Opinion: Shifting the goalposts and other sins

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

Midwinter is the time for annual appraisals in many charities. Things have advanced a lot since I had my first appraisal 28 years ago with Ian Bruce, then head of the UK Volunteer Centre, now a professor at the Cass Business School. He had good ideas about methods, but our objective-setting, which we now recognise as fundamental to a good appraisal process, was rather short on measures and on precision about what an 'objective' meant.

Nevertheless, it was so useful that I've since had two dozen of them (the shortfall is accounted for by the time it took to persuade reluctant chairs of trustees) and it has become a basic essential for all of my jobs. Having worked with six chairs, I recognise the long process of mutual adaptation that has to go on in order to establish that you're talking about the same business model, and that a charity is not the same as a bank, a trade union or a government department.

I cringe to remember some early appraisals I carried out. Eventually I figured out that if you're very critical in your annual review, when you've sounded reassuring throughout the year, the fault is not with your employee, but with you. Shifting the goalposts is another mistake: performance rated not on what was done but how. As is using unnamed sources selectively: "I can't tell you who said it because I don't have their permission, but you can take it from me they all say..."

The current fashion is for 360 deg appraisals, although they're not to be taken too literally - the range of relationships of senior staff is too big. This year I'm widening the angle to about 120 deg, inviting each director to nominate a peer and an external contact, and inviting trustees to write in. Although some comments have been guarded, most have been impressively honest. And giving each director all their papers lifts the burden of paraphrase and concealment that anonymity requires.

Right now I'm reading the notes of the year's meetings and the large collection of material that each director generates, but writing a note only twice as long as this column. It's a lot of work, but I believe it's worth it. My team members know where they stand with me and what we expect of each other. What's different from that first appraisal is that we're clearer about objectives. What remains the same is that the team has been working it out, instead of just having it hung round their necks.

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