The evaluation of the executive director or CEO is one of the most important responsibilities of a non-profit board. It is recommended that these occur annually. But a carefully considered and meaningful evaluation is a big undertaking for a group of volunteers. What if there was an attractive option to help take some of the pressure off?

This post is about the idea of an executive director self-evaluation as an interim mechanism for performance review.1) A more condensed and reflective exercise can also be a tool for improving executive, if not so much organizational, performance. And, it can serve as a bridge between comprehensive executive director evaluations that could then be done every second year.

The evaluation reality

Despite widespread acceptance of the importance of executive director evaluations, the reality is that in many organizations they are not done, or where they are done they are hasty or superficial.

Boards often have no idea how to go about one and little or no basis for judging their ED’s performance. Board meetings, even with good reporting from the ED, reveal very little. Ideally an executive director evaluation should strive to be a transparent process, should involve the ED in its design, include collecting of some independent information (certainly from staff) and result in improved organizational performance. It also should bring greater clarity to the group’s leadership needs and expectations.

One might well worry too that without any executive director evaluation, and the trust it helps cultivate, every board meeting becomes a test of the person in the post. This does not make for a healthy board-ED relationship.

Executive evaluation is a big deal for a board, no doubt. There would be more of them if executive directors, the board’s partner in governance, would show perseverance in asking for an evaluation. Success here might require them finding an evaluation tool they are OK with and putting it in front their board.2)

Perhaps incorporating an “easier” form of executive director into an organization’s extended leadership calendar could make some space for other governance work.

Self-evaluation with help

An executive director or CEO self evaluation requires some questions, some time, and couple of people willing to sit down to review the responses.

Because it feels like it is more about helping than judging, an abridged evaluation can also contribute to a stronger board-executive director partnership.

Here are its three key features it should have:

  • A few, relatively open-ended, questions for the executive director’s response, preferably hand written3)

  • Questions that probe his/her leadership accomplishments and challenges as well as their partnership with the board

  • A meeting with the board chair and and one other person to review and discuss the responses and to make recommendations

This approach to evaluation has much in common with executive coaching. It can focus on both the personal and the organizational dimensions of leadership work.

Possible Questions

Here are the types of self-evaluation questions that I think would be central to such an approach:

  1. What do you believe has been your most significant leadership achievements during the past year?

  2. What have been the most significant leadership challenges for you during the past year?

  3. What barriers exist to improving your effectiveness as the executive director?

  4. What is your assessment of the balance you have achieved between a) managing the operations and b) securing our organization’s future and/or improving its community impacts.

  5. Are there any areas of responsibility where you believe your actions may not have been in alignment with the expectations of the board of directors? 4)(Alternatively, are there any areas where you have felt constrained from action because you are unsure about the board’s expectations)

  6. What additional knowledge or skills would help you in your leadership role?

  7. What are some of your leadership goals over the next year? Please list and indicate their priority

  8. How might the Board assist you in your further development as executive director?

I would not favour a longer list of questions as this would inhibit the reflective potential of the process. The goal here is not so much about searching for answers as exploring the current leadership needs of the organization and how best to achieve them.

Other Considerations

There are a few other considerations that should go into a decision to add a ED self-evaluation to one’s set of governance practices. Keep in mind that it will not fulfill many the board’s oversight responsibilities. A full evaluation will probably satisfy more. However, in the context of a self evaluation consideration should be given to;

  • How long one’s ED has been in their post and whether this is their first evaluation

  • The quality of governance policies that outline the board’s expectations of their ED

  • The confidentiality of the details of the evaluation outcomes

  • The composition of the two person review team

  • How well the self evaluation links with past ED evaluations

  • The importance of knowing if one’s organization is a healthy workplace for staff5)

  • The impact of any dramatic changes in the organization’s funding or public policy environment

Here's a tool you can use Executive Director Self Evaluation. It can be found under “Governance Guides, Board Tools.


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