HOS Evaluation Through the Lens of Strategic Plan...and More

HOS Evaluation Through the Lens of the Strategic Plan … and More

I still chuckle. Like most humor, the punch line is unexpected –and true. The cartoon, tucked in the inner pages of a national periodical, is a drawing of a Roman centurion in his chariot, robe unfurled behind him. The bumper sticker on the chariot reads, “Effluvia happens.”

As heads of school, we can relate to the centurion. Hands on the reins, cape flying in the open air, on a mission, with a bumper sticker on the back that reminds us that schools aren’t perfect. Neither are executive performance reviews.

From the field, as one active on CESA institutional review teams, we are observing two primary faults in our use of executive performance reviews. Either they are benignly neglected or rashly deployed. Either there is an evaluation vacuum between boards and school heads or, perhaps worse, the board decides to arbitrarily evaluate the head. In either case, a vision for leadership is skewed and unwelcome things are prone to happen.

Lori Mackenzie et al (2019) identify a third soft spot in our evaluation patterns. Eliminate benign neglect or the faint sound of a board’s bugle already playing “Taps,” there still remains a high risk of a flawed process salted with bias and ambiguity. Mackenzie writes,

For many companies, performance review season is kicking off with the new year. Although every organization relies on a different evaluation process, most follow a predictable pattern: First, they invite employees to write about their accomplishments and what they need to improve. Then managers write assessments of their work, offer feedback, and rate their performance on a scale of how well they met expectations.

Underlying this process is the belief that by reflecting on people’s performance and codifying it in an evaluation form, we will be able to assess their merits objectively, give out rewards fairly, and offer useful feedback to help them develop in the next year.  But while we may strive to be as meritocratic as possible, our assessments are imperfect and all too often biased.

The trouble is, when the context and criteria for making evaluations are ambiguous, bias is more prevalent… And while ambiguity opens the door to bias, our research shows that individuals can take actions to reduce that ambiguity and be more objective when filling in the open box.

To strengthen the efficacy of executive performance reviews, Mackenzie et al proceed to counsel us to create stronger rubrics. Here is where our CESA standards help. Take CESA standard 2.6, for example:

“We have incorporated objectives from our strategic plan into the annual evaluation of the head of school and the head of school has done the same with the leadership team.”

CESA Institutional Review teams are surprised that this particular standard is a predictable soft spot for school reviews. Why is this? Strategic plans are not the problem. The habit and discipline driving fruitful professional evaluations are the problem. For many boards, resistance to a good evaluative process for the head of school is often uncertainty about the best approach. The beauty of the CESA standard 2.6 is that it provides the board with exactly the right vector for a fair, objective and generative evaluative tool. Take the school’s strategic plan and measure executive performance by the head’s annual progress toward each strategic goal. Boom!

This month, our school board’s Committee on Trust will conduct my annual performance review. We do this each February for two reasons:

  • Leadership has had 100 days to get traction and make progress. Another 100 days remain to re-calibrate, if necessary.
  • Waiting until April, May or June unfairly intensifies the critical nature of a review. Assessing one’s standing in the fourth quarter of the school year creates a dangerous condition for both the school executive and the school. Late changes to leadership positions offer poor odds for a healthy landing for the leader or the school.

The most rewarding performance reviews by my Committee on Trust have incorporated three dimensions:

  • Board/HOS policy delimiters (what I cannot do): for example, I cannot approve purchase orders above $5,000 without competitive bids.
  • Strategic plan progress: for example, birth a pre-engineering program, grades 9-12
  • Annual HOS goals: for example, increase annual goal by 10% to $550,000.

Beyond that, we ask our board to assess the general state of the school. Is the school systemically healthy? Even if the school is facing a storm, are the school’s mission, operational structure, staff unity and community morale bearing witness to the grace and power of the Kingdom?

Having experienced two CESA institutional reviews and one head’s certification process, let me encourage you to focus on CESA Standard 2.6 in advance of your Institutional Review team visit. Make standard 2.6 the sole agenda item of an upcoming board meeting. Take your strategic plan and create a rubric for your leadership team and yourself. The transparency of this exercise will, at a minimum, create goodwill with your board. The exercise will also re-energize the momentum of the strategic plan because accountability increases.

Our school is on the cusp of completing five strategic plans within the past twelve years. One of the reasons we have been able to wrap up five plans in this amount of time is the pressure of the evaluation of plan progress through the evaluation of the senior executive and executive team. Inspect more, accomplish more.

One more thing: venture capitalist John Doerr (2018) coaches us in Measure What Matters that effective performance feedback is continuous. (179)  Even more, “In more mature organizations, feedback is ad hoc, real-time, and multidirectional, an open dialogue between people anywhere in the organization.” (185)

Finally, as you use strategic evaluative tools for your professional personal growth, keep in mind the value of the CESA Head’s Certification process. Personally, I have found it to be another rigorous rubric for measuring maturation and helping a board of trust better understand the scope of being a head of school.

Using the strategic plan as the backbone of professional evaluation and fleshing out Doerr’s continuous dialogue is a potent combination. This year is the year to assess your compliance with CESA standard 2.6 and to reshape how you will maximize this opportunity for professional growth and organizational maturity. When a board of trust holds us accountable to our strategic plan in real-time and understands the benchmarks of a successful school head, chances are high that less will effluvia happen.

Doerr, John. Measure what matters. Penguin, 2018. NY.

Mackenzie, Lori., Wehner, J., Cornell, S. J., “Why most performance reviews are biased and how to fix them.” Harvard Business Review, January 11, 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/01/why-most-performance-evaluations-are-biased-and-how-to-fix-them.

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