employees is also very helpful in keeping the organization moving forward. As adjustments are made to the CEO’s goals, these are naturally reflected in the work of his/her direct reports and in the work of their subsequent departments or divisions. In addition, employees should know that the executive and his/her leadership team receive an annual performance evaluation (with periodic check-ins throughout the year), just like all employees do, creating buy-in and trust in the process.

As we would recommend with other levels of employees, taking some time to review the CEO’s job description during the annual review process is also important. Have key tasks been added? Has a primary focus shifted? Are the vision and mission accurately reflected in the essential functions of the job? Making a job description review part of the annual process is a good way to ensure that the description stays current and accurate.

Where does the information come from that the Board will use to evaluate the CEO? This is also up to your organization to determine, but making strategic choices in this area can help ensure a sound process. Certainly the Board sees the direct outcome of the work of the CEO in the form of reports, presentations, accomplishment of key tasks and goals, funds raised and projects completed. The executive should also be asked to provide a self-evaluation listing accomplishments and areas for growth as he/she sees them. In addition, however, many organizations are including input gathered from other sources, including leadership within the organization, partners at outside organizations, volunteers or even clients/customers. This process should be set up carefully so that both the executive and the data sources are comfortable with the information being provided and the way in which it is gathered. Data can be gathered via survey and/or as part of the employees’ evaluation process. A future article will identify a process by which organizations can thoughtfully and successfully create such an approach to gathering feedback on the executive.

No matter the approach or process, the key idea to remember is that the performance of your organization’s executive drives the performance of the organization as a whole. If that person is not receiving informal and formal feedback about his/her performance, how can he/she effectively lead the organization to accomplish the Board’s priorities? Honest, open and timely conversations as well as a formalized annual review to document outcomes and challenges can keep your organization moving forward. Don’t put it off!

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