Crush Your Annual Review: 10 Steps For Executive Directors

by Joan Garry

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Executive Directors often complain that they do not receive a formal annual performance review. Sadly, they are right more often than not.

A story I hear far too often – anniversary dates come and go, maybe the E.D. mentions something and a board chair promises to get on it and doesn’t. Time marches on and the E.D. gives up and with a healthy dose of resentment.

The stories get worse. A lot worse. Just off the top of my head, I can think of two different “processes” that were so demoralizing to the Executive Directors that in both cases, they began taking calls from search firms and both were gone within a year.

It is easy to blame the board for the needless turnover of good Executive Directors.

However, I ask those of you struggling with the relationship with your board to reflect on your role in this process.  Here’s hoping it can lead to a productive process for all – and maybe – just maybe an increase in your job satisfaction! 

As a nonprofit leader, this potential conflict could be a powerful call to action for you to own your approach to resolving the problem.

Opportunity #1:  

Don’t assume that the board will remember to provide a performance evaluation. 

Consider that the board is as busy as you are. Make it easy for them to take the performance evaluation seriously. Eight weeks before your anniversary date, make this an agenda item for a meeting between you, the executive director, and the board chair. Get the ball rolling.

Opportunity #2:  

Invite the board into the evaluation process and co-create the experience.

Client: “The board told me they are going to do an annual review.”

Joan: “What is the process going to look like?”

Client: “No idea – they are figuring it out.”

Well, the above is one way to handle it. In my experience, it’s not the best way.

I always advise clients to share advice on best practices for reviews. Remember, it’s not just the board chairs who can see themselves as the “boss.” Design a process together as best you can – one that gives voice to you (self-assessment), is driven by those who work most closely with you (your direct reports) and offers all board members a chance to weigh in. To that end, come prepared with a few examples of how the review could be done

Opportunity #3:  

Take the process seriously. It matters.

Maybe you are ‘waiting and fuming’ or the process the board lands on doesn’t sit well with you. You could develop a bad attitude about the whole thing. But, a bad attitude could create procrastination and you might be tempted to write your self-evaluation at the last minute. A document this important requires time and thought. It would be a disservice to you and the organization if you rush through the evaluation process. Remember, the goal is to improve the process and to look for opportunities to celebrate.

Opportunity #4:

Keep track of your accomplishments.

Board members don’t live and breathe your work; they are volunteers. They are not going to remember your heroics. And far too often, the things that stand out are the things that didn’t go that well – a bad hire, an event that didn’t hit its revenue target. So their evaluation will not be comprehensive so your self-evaluation has to be!

If you want the picture of your year to be clear in your annual review, you have to drive with some discipline. A Google doc that you update every month.  Look at your calendar, scan the work – and document your wins – big and small. Wins that accrue to your entire team (that you lead) or that are quite specifically about you. And if you get some glowing email from a client or a colleague, scan it and put it into the document.

You will find MANY uses for this document I promise you.

Opportunity #5:

Highlight the wins. 

I have coaching clients draft their self-evaluation and send it along to me for review. 

Here are a few things I see all the time:

  • “Last year was a whirlwind – everyone was so busy and working well beyond capacity.” 
  • “In spite of being so short-staffed, we did  X Y Z.”

Headline news: Your board already assumes that you are busy. They probably already know that you’re short-staffed. 

Take the opportunity to focus on: 

  • Bragging about the accomplishments you are proud of
  • Telling the story the board needs to hear
  • Helping the board create a process that will be fair and thoughtful
  • Diagnosing and accessing the feedback  
  • Getting out in front of areas of professional development

Opportunity #6:

Brag. Yes, brag.

Part of the executive director’s DNA is to think about the organization and not any singular individual, right? And you don’t want to appear arrogant. I get it. But, if you don’t sell your accomplishments during an annual review (which will often tie to a salary increase), who will?  Your self-eval should highlight your accomplishments so that your board can agree heartily. And then you can avoid an evaluation from the board that disappoints you because they have not done the kind of bragging about you that you believe you deserve.

You must advocate for your accomplishments or you set yourself up for disappointment.

Opportunity #7:

Tell a compelling narrative.

You might be tempted to go through the self-evaluation form, check the boxes, and add a sentence or two to make the case for your rating. This exercise chops your work into bite-sized pieces which is important but gives the board no overriding narrative.

I encourage every client to write a two-page narrative that tells the board about the previous year and the vital role you played as its leader. I’m not suggesting a ‘book report’ with a list of accomplishments but rather a higher level that speaks to the caliber of your leadership in a host of ways.

What do you want the board to know about the organization’s trajectory over the last year and how lucky they are to have you at the helm?  I also like to see some humility in this two-pager – lessons learned can be a great way to do that. The piece should end with appreciation for the board and a teaser of what you believe is possible in the coming year.

Opportunity #8:

Lead professional development.

There are always areas of improvement, ways in which you can be a better leader, manager, thought leader, or a better partner with the board. Wouldn’t you rather own some of this (“I’d really like to improve my public speaking skills”) than hear it as criticism from your board?

Opportunity #9:

Don’t attack the feedback.

This is the opportunity that makes me laugh. Executive directors are individuals who are considered leaders in a field or a movement, can go on national TV, advocate to a member of Congress, and people who are changing the world.  And then they get their review.  And their thin skin is revealed. The pleaser personality (who doesn’t do all that well with criticism) takes center stage and I hear things like this.

“So the aggregate score on this item is 4.67 – I think that has to be wrong – That’s my strongest thing – why not a 5?”

Heads up: the annual review ratings really don’t matter.

“Oh, I know who said that. I bet that was Keenan and they were annoyed about their seating at the gala and have not been able to let it go.”

Heads up: boards should aggregate the open-ended comments to obscure the source from the executive director. But even if they don’t, why does it matter?

When I hear these things, I suggest we pause. We talk about the review at a higher level. What are they really saying? I often tell my clients what I take away from the document. It can really help to have a second set of eyes on the review. Someone you trust to be a truth-teller.

There are times when these conversations remind me of Catholic grammar school and how I dismissed anything that wasn’t an A. “Sister Killian can’t stand that I crack jokes and know the answer when she calls on me.”

Opportunity #10:

Look for the lessons. And grant yourself grace.

This is the biggest opportunity of all. Don’t allow an imperfect process to distort what you know to be true – that you are a very capable person doing very hard work with limited resources. You are being reviewed by volunteers who have never done your job.

Don’t dismiss the feedback – just read it knowing that there are truths in there somewhere that need attention. 

Don’t fume because the board left out so many praiseworthy accomplishments or spend an entire paragraph talking about something you could have done better if you had help from them. 

Honestly, I have seen these imperfect processes demoralize rock stars, and I find it really upsetting. While it is true that boards don’t often get an A on their efforts to conduct a valuable, comprehensive, and thoughtful review, you can sabotage your own morale by missing the opportunities that I’ve shared in this article.

You are doing the best that you can. Always remember that. 


The annual performance review is one of the most valuable experiences during your year. The goal is for you to feel proud of the progress that you have driven and for you, together with the board, to find opportunities for improvement that can drive progress the next year. My aim in this post is to point out potential opportunities for you to continue to be the rockstar the board hired.