Orienting chief executive evaluations to look to the future

In the previous blog entry, I expressed the importance of annual evaluations of the chief executive and the role of the board chair in ensuring that evaluations happen. I noted that the topic of evaluations is not easily encompassed in a single blog posting or article, let alone in an entire book on the subject, but I attempted to offer some basic advice to guide those organizations that have not had an annual evaluation process in place.

For those who DO have an annual evaluation process in place and DO feel like it works well, I want to direct you to “How Presidential Evaluations Must Change,” published in the January/February issue of Trusteeship by Terrence MacTaggart, former chancellor of the University of Maine. In it he makes the key point that: “Most board of trustees’ evaluations of president’s performance look backward, assuming that the challenges of the future will be pretty much the same as they’ve always been.” So while board members know that “past performance is no guarantee of future results,” our evaluation processes look backwards at the same time as we expect our nonprofit leaders to look to the future and be ready to take on challenges that might be dramatically different from those they’ve seen before.

As MacTaggart points out, “The best way to forecast how a president will perform in the future is to take a hard look at how he or she has met the challenges of the past.” So I’m not suggesting that you throw-out your current evaluation process (and the questions you ask along the way), but the board should consider how this process might be updated to make sure that the information gathered helps it understand the chief executive’s potential as the organization faces new challenges and a fast changing environment.

MacTaggart suggests that, “evaluations tend to focus on one of three areas: the president’s skill at building and sustaining relationships, his or her success at actually achieving goals, or his or her performance in several areas of presidential responsibility—including fundraising, budgeting, and planning.” As he describes these three areas and corresponding evaluation models, he poses some questions (from which I’ve selected a few) that are examples of the kinds of questions you and your board may want to ask:

• Has the president built a team that not only works harmoniously with others but that is committed and able to make tough decisions in support of necessary change?

• Has the president shown that he or she has the interpersonal skills and talent to rebuild relationships after they have been strained by unpopular decisions?

• Does the leader engage groups in genuinely difficult conversations about future directions?

• What opportunities have not been pursued because the president chose a particular course of action, and why were they set aside?

• Has the president devoted the right proportion of time and energy to the various objectives?

• In adapting to a changing environment or pursuing new opportunities, has the president been agile in reordering priorities to meet more urgent demands and opportunities?

• How adept is the president at engaging the board in upstream discussions of the need for change and the strategies to achieve it?

• Does the leader actively engage the appropriate people throughout the institution, and the larger community of stakeholders if appropriate, in the change process?

• Does the leader display the talent to create or recognize good ideas that will actually work and discard unproductive, stale, or misplaced strategies?

• Does the president exhibit the ability to change leadership styles and strategic objectives in light of new challenges, perceptions, opportunities, and the realization that an initial strategy, or its successors, aren’t working?

• Has the president shown a readiness to select, promote, and sustain competent team members while saying goodbye to those unwilling or unable to play a lead role on a change squad?

These are all great questions (and he poses several more), but don’t just drop these into your current evaluation process or adopt them outright. Take the time to talk with your chief executive and your board and ask, “What are the questions we should be asking now?” Make sure that your evaluation process is appropriately linked to your strategic plan (and that your strategic plan is relevant to the demands of the future).

It may be that the kinds of questions posed here are not necessarily a good match with your current evaluation process, but perhaps they can serve as the catalyst for a more comprehensive review and discussion that is linked to your strategic planning process. In any case, keep in mind that one of the primary goals of the evaluation process is leadership development. Appreciating that it would be a rare individual who is highly competent in all of the facets of leadership your organization will require in the future, be prepared to provide support and get your chief executive the kind of training, coaching, and mentoring that will be essential as you move into an uncertain future.

For additional information, please contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or send him an e-mail message at [email protected].