Guidelines for Annual CEO Performance Review

I previously posted about what I believe makes a good Board Chair. Following questions from readers, I wrote a second post on the relationship between the Board Chair and the CEO. I had additional questions about doing the annual performance review for the CEO, so this column addresses CEO performance reviews.

Caveats – I Am Not an HR or Legal Professional

As a caveat, I am not an HR professional or an attorney. You may want to consult with these professionals to make sure all your questions and processes are legal and best practices.

Another caveat: This is a framework. Make the process reflect your organization and your field. For example,  I include questions around equity – they should align with the way your organization talks about equity. If you have other key values that are very important for your organization, you should include questions about them as well. Additionally, you should align the CEO review with performance review processes used for the rest of your staff. 

Why Such a Thorough Performance Review?

I have been on boards where the review process for the CEO has been superficial at best. From my experience, boards run into several problems when they neglect doing an annual performance review or carry out only a cursory review. First, they don’t get important feedback about how the CEO performs as a manager or internal leader – information that the board can only get by asking staff and that is critical to the health of the organization. Second, the board may not realize how well – or poorly – the CEO represents the organization in the broader community. And finally, they miss the opportunity to help the CEO improve professionally and personally. No one is perfect and every CEO should be able to develop themselves.

360 Review

I like to do a “360 review” of the CEO which means interviewing people who work at all levels with the CEO — board members, direct reports, line staff, and other stakeholders. The CEO also does a self-evaluation. When I have been Board Chair and proposed this type of review to my current CEO, almost all of them were reluctant. But I asked them to stick with me and, after going through the process, every CEO felt the review was not only fair, but helpful. The feedback we and the CEO received allowed the board to support the CEO better and allowed the CEO to make organizational and programmatic changes that increased impact.

Review Committee

Some organizations have their Executive Committee manage the CEO’s performance review. I prefer to create an ad hoc Review Committee made up of some Executive Committee members but also newer board members. Being part of the review process is a great way to engage board members and build bench strength for board leadership. Generally, about four or five people is the right size for the committee.

The First Year Is Hardest

The first year you implement this review process will be the hardest because you will have to create all the materials, questions, and processes. The following years you only need to update them. Several organizations I know alternate some of the aspects each year – so one year they reach out to line staff but not outside stakeholders; the next year they interview outside stakeholders but not line staff. However, I would advise doing everyone for the first year or two to get a baseline. If you have someone with HR background on your board or staff, absolutely involve them in creating the review process.

Framework for the Review

One part of the review should focus on the CEO’s performance as a leader and manager, their relationships with diverse stakeholders, their fiduciary impact, and their commitment to your values such as equity. There is a saying that “culture trumps strategy.” So, in this part of the review, you will want to probe about the type of culture the CEO creates and whether that culture aligns with your organization’s values. For this part, you should use similar questions each year so you can see performance changes over time.

The second part should focus on organizational (programmatic, financial, fundraising), professional, and personal objectives that are developed yearly. You and your CEO should review and adjust these objectives at least quarterly and perhaps monthly. There should not be any surprises around objectives in the annual review. If the board feels the CEO is not performing, you need to ask questions right away. Don’t wait until the end of the year! As Board Chair, you also need to create a safe space so the CEO can talk about modifying objectives as soon as they think changes need to be made.

On the objectives side, the annual performance review is a time for reflection – were the objectives too ambitious? Not ambitious enough? Not the right ones to reach the organization’s goals? Why? This information will be used to create new objectives for the next year.

Objectives may also include professional training or mentoring.

Overview of the Review Process

  1. Identify Review Committee members and a Chair for the committee. This could be the Board Chair but could also be someone else who has been through the process before. Identify who will be writing the final report (this takes time, so this person needs to have enough time). Also identify who will give the final review to the CEO. I recommend two people — the Board Chair plus the Committee Chair or someone else.  
  2. Create or update questions and online surveys for each target group: CEO self-evaluation, direct reports interviews, line staff online survey, community partner interviews, board online survey, other stakeholders.
  3. Ask the CEO for names and contact information for community partners, line staff, and other stakeholders to be included.
  4. Assign Review Committee members to individuals to be interviewed in person, on the phone, or video chat.
  5. Send out online surveys. You will need several weeks and expect to send out reminders!
  6. Have Committee members arrange for direct one-on-one interviews.
  7. One committee member will consolidate all the information and write the report. This includes summarizing surveys or providing all the data. I like to provide some illustrative quotations.
  8. Meet with the CEO to provide feedback, celebrate successes, identify a game plan to address challenges, and create objectives for the following year.
  9. Provide a summary plus the results of the meeting with the CEO to the full board during an executive session. Because the CEO review is a private matter, I do not mail the results to all board members. Instead, I hand out numbered documents at a board meeting and ask for them back at the end of the meeting. Or I just provide a verbal summary.
  10. Make sure that any community partners or other stakeholders are thanked for their input and time.

Specific Examples

Below are some specific examples of questions to ask. Customize them based on your organization and field.

CEO Self-Evaluation

Have the CEO write a self-evaluation. Below are some topics to cover.

Vision, Mission, Strategy
  • Address the organization’s strategies, work plans, and priorities. Why have you set these priorities?
  • Describe how you use a strategic lens when deciding what opportunities to pursue and what changes to make programmatically and organizationally. 
  • Is there work we are doing that does not align with our strategy? If so, how can we sunset this work? Is there work you think we should be doing but are not? If so, let’s discuss how we can make this happen.
  • How can the board help?
External and Community Relations
  • Discuss how you represent the organization in the community. What strengths should you build on? Where could you improve? How can the board support you?
Internal Leadership and Management
  • Talk about your management style. Consider communication, prioritization, delegating, and accountability. How and how often do you provide feedback to your direct reports? Do they have yearly objectives and performance reviews?
  • Do you feel that you have the right organizational structure and staff to meet our goals? If not, what would you like to change? What is your plan for getting there?
Fiduciary Oversight
  • Do you feel our budget reflects our values and mission and will lead to the impacts we desire? Why or why not?
  • Do we have the technical and other infrastructure we need to operate effectively?
  • Discuss your role in fund development. Do you see this evolving? How?
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Equity is a priority, how are we applying an equity lens to our work?
  • What are you doing to create a safe working environment, a workplace that is both equitable and inclusive? How do you model equitable thinking and behavior?
  • Give some examples of how you and the organization use culturally relevant resources in the community and seek input from appropriate communities to inform decision making?
  • If the CEO is a diverse person: Do you feel safe and supported at the organization? Are you facing microaggressions, discrimination, or harassment from board members? Staff? Partners?
  • Do you feel the board is effectively engaged in strategic issues?
  • Do you feel the board supports you as you would like?
  • Are you effectively using the skills of individual board members?
  • Please review the personal and professional objectives we set last year, progress made, where adjustments need to be made and why, what support you need.
  • Where could we have done better? What would have allowed us to do better?

One-on-One Meetings with Direct Reports

Direct reports should be interviewed one-on-one either on the phone, in-person, or via video chat. Members of the Review Committee should conduct these interviews. Be clear that feedback will be confidential. And recognize that not every person will be able to answer every question.

Vision, Mission, and Strategy
  • Do you think the organization has a clear strategy toward achieving our mission?
  • How does your personal work plan support that strategy?
  • When deciding what opportunities to pursue, does CEO use a strategic lens? Do they take advantage of new opportunities? Do they make course corrections?
Leadership and Management
  • How is the CEO as a manager? Do they delegate well? Prioritize your work? Provide candid feedback? Ask for and respect your input? Are they available when you need them?
  • Do you have a job description? Do you have yearly objectives? Do you receive an annual review?
Fiduciary Oversight
  • How is CEO at managing the organization’s budget and finances?
  • How is CEO at fundraising and donor stewardship?
  • Do we have the right tech and other infrastructure in place to be effective?
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Equity is a priority, how are we applying an equity lens to our organization and our work?
  • Do you feel the organization has a safe working environment, a workplace that is both equitable and inclusive?
  • Do you feel the CEO models equitable thinking and behavior?
  • Do you personally feel safe and supported at the organization? Are you facing discrimination or harassment from the CEO? Staff? Partners? the board?
Objectives and Closing
  • Ask about relevant items from the organizational objectives and progress made on them. For example: “Organizationally we set these top three objectives for the year (list them). How do you feel about the progress we made? Where could we have done better? What would have allowed us to do better?”  
  • Are there areas that you think we should be looking at and that we are not?
  • Anything else?

Survey for Line Staff

Line staff can be surveyed via an anonymous online survey. I would have staff rate each item on a scale of 1 to 5 with a choice of “I don’t know” and ample room for comments.

The number of staff surveyed depends on the size of your organization. With larger organizations, I have worked with the CEO to identify line staff who have a lot of direct contact with the CEO as well as a few others. I ask specifically for people who might have issues with the CEO as we want to get those issues out into the open. I also ask that line staff from all functional areas of the organization be included –programming, operations, finance, fund development, etc. If you want, you can also survey all staff.

I had one CEO who was very reluctant to have the board survey line staff. The organization had grown tremendously over the previous three to five years. We heard from many line staff that they felt the CEO was not as accessible as she used to be. Instead of telling the CEO she had to be more accessible, we brainstormed ways to encourage staff to go to their supervisor instead of the CEO. The CEO was extremely relieved and became a big supporter of our 360 review process when we showed how it helped the board support her.

  • The organization has a clear strategy to achieve our mission.
  • My workplan supports progress toward our mission.
  • When deciding what opportunities to pursue, the CEO uses a strategic lens.
  • The CEO takes advantage of strategic new opportunities.
  • The CEO is able to make course corrections when appropriate.
  • Realizing the CEO is not your direct supervisor, how are they as a manager? Consider whether they delegate well and help prioritize work.
  • The CEO provides candid feedback.
  • The CEP asks for and respects your input.
  • The CEO inspires to excellence.
  • As an organization, we apply an equity lens to our work.
  • The organization has a safe working environment, a workplace that is both equitable and inclusive.
  • The organization uses culturally relevant resources in the community and seeks input from appropriate communities to inform decision making.
  • The CEO models equitable thinking and behavior.
  • I feel safe and supported at the organization.
  • Anything else?

Board Members Online Survey

Board members can be surveyed via an anonymous online survey. All board members should be surveyed. Have each board member rate each item on a 1 to 5 scale with “I Don’t Know” as a choice. Leave ample room for comments. The CEO:

  • Shows leadership and vision for organization.
  • Ensures that the organization has a clear strategy to achieve its mission.
  • Does a good job at prioritizing the work of the organization.
  • Effectively communicates vision, strategy, and priorities to the board.
  • Is transparent about how decisions are made.
  • Appropriately seeks input from the board.
  • Effectively engages the board in strategic issues.
  • Represents the organization well at meetings with other partners or elected officials that I have attended with them.
  • Presents a strategic budget to the board that includes underlying assumptions.
  • Manages to the budget approved by the board.
  • Is an effective and passionate fundraiser in the situations I have seen them fundraise.
  • Applies an equity lens to the organization’s work.
  • Models equitable thinking and behavior.
  • Prioritizes community engagement.
  • Leads the board to be more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and competent.
  • Ensures board members have timely and clear information in order to make informed decisions and provide effective governance.
  • Ensures board members have knowledge to advocate for and support the organization’s mission and work.
  • Makes effective use of the skills of individual board members.

Questions for Community Partners

If your organization works with other organizations in your community, I would interview the CEOs of four to six of these organizations. Your CEO represents your organization, and you want to know how they appear to others. Are they helpful? Team players? Arrogant?

Partner CEOs should be interviewed one-on-one on the phone, in person, or via video chat by a board member on the Review Committee.

Ask the CEO for the names and contact information of individuals to interview. I ask specifically for individuals with whom the CEO thinks the relationship is strong and others with whom it is less so. Notably, just having this conversation with partner CEOs can strengthen the relationship. Because this aspect of the review takes a lot of effort, after a year or so, if you get consistently positive input, you can start doing this every other year. That said, I served on the Review Committee for one organization where we heard from every outside partner that our CEO came across as arrogant. This information led our Board Chair and Executive Committee to do some more research. Working with an HR specialist, professional training was provided. When that proved ineffective, the CEO was eventually counselled out of their role.

  • In what ways do you work with CEO?
  • How well does CEO represent our organization to you and in the venues you see them?
  • Do you feel you have a good understanding of our organization’s vision, mission, and strategies to get there?
  • How is CEO at showing leadership in the community?
  • How is CEO (and Organization) as a collaborative and strategic partner?
  • How is CEO (and Organization) as a resource to you and your organization?
  • Equity is very important to us, do you see the CEO demonstrate knowledge of other cultures, recognize bias/stereotypes, and model equitable thinking and behavior?
  • Does the CEO apply an equity lens to our organization’s work?
  • Does the CEO use culturally relevant resources in the community and seek input from appropriate communities to inform decision making?
  • Anything else?

Other Stakeholders

Whether to survey other stakeholders depends on your organization. A school might want to survey some parents and students. A university might want to add alumni. A direct service organization might want to survey people who have received the service as well as their family members. A membership organization might want to interview members.

One Comment

  1. Hi Janet. Thanks again for another thorough and excellent post. I might add that a critical part of a process like this is for the Board and the CEO to be in on the same page about the CEO’s priorities – in advance – so that the information collected can be evaluated in context. Let’s say, for example, the CEO and Board have determined that the CEO needs to devote more time to fund development activities due to strategy or external environment reasons. If the 360 shows that staff feels the CEO has been less visible/available for some of the activities the CEO used to prioritize, that could be a positive indicator that the CEO is correctly prioritizing their time – rather than a negative indicator re: engaging with staff. The absence of clear priorities can create situations where the CEO review process leads the Board to attempt to redirect the CEO from strategically important priorities. Additionally, the more information gathered, the more likely the Board and CEO will face a signal-to-noise ratio issue – making context and advance clarity even more critical. Maybe a topic to take up in a future post.

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