Association of Chairs

John Williams: When to avoid appraising your chief executive

The short answer is 'never', but you need to handle the process carefully and with sensitivity

John Williams
John Williams

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Sorry, no need to read on: the answer should be "never". But if you’re a busy chair, perhaps you were drawn in by the headline, looking for a way out of what seems to challenge quite a few of us.

Surprisingly, and perhaps shockingly, according to Acevo’s Pay and Equalities Survey 2018, 28 per cent of charity chief executives do not receive an annual appraisal and 8 per cent have not been provided with any recent learning or development opportunities.

Which is why the Association of Chairs has chosen for its latest Chair’s Challenge briefing the topic of Appraising Your Chief Executive, which has just been published.

There are understandable reasons for reluctance. Chairs might not have much experience of giving appraisals and continuous feedback. Your chief executive might be a little intimidating, with far more sector knowledge than you have and perhaps well established in the post. But a good appraisal process helps your chief executive and your working relationship

Our new briefing helps you overcome any hesitation. It draws on advice and insights from some of our members, including those who have both given and received chief executive appraisals.

What emerges from the briefing are some important principles for chairs.

Appraisals are not just a once-a-year process

Appraisals are often thought of as one off annual events, but it’s more helpful to see it as part of a continuous dialogue with ongoing feedback throughout the year. Consequently, the formal yearly appraisal discussion should contain no surprises. In all your discussions aim to create mutual trust and respect, with an honest and open approach to both praise and critique.

Don’t wait until you have concerns about your chief executive to instigate an appraisal process

Appraisals are not a disciplinary process, but should be about constructively supporting your chief executive to be the best they can be. It’s about motivating more than monitoring.

You need to have set objectives you can appraise against

This should be something you agree together at the start of the chair-chief executive relationship and revisit regularly. Objectives are likely to fall into three categories: corporate or business objectives, aligning with the charity’s overall strategy; behavioural objectives, which go to living and promoting the charity’s values; and personal objectives or development opportunities, which aim to develop the chief executive’s knowledge, skill or proficiency in a specific area.

There is no perfect model for a formal appraisal, but you do need to seek a rounded perspective

But the clue is in the word "formal". A discursive chat over breakfast once a year with no other inputs will not be enough to realise the chief executive’s full potential and risks complacency setting into the relationship on both sides. It is important to seek a rounded view of the chief’s performance. The chair will see only some aspects of the chief executive’s style, work and impact. The briefing unpacks three approaches: 360-degree feedback, either through interviews or a simple questionnaire; using a third party, whether another trustee or an external resource, which can allow the chair to stay objective; and feedback from external stakeholders, which extends the 360-degree approach.

There are several constructive options if your CEO is underperforming

A poor appraisal should not be the end of the road, or even the beginning of the end. Hopefully, concerns will have been identified early and the reasons understood. The briefing explores several next steps, including training and development, getting support for the chief executive from a trustee who is an expert in an area where there is a development need; discussing the matter with the vice chair (or a trustee with HR expertise) as a useful sounding board; or, importantly, assessing the part you the chair might have played in a problematic relationship.

Don’t settle for 'just about adequate'

A bigger challenge might be where a chief executive’s performance is just about adequate, neither stellar nor bad. In such cases the concern is that opportunities are being missed. One solution is to engage in regular coaching with the chief executive to encourage them to improve their performance, either yourself or through using an external coach.

Finally, get expert advice, and respect your CEO’s rights

You might still need to pursue more formal performance management at some stage. In taking any action you need to respect the chief executive’s rights as an employee and comply with your internal policies and procedures. Mistakes in this area can be costly, financially and reputationally. Make sure you have access to expert advice, either from your HR team, if you have one, or externally.

Appraisal is a vital task for chairs to get right: if you fail to appraise your chief executive, or mishandle an appraisal, you run the risk of allowing problems to develop or worsen. Conversely, ongoing dialogue and an effective appraisal are an opportunity to celebrate and consolidate your chief executive’s achievements and encourages them to make even greater progress towards your charity’s aims. So everyone wins.

John Williams is vice chair of the Association of Chairs @ChiswickJohn. You can download Appraising Your Chief Executive for free

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