Thursday, April 18, 2013

Association executives: Would staff-led evaluations produce better results?

Goal setting and annual evaluations are standard fare for the human resource roles of association executives and senior managers.

As an association executive, I really disliked the annual staff evaluation sessions. I felt the “grading system” was artificial and failed to adequately provide feedback. This is partly because most executives fear giving staff the top or bottom “grades.”

As the owner of an association management company, I tried to modify the process and eliminate the “grading system” in favor of written comments and no grades. I still wasn’t satisfied that the process was effective.

Our daughter is an awesome first grade teacher in Colorado Springs. She recently came to St. Louis (to help in our office move) right after finishing “parent-teacher conferences.” You know, the part where the teacher gets to tell the parents about their children’s progress in school. And, first grade parents are always nervous because of the importance of that grade.

She (and other teachers) have instituted “student-led” conferences.

Working with the teacher, each child establishes goals at the beginning of the quarter. As the quarter closes, each child prepares a report (portfolio) on what she has achieved along with samples of her work. On conference night, the student (with some help if needed from the teacher) shares her goals and work with her parents. This might include sharing a graph the child made to illustrate progress in spelling, vocabulary, etc.; working a math game or reading part of a book. 

The process builds student confidence; gives them presentation skills; shows parents their progress; helps the teacher show progress and areas of concern.

One parent told my daughter “you’re doing this to get out of work, right? must be nice!” At the end of the evening that same parent came back and said “Wow. Now I really know what my child is learning. And, I see that you put a lot of work into helping him prepare for this conference. Thanks.”

My daughter also reminded me that if the child is having difficulty or doing something outstanding during the quarter, she notifies the parent immediately and offers re-mediation steps and/or lots of praise.

So, would a staff-led evaluation process work for associations?

Each quarter, you and your staff members could create written goals. Supervisors could “approve” them. And, at the end of the quarter, the staff member could lead the evaluation/review session ... showing progress toward the goals; sharing examples of the work; self-grading performance; outlining updated performance goals for the next quarter.

Here are five ways this process benefits you, your staffer and your association:

  1. Makes evaluation a goal-centered process
  2. Gives the staff member ownership in the process
  3. Eliminates the “gunny-sack” mentality of “keeping bad stuff” until the annual review
  4. Creates quarterly feedback sessions that helps keep the process focused
  5. Gets away from the “grading” mentality thus focuses on results/progress and not scores


  1. Perhaps this is management heresy, but does there always have to be a goal? I understand feedback, and letting people know if they are doing a good or a bad job. But every three months to find a specific goal to measure against seems to me to be like companies reporting quarterly profits - it focuses on short term busyness and eliminates the long term viewpoint. A first grader changes a lot in three months, that's their job. But do adults? Perhaps as humans we can just talk regularly about work and how we keep getting better, in the long term.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Moira.

    My concern has been about the "failure" of most "annual reviews."

    If you are responsible for your annual conference and it is held in January, does it make sense to hold the review until the regularly scheduled review in December?

    Most associations have annual work plans (to go with their annual budgets). Those could/should be organized in quarterly objectives which becomes a goal that can be reviewed. Taking the annual conference as an example, I'm assuming associations have goals for attendance, sponsorships, exhibit booths, etc., along with "year-to-date" benchmarks. This let's you know if you are "on track," ahead or behind. Hopefully, you "measure" these results?

    Seems to me that the main purpose of reviews is to have a regularly scheduled time to sit down and talk about the job and performance.