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Arty Trost

About Arty

"You tell her." "No, YOU tell her." "Not Me! No Way!"

None of us wants to be the one who says, “You’ve got a problem.” We’d much rather someone else did it. And so most managers pull back from giving performance feedback to their staff. This problem is accentuated when the person receiving the performance feedback is the executive director of a nonprofit organization. Let’s look at two key elements to managing performance, and apply these to the board and the executive director: setting expectations, and providing performance feedback.

1. Setting Expectations

Performance management is communication: The board chair and the executive director arrive together at an understanding of what work is to be accomplished, how it will be accomplished, how work is progressing toward desired results, and finally, whether the performance has achieved the agreed-upon plan. In many nonprofit organizations the executive committee or perhaps the entire board is involved in the discussion about expectations. Although most board members assume that the executive director’s job description is sufficient to set expectations, this is a fallacy. The board chair should discuss not only the responsibilities of the job, but also set expectations in the areas of quality of work, style of leadership, communication (with board, staff, community and donors) specific project outcomes, decision making, the relative priorities of performance objectives and expectations, etc. Boards vary significantly in their expectations of their executive director – it’s often the unstated expectations that become major sources of problems.

2. Providing Performance Feedback

Even when the board has done a good job of defining its expectations, it’s unlikely that everything the executive director does will always be on target. The board has the responsibility of oversight – and that means helping the executive director stay on course, making corrections as needed. This is usually when the board is glad to delegate to the chair! Especially when you have a competent, respected executive director, there is strong reluctance to give feedback of a corrective nature. This is when the “You tell her...” syndrome really comes into play.

It's critical that performance progress and problems are discussed on an ongoing basis. This means you should:

  • Positively reinforce successful performance as it occurs; and
  • Address performance issues as they occur.

One major mistake that the board often makes is not addressing an issue quickly enough.

“Oh, let’s not mention that. I’m sure she didn’t mean to do it – it will probably never happen again.”

“Now doesn’t seem to be the right time to bring that up. He’s working so hard and it’s such a minor matter – it will only discourage him and cause him to feel we’ve lost faith in him.”

There are endless reasons NOT to discuss performance. However, if the executive director doesn’t know of the board’s concerns, s/he has no way of correcting the problem. executive director’s are NOT mind-readers, and they are almost always doing the very best they can, in a way that makes sense to them. Denying them the benefit of performance feedback means that what starts out as a minor irritant can bloom into a serious breakdown between executive director and board...because the executive director simply doesn’t know that what s/he is doing (or not doing) is a problem.

The board needs to decide WHO will mention performance discrepancies with the executive director. (Please note that we are NOT talking about the annual performance review; we are talking about the on-going process of giving feedback throughout the year.) Generally, it will be the board chair, usually accompanied by the vice-chair, to ensure that the message is given carefully and impartially. Here are a few pointers for giving feedback.

Know when to give feedback. Before giving feedback, determine whether the moment is right. You must consider this more than your own need to give feedback. Constructive feedback can happen only within a context of listening to and caring about the executive director as a person.
Make sure your feedback is:
  • Usable in that it is directed toward behavior that the executive director can do something about. Frustration is only increased when a person is told of some shortcoming over which they have no control.
  • Requested rather than imposed. Feedback is most useful when the executive director has asked for it, or at least has indicated willingness to receive it.
  • Timely when it follows at the earliest opportunity after the behavior. This means bringing something up when it is a minor nuisance, rather than waiting for the concern to grow into a major problem.
Don’t give feedback when:
  • You don’t know much about the circumstances of the problem. Instead, get more specific information.
  • The feedback is about something the executive director has no power to change.
  • The time, place, or circumstances are inappropriate (for example, in the presence of others).
Give both positive and negative feedback. Many boards take good work for granted and give feedback only when there are problems. This is a bad policy: People will more likely pay attention to your concerns if they have also received your compliments. It is important to remember to tell the executive director when s/he has done something well.
Be descriptive rather than evaluative,specific rather thangeneral. Avoid “fuzzy” words that are catch-phrases for various behaviors. Terms such as unprofessional, unfriendly, micro-manager,” etc. are vague and can be interpreted in many different ways. Instead, describe what the executive director did or said. Give specific examples, the more recent, the better. Examples from the distant past are more likely to lead to disagreement over “facts.” Be as clear, specific and unambiguous as possible. Words like “immature,” “unprofessional,” “irresponsible,” and “prejudiced” are labels we attach to sets of behaviors. Describe the behavior and drop the labels. For example, say, “You missed the deadline we had all agreed to meet” rather than “You’ve been irresponsible in meeting agreed-upon deadlines.”
Don’t exaggerate. Be exact: To say “You’re always late for deadlines” is probably untrue and, therefore, unfair. It invites the executive director to argue with the exaggeration rather than respond to the real issue.
Speak for yourself. Don’t refer to absent, anonymous people. Avoid such references as “A lot of people here don’t like it when you....”
Talk first about yourself; not about the other person. Begin with the word “I,” not the word “you.” This guideline is one of the most important and one of the most abused. Consider the following examples regarding lateness:

1. “You're frequently late for meetings.”

2. “You turned the report in a week past the deadline.”

3. “I get concerned when you're late for meetings.”

4. “I couldn't finish my report because you turned in your report a week past the deadline.”

People feel blamed and are less likely to hear what you say when you begin with "You...." They're more likely to listen to your message when you begin with “I” — even though you're still referring to their behavior

Giving feedback is difficult and most of us aren’t comfortable with it. An open discussion between the board and the executive director about how and when the executive director will receive performance feedback is most useful when done before there are any discrepancies, rather than when issues have built up and emotions are high. This helps reduce the “You tell her,” “No, you tell her” tendency that leaps up in almost all of us even though we know the importance of surfacing an area of concern.




Copyright © 1992-2021 Author Brick Road, a Project of CharityChannel LLC.


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