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How the Manager’s Performance Evaluation Can Improve the Entire District

By Kristin Withrow posted 04-17-2023 12:16 PM


This article was first published in California Special Districts magazine, January/February 2022
By Martin Rauch, Senior Consultant, Rauch Communication Consultants, Inc.

All too often, the general manager (GM) performance evaluation is little more than an annual report card that doesn’t really help with performance. At its best, it should be one element in an overall performance management plan that helps the board and manager be a better team to better serve the district.

1. Key Elements of the Broader Performance Management Process

  • Good communication and relationship building. 
    It is critical for both the Board and manager to work year-round to maintain clear and open communication. The Board should also clarify what reporting it needs for effective deliberation and its oversight responsibilities. Board workshops provide opportunities for more in-depth learning and discussion for the Board and manager. Time attending conferences together can enhance relationships and depth of interpersonal understanding. Of course, there are near-infinite other ways to maintain clear, open communication.
  • Board self-discipline in governance.
    Boards that fail to follow through on decisions, change direction unexpectedly, or allow minority voices to pressure or direct staff make it difficult or impossible for the GM to perform well.

2. Tips for an Effective and Useful Performance Evaluation Process

The evaluation should be held at least annually, at a certain time with an agreed upon format and evaluation standards. While there are nearly infinite ways to evaluate a manager, here are a few key elements: 

  • Identify who will lead the process. 
    Usually, the evaluation is led by the Board President or a committee. It may be helpful to utilize a facilitator — such as a consultant or legal counsel — especially if there are challenges, lack of Board unity, strong differences, dissatisfaction with the GM, or animosity 
  • The entire board should participate.
    The manager has one collective boss — the Board. As such, the GM deserves to hear from all its members.
  • The process should have both nuance and completeness due to the complexity of the GM position.
    Simple rankings and numerical scores without meaningful or useful feedback are inadequate.
  • Include legal oversight.
    Don’t guess what’s right; this is an activity that has legal and contractual elements and requires confidentiality.
  • There should be a basis for the evaluation. The evaluation should be based on both subjective and objectives elements such as from a work plan, strategic plan, stated goals and objectives, personal goals for the year, etc.
  • Use a form but don’t rely solely on it.
    The form is best used to help participants think broadly about performance and to organize thinking. However, the heart of the review is NOT the form, rather the in- person discussion with the GM during the facilitated performance review session is the focus.

3. Hold an In-Person, Confidential Review with the Entire Board and Manager

The money step is the in-person review. It should include a brief report from the manager with highlights of the past year as a reminder of what happened. This report might include the manager’s work plan and goals for the coming year, how the GM met the goals from the past year, etc. There should be a review of the summarized results of the forms, and an opportunity for each director to provide candid input to the GM. The manager should respond, with opportunity for all to discuss as appropriate.

The actual, formal review involves the Board, after having excused the manager from the in-person review, developing consensus around a written summary. The written summary is presented to the manager and filed for use during the next year. The plan, time, and place for future annual reviews should also be confirmed.

Any compensation decisions must be held in open session, but a Board committee may explore compensation factors and policies in advance to assist with the Board discussion.