The previous posts in this series outlined some of the challenges that make traditional performance reviews ineffective. One of the most significant problems is that they usually take place just once a year resulting in a report card-like review of the superintendent’s past performance. These retrospective snapshots do little to actually build performance and can actually do more harm than good. Research tells us that to improve performance feedback needs to be timely and specific. On the surface, that may seem onerous but in reality, an ongoing cycle of performance review takes no more time than the traditional once-a-year concentrated event.
Step One: Performance Planning
The first step in the cycle begins with the board and the superintendent identifying a small number of outcomes and competencies that will be particularly important over the coming year. These should be aligned with the board’s most recent strategic plan, but might also arise from existing district challenges or previously identified performance growth needs. The superintendent plays a major role in preparing the draft list, which should be short, specific and written as observable/measurable outcomes. This is also the time when a set of two or three formative check-in dates are scheduled as well as the end-of-cycle summative review approximately a year away.
Step Two: Check-Ins
Because this process takes place over a full year or more it is important to have at least two informal and relatively brief check-in meetings with the superintendent spread out over the year. These sessions are an opportunity for the superintendent to provide the board with an update on her/his progress on the identified outcomes and competencies. It is also a time for the board to provide informal formative feedback to reinforce positive performance or to identify any areas of concern that have arisen. These check-ins are also an opportunity to make revisions to the original outcomes if circumstances warrant. For example, unforeseen events outside the superintendent’s control may have negatively impacted progress, requiring changing the timelines or outcomes. This keeps the performance plan realistic and fair.
Step Three: Summative Review and Start of Next Cycle
This step takes place approximately a year after the initiation of the process. It is a formal summary of the status of the tasks and competencies that were identified in step one. Once again, the superintendent takes the lead on preparing a report for the board on her/his progress. Depending on the items being reviewed the board may also want to gather input from other senior staff, external stakeholders as well as itself. A draft report from the board summarising the results is then discussed with the superintendent providing an opportunity for revision and final sign-off. Although this is a more formal and summative review it is unlikely there will be any surprises or significant anxiety for the superintendent because of the step two check-ins.
One of the significant benefits of this process is that unlike traditional performance reviews that are done and filed away until next time, step three flows directly into the next year’s cycle. With the outcomes of the current review fresh in mind, this is the perfect time to discuss the key tasks and competencies for next year’s review.
This series has reviewed the challenges of traditional performance reviews and offered a more effective process that can develop senior leadership performance. To realise these benefits boards must adopt a broader perspective on the purpose of performance review and an increased commitment to doing it well. As noted earlier, this does not necessarily take more time. It does, however, require viewing the process as a shared endeavour that is focused on building performance and trust rather than examining and judging. It also requires the board to adopt an attitude of continuous quality improvement that strives for ongoing performance development for itself as well as the superintendent. My challenge to boards is to not view your superintendent’s performance review as a yearly obligation but to embed it into a continuous practice that supports growth and fulfils your governance role.