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Nine Questions to Help Jumpstart the Executive Director Review Process

I’m not naming names, but I was in a room with four executive directors recently. One of them was particularly nervous. She was preparing for her first performance review with her board. Big moment.


What turned this seemingly benign conversation into sadness then outrage and finally a blog post?


She was nervous because she had been in her role for ten years. Ten years and about to have her first performance review.


And, if that isn’t wrong enough for you, not one of the other three executive directors in the conversation could remember when their last review took place.


All four organizations are well-regarded and their leaders well-respected.


All four organizations by most measures are successful.


All four organizations provide regular feedback to every employee except their leaders.


I started stewing about whether a regular performance discussion is even important. And if it is (it must be, right?), why doesn't it happen? AND, if it is important and doesn't happen, is there something we can do to make sure it happens?


Is the issue deeper than just making sure it’s on the calendar and that someone reminds some other someone that it’s time for the annual chat?


Why are they important?


Regular appraisals of the executive director’s performance are important for the same reasons that they are for any staff member, plus a few reasons that are unique to this leadership role.


  • It is a formal opportunity to acknowledge strong performance and to agree on how to best direct the executive director’s energy in the coming year.


  • Because the senior leader’s performance directly affects the entire operation, annual reviews also provide a valuable snapshot of the organization’s performance.


  • For the executive director, it is lonely in the middle. A chance to talk over how they are feeling in the role, about their relationship with the board, and the obstacles to their achieving all they would like is a valuable reset – a chance to develop a more balanced view of the partnership between board and executive leadership.


  • Identifying whether there are linkages between challenges in the organization’s performance and the senior leader’s capacities enables board members and the executive director to identify what additional support might help in addressing those issues. Would they benefit from working with an executive coach? Could they use different types of support from board members? Are there organizational initiatives they need to take on that are new professional challenges?


  • The executive director review models for the staff that feedback and performance discussions are valued by the organization. Although the actual content of the review should be private, the fact that the review is occurring sets a positive tone.


  • There can be no succession planning without an annual discussion of how the leader is performing, how engaged she is in her role, and whether the organization can withstand her exit. This is perhaps the biggest reason executive directors don’t get reviews. Boards are afraid to jinx a good thing.


Why they don’t happen


Like many habits that are good for us – yoga, journaling, meditation – you will procrastinate before the appraisal process and then will be glad you completed it.


What are the reasons we procrastinate or forget about the process altogether? What makes it so hard?


  • Boards see the executive director from one vantage point – how they manage a board. All the other data is second hand and is inferred from aspects of the organization’s performance that a board does not see firsthand.


  • Beyond having only one vantage point, most board members see the executive maybe 20-25 hours per year (many of which are now virtual). What consequential perspective can they contribute to a performance discussion?


  • When there are issues in the organization, it can be hard to evaluate whether they are the direct result of the executive director’s actions or whether there are factors beyond the executive director's control that are to blame.


  • As with all board responsibilities, the executive director facilitates their being met in partnership with the board chair. So, the minute the executive director pushes for an annual review, she gets to manage the process! In the face of that, it can be easy to both want and avoid an appraisal.


  • Honest performance conversations and conversations about compensation almost never walk hand in hand. Because organizations face a variety of issues at all times, how does a board define strong performance and then line up compensation to that performance – what does the able handling of change and sometimes crisis look like?


  • Executive directors guide boards in what they need to do and how much they need to know to govern well. Many err on the side of sharing good news – little bursts of pride about some recent accomplishment or recognition. Presenting challenges can feel like presenting your own shortcomings.


What Can We Do?


Like many things worth doing, this process is important but not urgent. It therefore requires a firm commitment to setting aside the time and energy to ensure that it happens.


Seeing all the reasons to cross this finish line and the hurdles ahead, how can we make sure we run this important race?


When it isn’t one week before the time you’re supposed to have your review – more like six months before – set aside one of your weekly meetings with your board president (you are having weekly meetings with your board president, right?) to discuss the topic in a focused way.


Start with more process-oriented questions and build up to the ones that are harder to answer:


  • Should a board member other than your terribly busy chair be appointed to oversee the process? Is there a talent professional on the board to advise you and board members on how to best design the process and then to oversee it in partnership with staff?


  • Should there be a staff lead to project manage the process – someone in a human resources role or the group you outsource human resources to – to ensure that it happens dependably?


  • What is the best timing (It is more important that you and your board have time to attend to this conversation than that it aligns with your fiscal year)?


  • Vis-à-vis timing, to ensure this is purely for feedback, should compensation discussions be decoupled from this process and occur at a time that salary benchmarking and the organization’s fiscal health can be considered together?


  • Should there be staff or beneficiary voice included in this process? If so, every year?


  • How formal does this process need to be? Will there be surveys of board members, staff input, and memos involved?


Now for the hardest question – what does success in this role look like? You may wait on these questions until a board member is appointed to lead the process.



  • If you are operating under a strategic plan, is that a measure the board would like to evaluate you against?


  • How will the executive director’s feedback for the board be included in the discussion?


You may note that I am not offering answers, just the questions you may want to ask. That is not because I lack an opinion on the matter.


It is because success is contextual. Beyond the legal requirements of your role, success is whatever you, your board, and team agree it is. The process for measuring success should grow out of and support that shared understanding (maybe that’s why it’s so hard to make these conversations the welcome ritual they should be).


In the midst of making sure you have an annual review, do not forget that ongoing feedback is the foundation of any good working relationship. Ask your board president to gather feedback during executive sessions and to share it with you. And share your feedback on how the board is doing during those check-ins as well.


Exercising your feedback muscle together regularly will create a stronger relationship and organization. And it may make the annual review a lot less burdensome.


If you want to learn more about my work supporting executive directors and boards, visit my website or check me out on LinkedIn.

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