Lost Potential and Performance Evaluation

By Jonathan D. Schick

"You see, she was gonna be an actress,
And I was gonna learn to fly.
She took off to find the footlights,
And I took off to find the sky."

-Harry Chapin, from the song "Taxi"

The late songwriter Harry Chapin's 1972 anthem to loneliness and missed opportunity strikes a chord in all of us. The song's protagonist, Harry, aspires to be a pilot, while his sweetheart, Sue, longs for acting fame. Instead, both end up in dead end situations, wallowing in the misery of potential lost.

What does this song have to do with association and nonprofit leadership, you ask? Everything.

Think about how the average board evaluates their executive, or even how the ED evaluates her staff. At best, you will find obsolete forms or maddening checklists. At worst, you will find anecdotal evaluations that are ego-driven exercises in one-upmanship.

Recently, I reviewed a large association's evaluation instrument for their ED. An uber-corporate rating sheet with over 60 entries filled out by all board members, with the total score neatly tabulated. A perfect example of top-down evaluation: everyone's input is invited, except of course, the executive herself.

Additionally, in some situations, there is no evaluation at all. I know of many leaders who have been in their positons for years, not ever being formally evaluated. In these situations, the executives don't grow to their potential, and there is no objective evidence that the organization is fulfilling its mission.


As the Cheshire Cat once famously retorted when Alice asked: "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
The Cheshire Cat: "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to!"
Alice: "Well, I don't much care where."
The Cheshire Cat: "Then it doesn't much matter which way you go."
Alice: "...so long as I get somewhere…"
The Cheshire Cat: "Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough."

I'm sure we would all hope that the associations we support would have more defined goals for their leaders than "getting somewhere," but without a proactive evaluation system, that's essentially all there is!

Let's think about a different model. An appraisal system that not only exists, but where the executive is not relegated to a numerical score. Where one's performance is measured against specific written criteria established in advance. Most importantly, a system where the executive is an active participant in establishing his goals and outcomes.

Our leaders are fully capable of setting goals that are often far more ambitious than our own expectations. That is, if we allow them the chance to partner with us in the performance evaluation process.

A better performance evaluation system, one that fits the uniqueness of the association and nonprofit world, would be worthwhile for your bottom line alone. But it's worth a whole lot more: it truly values your executive and improves the most important relationship in your association: the one between ED/CEO and board.

We don't know why Harry and Sue failed in their quest to achieve their goals. It's possible there was a moment in time where they made a life-altering choice. Perhaps they never had a mentor that enabled them to see their inherent potential. Or, perhaps, they never experienced a truly proactive and ethical performance evaluation.

© 2019 Jonathan D. Schick, All Rights Reserved

Jonathan Schick is President of GOAL Consulting Group and author of "The Nonprofit Secret: The Six Principles of Successful Board/CEO Partnerships" which describes the "Executive Support and Appraisal Team" system.