Archive for November, 2011

Evaluating the executive director

 

Are you sighing just from having read the title of this article? Why does this topic make us all feel so tired?

Virtually everyone agrees that boards should conduct performance reviews of executive directors (EDs or CEOs). Even so, the predominant practice is neglect, and the predominant feeling is resentment. The neglect comes from the board: only 45% of nonprofit CEOs have reviews, reported CompassPoint’s recent Daring to Lead 2011 study. Resentment comes from the executives, who are too often either resentful of the review process or even more likely and paradoxically, disgusted with the board for not conducting one.

And the agreement that ED evaluations should happen forestalls us from reflecting on why. In fact, in contrast to most performance appraisals, the key goal of ED evaluations is not performance improvement, but instead: a) the chance to reflect on the performance of the entire organization (not just the individual), and b) to spark a calibration of expectations and goals between the ED and the board.

Board evaluations of ED performance are radically different from any other type of performance review and must be thought of differently. For example:

While most staff reviews are between two individuals, the ED evaluation is a collective, committee review of an individual.

An ED review appropriately is more about the organization’s achievements rather than about the individual’s completion of a series of tasks.

Board members seldom (if ever) see the ED other than at board or committee meetings and are typically highly unfamiliar with either the building blocks or the nuances of the internal and external leadership roles that EDs play.

But despite these obstacles, there’s a firm belief that ED evaluations “just should be done!”

But while board members drag their feet, many EDs are seething.

“If I didn’t make them give me an evaluation,” fumed one former executive director, “I would never have gotten a raise.”

Many executives feel similarly: the route to a raise — or sometimes simply to recognition for the organization as a whole — requires going through an evaluation which will document the strong performance of the organization and the board’s approval, support, and affection for the executive.

When board members are unhappy with the CEO

On the flip side, an all-too-common scenario unfolds when a board is dissatisfied with its executive and some board members raise the question of termination. “But we haven’t done an evaluation!” other board members cry, and so first an evaluation process must be devised and then implemented.

We know one national nonprofit at which the board chair — faced with nearly instant dissatisfaction with a new executive — felt obligated to initiate a thorough process “to be fair to her [the executive] and to get all of us on the same page.” Worthy aims, but during the year it took to complete that process and fire the executive, the organization’s reserves were squandered and its reputation was damaged.

Executives who know they are in trouble often stall the evaluation process by making it too complicated or by continually calling the process into question. They even often succeed in delaying the evaluation until the disapproving board members have given up and left the board.

Not mainly about performance improvement

We know that many board members have relatively little appetite for ED performance appraisals. But maybe it’s not just laziness. Too often boards undertake executive review only when they are unhappy, or even only when they are considering termination and want to establish a paper trail for doing so.

Second, there is often uncertainty about how to conduct them.

And third, hidden reason for the lack of appetite for executive evaluation is that board members suspect that such a review won’t change the flawed behaviors of an otherwise adequate (or even superior) executive, nor will it lead to a sharp turnaround for a seriously underperforming executive. So why do it?

Going back to the limited view of the ED’s work that board members have, it’s not surprising that the review process isn’t an effective vehicle for the kind of coaching and feedback that often occurs in other performance reviews.  This is true even when evaluation teams try to conduct interviews and seek input from members of the staff and others who work with the ED. Since board members only observe directly a fraction of the ED’s work, they can only judge or play an effective coaching role when it comes to the ED’s relationship with the board.

When asked what positives came out of their evaluations by the board (other than a raise or praise), most executives struggled to find an answer, and only a couple could think of an instance in which the review resulted in changes or improvements in their own behaviors.

Surprisingly, we did hear over and over again that positive results came from the executive review, not necessarily related to the executive’s performance. We learned that the ED evaluation turns out often to best serve as way for getting everyone — board and staff — on the same page about organizational goals for the year. And then, proceeding from those goals, there may be some supporting goals for the executive director as an individual.

Alignment of goals

Veteran executives often realize that a mutual alignment of goals is the real purpose of ED reviews. Such alignment usually occurs no matter what process or instrument is used. Inevitably, a discussion of performance brings up issues of why organizational goals for the last period were met or not and what is expected for the future. Of the many goals and objectives within the plan for the year, the discussion almost always moves to what board members and the executive see as the most important and the most crucial.

So a key message is this: don’t worry so much about finding exactly the right instrument or process to assess the ED’s performance. But use it as a vehicle for aligning expectations and goals for the coming year — for the organization as a whole, for the board, and for the ED.

Special thanks to www.BlueAvocado.org where this article was originally published.

See also:

The Nonprofit Leadership Team: Building the Board-Executive Director Partnership

Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Talking About Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior

Image credit: doclind.com

 

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Playing to lose

What happens when know-nothings are allowed to outvote the fundraiser? A sure-fire recipe for failure.

I blinked. Yet the dreaded words didn’t change.

“The internal team,” the email stated, “has some concerns about the direct mail you wrote. We need to talk.”

The internal team? Here we go again, said the frustrated little general in my brain.

Fact: I know the résumés of this particular “internal team.” I know that no one on this “internal team” has any training in direct mail. Not one iota. Which makes their opinions, ipso facto, professionally worthless.

Untrained staff and board cannot accurately judge professionally-crafted direct mail. It’s impossible. Mailed appeals are a counter-intuitive enterprise, based on neuroscience, decades of testing, empiricism, and acquired skill sets of surprising depth and complexity.

The opinions of the untutored simply do NOT count in direct mail. Quite the opposite: acting on untutored opinions can only decrease or eliminate income. Direct mail is a sales medium that brutally punishes presumptions. You either know what you’re doing. Or you don’t. And direct mail virgins guess wrong 110% of the time.

That doesn’t mean an untrained internal review team is powerless. On the contrary: their silly, ignorant opinions can easily – often do – destroy any chance that a direct mail appeal will succeed. Makeshift, unfounded opinions (“We can’t have a P.S. on our appeal. It’s undignified.” True story.) cost charities untold fortunes in unraised gifts around the world. I see it all the time.

I’m talking to you, Mr. Boss. I’m talking to you, Ms. Board Chair. And I’m talking to you, carping colleague.

Personally, I insist on the Verbatim Rule. New clients looking for a direct mail writer must promise me that they will send out what I create without changing one word.

It’s the only sane policy.

And that’s also why I strongly advise that development directors have sole and tyrannical control over all donor communications.

No colleague veto. No boss veto. No board-chair veto. Again, it’s the only sane policy.

Let me repeat: ONLY the chief fundraiser gets to approve donor communications … appeals, newsletters, and thanks. Period. No exceptions.

In a sane world.

…. And then there’s real life ….

Remember the “internal team”?

They had three “concerns” with my direct mail appeal.

First, the boss was concerned that the letter didn’t sound like him. So he was reluctant to sign it. “Could it be,” he ventured, “written to sound more like me?”

If you think that this is a reasonable request, then you need to revisit a good how-to book like Mal Warwick’s How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters or Jeff Brooks’ groundbreaking new book on direct mail writing from Emerson & Church.

Direct mail doesn’t “sound like” people.

For one thing, the machinery of persuasion is always grinding away in the background of a direct mail appeal. A competent writer is focused on inserting all sorts of emotional triggers that can lead to “yes.”

Also, there are loads of technical demands that must be met, for the appeal to raise the most it can: multiple asks on every page, for instance; and huge infusions of donor love.

People don’t talk this way. So, no, Mr. Boss, it cannot “sound like you.” This is not ventriloquism. A direct mail appeal is not your hand puppet.

Second, the VP in charge of this client’s education reform effort – which was the subject of this particular appeal – was concerned about the tone.

He didn’t like the heavy use of the word “you” in the appeal. He wanted the charity’s PR consultants to rewrite the letter … in a proper, elevated corporate tone: “We did this great thing. We did that great thing.” Impersonal.

See, this is what I mean. This knucklehead’s presumption about tone has been wrong since the beginning of fundraising – yet, he doesn’t even suspect that truth.

Not only are people like this ignorant, because they don’t know the subject at hand (how to properly talk to prospects and donors). People like this are also stupid, because they don’t know that they don’t know.

And they’re not just cute and annoying. They are toxins. If they were suddenly gifted with self-awareness, they’d fire themselves for incompetence. Instead, they congratulate themselves for sagacity.

Finally, the new hire in production spoke up. He was concerned that the letter was too long. To lend weight to his opinion, he claimed to have direct mail experience.

Working for the Good Lord’s House of Failure, I guess.

This ninny offered to take all my one-sentence paragraphs and bullet lists and everything else that made the letter easy to skim … and pack it all down into tight, dense paragraphs, so the letter would fit on one page rather than two.

“And we’ll save money on printing!”

I’ll be blunt: what an idiot. And he’s the new hire, so get used to it.

This is a big charity. It presents itself to its donors as a major change agent, a home for innovation and smarts.

And yet the “internal team has concerns.”

Talking about change in the cozy, self-congratulatory world of staff meetings – and actually welcoming the sometimes horrifying unknowns of change – are very different enterprises. One of my favorite fundraising analysts, Jonathan Grapsas, has some wise words on change inside nonprofits.

See also:

How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money

Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes

Image credit: StevenAHill.com

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Raise the bar beyond evaluations; seek alignment

This week, we posted a terrific article called “Evaluating the executive director” by Jan Masaoka. While I consider myself lucky to have served on boards where the ED review was faithfully executed every year, I know many colleagues who have experienced otherwise. Unfortunately, many executive directors go “un-reviewed” for long periods of time, according to Masaoka. She also shares that the most important reason to conduct a review of your executive director is to get on the same page with the board.

This month’s Page to Practice™ book summary called The Three Laws of Performance by Zaffron and Logan speaks to the same point. Performance is heightened when a team shares the same view of their circumstances. The inherent challenge is that our life experiences alter how things occur to us individually. Additionally, our performance has a tendency to fulfill what the authors call a personal “default future” unless we make the effort to calibrate our perceptions with coworkers and rewrite a future everyone wants.

For example, early in the book, Zaffron and Logan explain how the newly appointed CEO, Brad Mills, “transforms an impossible situation” at Lonmin (a publicly traded company in South Africa) by changing how the situation “occurred” to thousands of his employees. The authors explain that, “the Three Laws of Performance is the relationship between how a situation occurs and the actions that are naturally correlated. By ‘occur’ we don’t merely mean how a situation is perceived. We also include the significance and meaningfulness that comes with the experience of the situation. The breakthrough comes from using these ideas to shift how situations occur, allowing for powerful new actions to naturally emerge. In real life situations, people can’t try to remember what actions to take. Life is like a tennis ball coming over a net at 100 miles per hour. For a professional tennis player, the movement of the ball occurs as ‘hittable.’ For most people, it would occur as a blur. Shifting how situations occur for people is akin to having a tennis ball that used to occur as a blur occur as hittable.

For those of you who sit on a nonprofit board, consider the importance of evaluating your ED to gain mutual alignment. By do so, you’ll also be ensuring that your ED’s performance will circumvent a “default future” and follow the future you collaboratively rewrite together.

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Rewrite your nonprofit’s future by enlisting “coauthors”

Statistical evidence shows that most change efforts fail. The reason for this is that regardless of the management interventions attempted, the default futures of employees and leaders are still in place. The more things change, the more they stay the same. “Whatever you resist, persists,” say coauthors Zaffron and Logan in The Three Laws of Performance. However, when everyone in your organization gets involved in rewriting the future, you rewire everyone’s perceptions of how their performance rolls into the overall fulfillment of that new future. Once you realize how the Laws are changing people’s ingrained views about their roles in the organization, you begin to embrace the potential of how much you can change or improve your future.

Each of the Three Laws of Performance has a message or leadership corollary that guides what you can do and shapes who you are for others.

Leadership Corollary 1: Leaders have a say and give others a say in how situations occur. When leaders have engaged everyone in writing the future of their organizations, compliance is replaced by ownership. Ask yourself, “How can I interact with others so that situations occur in a more empowering fashion to them? What processes, dialogues or meetings can I arrange so that people can feel like coauthors, not merely recipients, of a new future?

Leadership Corollary 2: Leaders master the conversational environment. Consider that your organization is its own network of conversations. What paradigms can you break with new language? One hundred percent of leadership happens through conversations that pull people into the game, not through sitting back and creating visions that need to be sold. Leaders manage and master the conversational environment by working with people to resolve any “incompletions” they have. Leaders also create a blank space into which the new future can be created. They bring group “rackets” into the open so they can be discussed and resolved. Leaders do all of this with integrity.

Leadership Corollary 3: Leaders listen for the future of their organization. By following this corollary, there is no implementation problem because the group has coauthored the future.

When I asked the authors about the leadership efforts within a particularly challenging situation they described in the book, here’s what they had to say.

CausePlanet: Early in the book, you explain how the newly appointed CEO, Brad Mills, “transforms an impossible situation” at Lonmin (a publicly traded company in South Africa) by changing how the situation “occurred” to thousands of employees. Would you explain the role “occurrences” have in your performance laws?

Zaffron & Logan: Fundamental to the Three Laws of Performance is the relationship between how a situation occurs and the actions that are naturally correlated. By “occur” we don’t merely mean how a situation is perceived. We also include the significance and meaningfulness that comes with the experience of the situation. The breakthrough comes from using these ideas to shift how situations occur, allowing for powerful new actions to naturally emerge. In real life situations, people can’t try to remember what actions to take. Life is like a tennis ball coming over a net at 100 miles per hour. For a professional tennis player, the movement of the ball occurs as “hittable.” For most people, it would occur as a blur. Shifting how situations occur for people is akin to having a tennis ball that used to occur as a blur occur as hittable.

Learn more about the author’s leadership corollaries for the Three Laws of Performance and how you can change the way your team perceives their performance as part of the overall organizational goals. You can purchase the book at www.threelaws.com or find out more about the complete Page to Practice summary.

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Override your “default future” with three performance laws

If you’ve ever been in a situation where you have an stretch goal on the horizon and a doubtful or disillusioned team, I found The Three Laws of Performance particularly suited for nonprofit leaders seeking an “about face” for everyone involved. Though I’ve used the term nonprofit leader in this case, the authors emphasize that anyone in the organization can use these Laws to create greater performance among the ranks. In fact, I asked this question in my interview with Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan:

CausePlanet: Several of your examples seemed to share a turning point characterized by the CEO or leadership team engaging the employees in a startling and participatory conversation that marked the beginning of new attitudes and performance. It seems as if the “about face” from the CEO is what helped employees redefine how the situation occurred to them. Have you ever seen the Three Laws successfully initiated by someone other than the CEO or leadership team?

Zaffron and Logan: Yes, leadership doesn’t require formal authority, and so anyone can step up as a leader. Some of the most powerful engagements we studied started with middle level managers bringing possible new futures to the top levels of an organization and enrolling them in trying it out.

Authors Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan would argue that The Three Laws is not a book about change; rather, it’s a book about rewriting the future. The power of rewriting the future is that it rewires how your team will, at its very core, feel about the potential of realizing a particular existence or destination. The authors point out that fixing problems often do not deliver expected results because the underlying dynamics have not been addressed.

First, everyone has what the authors refer to as a “default future.” This is a future that lives at the gut level and we know it’s what will happen whether we give words to it or not. Every person and organization has one.

Second, people’s relationship with a default future is complex, say the authors. Your default future lives at the experiential level underneath what you think and hope will happen. Yet, you live as if the future is preordained, unaware that by doing so you are making it come about. The same holds true at the organizational level—that’s why change is so hard when we put a new system in place, hoping that the process will override human nature.

Zaffron and Logan claim that when the Three Laws in this book are applied, performance transforms to a level far beyond what most people think is possible. It doesn’t happen bit by bit, but all at once, as individuals and organizations rewrite their future.

Statistical evidence shows that most change efforts fail. The reason for this is that regardless of the management interventions attempted, the default futures of employees and leaders are still in place. The more things change, the more they stay the same. “Whatever you resist, persists,” say the authors.

However, when everyone in your organization gets involved in rewriting the future, you rewire everyone’s perceptions of how their performance rolls into the overall fulfillment of that new future. Once you realize how the Laws are changing people’s ingrained views about their roles in the organization, you begin to embrace the potential of how much you can change or improve your future.

Readers can download a free guide to elevating performance from the authors’ website, www.threelaws.com. There are also discussion groups that have emerged on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Find out if The Three Laws of Performance is a fit for your organization by subscribing to Page to Practice book summary library at CausePlanet or visiting the CausePlanet summary store for single summary titles.

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Big changes start with small steps

It has been almost two years since the release of “Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector.”In that piece, my colleagues and I looked at how the combined effect of demographic shifts, technological advances, increasing emphasis on working via networks, evolving norms around civic engagement and volunteerism, and the blurring of boundaries between sectors was putting enormous pressure on nonprofits to think differently and work differently–to become true “futurists” in pursuit of mission advancement. Much has changed in two years (put down that iPad–you can check responses to your organization’s Twitter feed in just a few minutes), but one thing has stayed the same: the “future” is a moving target. Keeping current can feel like drinking from a fire hose, and adapting is hard.

The response to “Convergence” was fascinating from the start. Even in 2009 there were organizations saying, “Of course! We’ve known this for ages and we’re on top of it.” Much more commonly, however, the following reaction has occurred: “Where do we start?” Or, “We’ve started, but just barely.” And, “We’re strapped. What can we realistically do now? How do we move forward, even in just one or two areas?” Prolonged economic battering has made a difficult task next to impossible for many organizations, especially those that were under-resourced to begin with.

So where can you start, if you’re not one of the fortunate few setting the pace for the rest of the sector? The following questions can help focus your efforts:

1.    What do you want to do differently? Reach out to a broader audience via as-yet-untried social media tools? Engage more supporters in ongoing strategic planning? Shift from a traditional membership model to one that encourages broader participation from a wider network? Build (and truly leverage) a more diverse board or staff team? Consider a multi-sector partnership? Engage in some spirited discussion about where the need for change is most pressing?

2.    Why? How will making that shift help your organization to better advance its mission? What is the change imperative that will drive your organization and its staff, board members, and volunteers to truly do things differently?

3.    How can you take the first steps forward in each area? What information do you need and how will you get it? What “baby steps” can you take to start down the path (or paths) you’ve identified?

4.    Who can take the lead? Is there a champion for this change? Who will do the actual roll-up-your-sleeves work of making things happen? Is this something a volunteer or one staff person can handle? Perhaps a team? Or are you looking at the need for a culture change throughout the organization?

5.    When and how will you evaluate your progress and its effect on your organization’s ability to advance its mission? There are a thousand, even a hundred thousand, things you can do to step further into the future–you must choose carefully and learn from each success and failure.

Of course, taking time for this type of conversation isn’t always easy, nor is sustaining the momentum generated when you do. Ideally, questions like this are a regular feature of your board meetings, staff retreats and planning sessions. If they are not, think about where you might be able to introduce them. We encourage our clients to commit to a protected piece of time on both board and staff agendas at least once a month for truly strategic discussions. Wrestling with how to respond and adapt to the rapid changes facing everyone in the sector certainly warrants the time and attention.

Don’t let the enormity of the topic intimidate you. It’s easy to dive into “what” and “why” and find yourself back to the question that brought you to the discussion in the first place: Where do we start? Start small. Identify your top three questions and go find answers. Test your idea. You may fail, but you’ll learn from it. Be specific, and be willing to check in and articulate the next three steps when you reconvene.

Change is never simple. External change can be overwhelming, and internal change rocky. Starting with the basics–what, why, how, who and when–can help make it more manageable.

See also:

The Nonprofit Business Plan

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

Image credit: adds.com

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