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CEO Evaluation: Conversations with Real Impact

October 10, 2019

Posted in: WATSON Views


It’s that time of year again – the annual CEO performance review – and the board is stepping up! They engineered a robust CEO evaluation tool with great metrics, KPIs, and consideration of the characteristics and attributes that drive effective CEO performance. They engaged in a thoughtful feedback gathering process and prepared a comprehensive report. They got it right up until the very last moment, when the 15-minute “debrief call” left the CEO wanting so much more…

One of the most critical parts of the CEO evaluation process is the conversation with the CEO. Done well, it helps the CEO focus on the most important feedback, clearly articulates the board’s key messages, and sets up a meaningful conversation between the board and CEO on priorities for the year ahead. Done poorly, it can leave a CEO confused, unsure, or demotivated, regardless of the feedback itself.

Many chairs find themselves leading this critical conversation with no experience or training in facilitating feedback conversations and unsure of where to start. We’re here to help. In WATSON’s three-part Demystifying Debriefs series we share tips and guidance to help set up a meaningful dialogue between the board and CEO and get the most from your CEO evaluation process.

First, the basics – who, what, where, when, why, how. We answer your burning questions on how to structure the conversation.

Common Questions and Answers

  • Who should be in the meeting? We find it is best to have two people who have been involved in the CEO evaluation process. One should ideally be the chair and the other should be someone with high emotional intelligence who has experience delivering feedback – it might be the vice chair, human resources committee chair, or another director who helped lead the CEO evaluation process.
  • When should we meet? The meeting should take place as soon as possible after the board meets to debrief the CEO evaluation report (with enough time to make any changes to the report). A week or so after is about right.
  • Where should the meeting take place? The meeting should be somewhere the CEO is comfortable and where you can have a private, confidential conversation. While some CEOs might like to meet at their office, others would prefer to be away from their team to have the conversation.
  • How long should the meeting be? A lot of time and thought has been put into the process leading up to this point – don’t rush the most critical conversation. Schedule 60 to 90 minutes depending on the nature of the feedback and the relationship and take the time to explore the feedback and the CEO’s reactions.
  • When should the CEO receive the CEO evaluation report? This will depend on the nature of the feedback. The CEO needs time to reflect on the feedback but not too much that they stew on the feedback without context or conversation. Always let the CEO know when to expect the report and send a day or so before if the feedback is positive, the night before or morning of the conversation if there is tricky feedback in the report.
  • How can I prepare for the conversation? Review the feedback and jot down your reactions. Craft an agenda with speaking notes to ensure you cover the board’s key messages. Anticipate the CEO’s reactions and think about how you will respond. Take the time to prepare with your counterpart to ensure you are both comfortable – if you aren’t comfortable, chances are the CEO won’t be either.
  • What can I do in the meeting to make it successful? Think about things like body language and tone – how will you project your overall message and tone (e.g., confidence, support, concern, etc.) with your words and actions. Listen actively to the CEO and consider their feedback. Put yourself in the CEO’s shoes and respond with empathy and care. Engage the CEO so that it is a shared conversation, not one-way.
  • What if it doesn’t go well? These conversations can be challenging and uncomfortable. They aren’t always going to go as well as you’d like. It if doesn’t go well, reflect on why it wasn’t successful and what you could have done differently. Reach out to the CEO if damage control is needed and regroup at a later date. Draw on your counterpart to debrief and strategize a go forward plan.

Build on the momentum of a well-designed CEO evaluation process with a powerful debrief conversation. Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Demystifying Debriefs series.