Over the years we have been involved in several instances where we have asked about the historical performance of a group or an individual associated with a municipality or other board-led organization.
As part of this, I’m sure you have often been told that the best predictor of future activity is past activity. If an organization has an internal expectation that it will be successful, and it has shown results over the years to prove that success, we can expect that the future will build off that past.
It’s similar with people, of course. Suppose a person has been a strong performer in the past. In that case, there is every indication that they will continue to be a strong performer in the future so long as the environment doesn’t shift extraordinarily or unpredictably.
A problem can occur when there is either no record of historical performance because no analysis was done, or maybe just a cursory analysis was done. Suppose this is the case, and performance is not satisfactory. In that case, the lack of a substantive record of non-performance can be cause management – a municipal council in this case – problems if they want to terminate a CAO contract with cause. If there is no written evidence of poor performance and a request for improvement over the past year or two, there becomes very flimsy ground for that ‘with cause’ termination. The other option, termination without cause, becomes the fallback. A council can choose to move on from its chief administrator at any time, of course, but there is a financial and reputational cost to doing so without cause.
Prudent councils will have a formal and consistent evaluation process in place whether it is required by statute or not. However, wise practice would suggest that having a thorough evaluation completed each year provides a benchmark in year one and a trend analysis – positive or negative – in subsequent years. This type of rigour assures both the Council and the CAO that both parties seriously take performance and professional development.
This type of consistent, detailed evaluation provides some comfort to Councils and CAOs alike. I assume that when a CAO first joins a municipality, Council wants that person to be successful, and likewise, the CAO wants Council to be successful. Identifying what ‘success’ looks like through the CAOs contract and through the municipal strategic plan is critical to that success being achievable. Conducting a very similar review year after year helps show how that success is occurring.
We are just beginning to offer a digital CAO evaluation process that provides rigour along with the independence we bring as an external organization. We deploy a diverse set of questions that George Cuff initially developed, and we have adapted them to an online format that can be administered annually and remotely. The results and a report are provided to Council to use as part of the CAO’s annual review. As I noted above, the first time this is done, it gives a baseline year, and in subsequent years, trends begin to emerge. Again, having some external assistance on this process helps council members – who are typically not human resource management experts – know that they are carrying out one of their key duties to the best of their ability.
As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about this topic. In some parts of Canada, the annual review is mandatory according to legislation. In others the review is not mandatory, but it is always a wise practice for Councils and managers alike. How does your Council or board evaluate your only employee currently? Are you able to review achievements from last year and set expectations for next year?
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