CEO Assessments Done Right

By: Mark Athitakis

CEOs often have trouble getting a clear, action-oriented job evaluation from their boards. To fill in the gaps in measuring your performance, try taking assessment into your own hands. [Titled "Self Study" in the print edition.]

During his 16 years as CEO of the National RV Dealers Association (RVDA), Michael A. Molino, CAE, says he struggled to get what he felt was a good performance review. He received plenty of positive reviews—kudos, raises, and all that. The problem was that he didn't always get the kind of guidance he wanted on improving his management and leadership skills, and useful communication on those topics could be hard to come by.

"Conceivably, it could have gone bad without my knowing there was a problem," he says. Molino—who retired from the CEO role in 2012 and now serves as advisor to RVDA's president—did what many chief executives do in a similar situation: find other ways to gauge their performance, be it through personal coaches or "kitchen cabinets" or more calibrated self-assessment tools. Any of these processes can be helpful for leaders who want to step up their game and identify their weak spots, though experts agree that such efforts should be pursued in tandem with improving the level of communication they have with their boards.

"If we stop relying predominately on metrics and start fostering meaningful conversations between the board chair and the exec about performance, some of the tensions causing execs to be forced out or terminated could be reduced or eliminated," says Jackie Eder-Van Hook, president of Transition Management Consulting. "Think qualitative, not quantitative."

There's no one way to accomplish that, but it can start with knowing the culture of the board you have, measuring your skills, and being honest enough with yourself to call in help when it's needed.

Better Metrics

In Molino's case, his board was made up of entrepreneurs. "They were owners of small businesses," he says, "so they looked at evaluation in terms of money." A raise was supposed to be enough of a sign he was doing his job well.

Lessons From Board Self-Assessments

When boards assess their own work, where do they tend to improve, and where do they struggle? A recent study by the ASAE Foundation sheds light on these questions.

The survey focused on organizations whose board members used a board self-assessment tool released in 2009 by ASAE in collaboration with BoardSource. Respondents were asked to gauge the performance of the boards on which they served in 68 categories.

They tended to give themselves high marks for nuts-and-bolts responsibilities such as following bylaws and IRS regulations, giving the CEO authority to lead, and reviewing financial audits. They felt they performed relatively weakly, however, on more complicated matters: addressing CEO succession, identifying and cultivating potential board members, benchmarking organizational performance, identifying gaps in diversity and expertise, and measuring the impact for critical programs and initiatives. And though nearly all board members reported evaluating their CEO, only 77 percent of respondents said they deliver formal written evaluations.

Strategic planning was particularly tough for boards—even for those that have a written strategic plan. Participants gave themselves relatively low marks on setting strategic direction, engaging in an effective strategic-planning process, and tracking progress toward meeting strategic goals.

One major influence on how a board perceives its effectiveness? Board size. According to the study, boards with fewer than 20 people reported having a very satisfying experience more than half the time. Larger boards expressed less enthusiasm.—M.A.

A full report on the study was scheduled to be published in July by the ASAE Foundation. Visit to learn more.

Looking for more, he took a cue from his past as an Army officer and did a more formal run-through of his performance. "You set objectives in writing at the start of the cycle, and at the end make a presentation in writing, saying, 'OK, here is what I think I've done,'" he says. During his association career he did successfully negotiate for two "360" reviews, in which he was assessed by both the board and his staff.

Nancy Green, FASAE, CAE, had a similar experience when she first took the reins as executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in 2004. "My [board] members are mostly academics, so they wanted to cast a wide net, get a lot of data, and then crunch the numbers and give me the metric," she says. "Knowing that I was two standard deviations away from the mean was important to them, but not very meaningful to me."

Green's response was twofold. One was building in regular discussions with her board apart from the performance review—"temperature-taking" sessions that occurred around important dates on NAGC's calendar, such as the annual meeting and volunteer leader transitions. That's the CEO's responsibility, she says: "Finding opportunities for conversations with the board more than once a year is critical. It provides time to course-correct and mend fences if needed."

However, she also created more ad hoc opportunities to take a close look at her performance. She's cultivated a "kitchen cabinet" of experts outside the board to draw on for help. "I do have people in most segments of the organization who I can call when I need unvarnished advice, whether it's advocacy or government affairs or the convention," she says. "It's a way to surface the early warning signs."

Eder-Van Hook agrees that kitchen cabinets can give CEOs useful guidance on operational matters, but they can fall short when it comes to improving other leadership skills. "If what you want is somebody to give you feedback about your leadership style, it's sometimes difficult for kitchen cabinets to provide it, because they don't see you in that role on a routine basis or have difficulty seeing you outside of a peer role," she says.

A Sense of Priorities

The instinct to take a long, hard look at your performance is a noble one. But what do you measure, and how?

In the mid-1990s, Donald R. (Chip) Levy, principal of leadership consultancy the Rochelle Organization, developed a leadership self-assessment tool that he tested with the American Lung Association. The tool asks users to rank themselves, on a scale of 1 to 10, on 25 leadership behaviors. Among the options: "a genuine desire to be a leader," "willingness to take control and be accountable," "a partner relationship with coworkers."

In 2005, Levy used a related tool in a study of 242 leaders, including association CEOs. They performed best on operational skills and weakest on personality traits that can be the toughest to address, such as "a well-integrated, balanced lifestyle" and "an emotionally stimulating personality." Levy says that addressing these soft skills can be important for CEOs as they work with their boards and performance review committees to define success for the organization.

"What does leadership look like? Well, let's talk about it," he says. "Let's come to some agreement on what we think we mean when we say we expect the CEO to be an exemplary leader. Then we can measure how well we have achieved those goals. But until that point, we can't make an accurate performance assessment because we don't know what we're measuring."

Time for a Coach?

If your board still isn't great at feedback and self-assessments and kitchen cabinets aren't doing the trick, a one-on-one coach may be in order.

"I'm a big fan of coaching where somebody is going to help you on the softer pieces of leadership: 'So I just heard you say X and did you mean this or did you mean that?' " says Eder-Van Hook. "A coach can help them get clear about what it is they're saying and how others might perceive them."

"A lot of effective leaders can use a coach to help keep them focused on things that are important; day-to-day fire extinguishing can drown you," Green says. "And I think a coach forces that forward-thinking discipline."

Regardless of what tactic you use, the ultimate goal remains building a better dialogue with the board about your performance—after all, they're the final arbiters of your success, empowered to keep you on or move you along. "For people that are complaining about their evaluations, that's really what's missing," says Eder-Van Hook.

"It's your obligation to create points throughout the year where you're able to have conversations that are a little bit more meaningful around your performance, how you're handling things, and whether or not you [and the board] are on the same page," says Green. "It shouldn't be this one-time-a-year conversation."

Mark Athitakis is a senior editor at Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

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Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.