The Key to a Successful Performance Review Process

performance review

We all know this person. Let’s call him Jeff.

At a glance, Jeff appears to be a high performing staff member. Yes, his ego is out the wazoo (what exactly is a “wazoo?”). But he cares about his department and his own success. Jeff is super smart, maybe the smartest person in the room.

But also… Jeff is not a team player. He gets away with behavior that is intolerable by any standards because he delivers. And he does deliver. But Jeff also seems to enjoy crushing his co-workers like bugs.

So riddle me this…

Is Jeff a high performer? Without a formal and effective performance review process, how would he know? I bet he thinks he is a high performer. But truly, he is probably more trouble than he’s worth.

Maybe your nonprofit already does a performance review for each and every staff member. If so, great! But maybe you think they’re not super effective and could be handled better.

Or maybe you’re just not doing them at all for whatever reason.

Either way, I have some critical tips on how to give a performance review the right way.


One of the fourteen attributes of a thriving nonprofit is “regular performance reviews and assessments for both staff and board.”

So obviously I think formal performance reviews are pretty important. And yet, I know plenty of nonprofit organizations that don’t do them.

I hear plenty of excuses.

“We want to do them but can’t get everyone to agree on the mechanism, the tool.”

“We just don’t have the time.”

“She’s a good employee. We tell her all the time, so why do we need to go through all this?”

“I heard through the grapevine that he is looking for another job, so why bother?”

Enough already!

A performance review for staff at every single level is simply part of being a grownup and thriving organization. Period.

I know, I know. Performance reviews can seem like busy work. Your mission is to save the world, not to make the staff feel good.

But here’s the thing. You often waste way more time by not doing performance reviews.

Imagine you have to fire someone for poor performance and you haven’t done a formal review in years (or ever). Do you know how much time you waste building the case and/or hanging on to that employee well past her ‘expiration date’ because you have to build some kind of performance improvement plan that you know she can’t possibly meet?


How can you do an effective performance review if you haven’t set any goals? If you don’t even know what success looks like for a particular job?

Obviously, it’s an issue if you don’t have these. But don’t use this as an excuse to avoid performance reviews entirely.

You need to develop goals, job descriptions, and success metrics.

But here’s the thing. They don’t have to be so ridiculously detailed that it takes forever. And besides, you will wind up in the weeds when you really want to focus on the trees (consider the organization’s annual goals to be the forest.)


Remember Jeff? The employee who’s something of a jerk but always delivers?

I asked if he’s a high performer.

I say no. Not if his organization has put a stake in the ground about the attributes of success and what it values in its employees and the organizational culture.

But without a performance review – without setting clear goals and expectations – Jeff’s organization is being unfair to Jeff. After all, no one can ever assume the criteria on which they are being evaluated. It has to be spelled out.

And if you focus only on WHAT Jeff does and the evaluation does not include HOW Jeff does what he does, you will have no ability to hold Jeff accountable for all his bug crushing.


I’m going to assume that you are the Executive Director or the head of your school. If you are the Head of School, this is a process that should kick off at the start of a school year so adjust the timing accordingly.

I’m also going to assume that you are not a large enough organization to have a Director of HR, though perhaps you have a more junior level staffer who posts positions and screens.

Step 1: The New Year’s Eve Bucket List

Set aside 2-3 hours before Jan 15. No Internet, no meetings, no interruptions.

Draft a set of 7-10 organizational goals for the year, what I like to call “The New Year’s Eve Bucket List.” When the year ends, what do you want to say your organization accomplished?

The bucket list should be drafted in such a way that you can’t wiggle into “yes” even though the answer was “probably not.”

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I found a good primer on goals vs. strategies vs. objectives vs. tactics. If you need that, have a read here.

Then I want you to write down 5-10 attributes you value in the folks you work with. Could be attributes like “work ethic” or “accepts constructive feedback” or (to use a basketball metaphor) “understands the values of ‘assists’ and not just scoring.”

Step 2: The Staff Meeting

Set an extended staff meeting by mid January. Include either the full staff or (if large) just your direct reports. The meeting will need to be a good solid two hours. I’d prefer three. Feed people. That makes them happy.

There will be only two agenda items:

  1. Share the draft goals and ask for their observations, insights, and thoughts. Edit and finalize. As the E.D. the final call is yours – make that clear.
  2. Share your draft attributes. Again, ask for observations and insights. The call again is yours. And be sure that every staff member knows that these attributes will be part of an annual performance review.

Step 3: Staff Homework

Give each staff member homework. You will give them three tasks:

  1. Review your current job description or draft one if none exists.
  2. Develop a list of goals for yourself that tie into and drive the success of the organizational goals.
  3. Include some goals about HOW you will be working during the year in the spirit of the discussed attributes.

Step 4: Set Goals

Meet with each staffer before the end of January and reviews the drafts in Step 3. It’s a conversation that results in a list of goals both parties are comfortable with. They should be neither slam dunks nor totally out of reach. This conversation should be set for 90 minutes and it should include healthy back and forth.


I promise to get to that in a future post. This one is getting long.

But here’s what I am learning. Precious few organizations engage in any thoughtful discussion about what success looks like for staff members, both in terms of outcome and behavior. And if you don’t set those before or at the start of the year, then a performance review process is meaningless because you have no basis for evaluation.

So this is where you need to start. Set some basic organizational goals, share, discuss and finalize. Then define people’s roles and what success looks like for them this year. Only then can you create a performance review template and process. So stay tuned.

Think about all this kinda like New Year’s resolutions. Except these matter to every client, community member, stakeholder, colleague, and donor in the sector.

You might not lose those extra 10 pounds this year or read 10 good books. But these resolutions? So much is riding on them.


If I was a donor to your organization and was so generous that my gift equated to the salary of a your poor performing CEO or your poor performing development manager, could you look me in the eye and tell me that my money is being invested well in the pursuit of the mission I believe in with all my heart?

If you can’t, the answer to all of this is quite simple.

You owe it to each and every donor and each and every client or community member to make your very best effort to have the right folks, the best folks, the most diverse folks on your field – doing the very best work they can do.

And the only way to do that is to set goals and hold folks accountable to them.

It all seems so obvious to me. But so many organizations struggle with this from the CEO down.

Tell me what I am missing. Comment below and tell me what’s in your way. I will do my level best to try to offer my best thinking about how to remove the obstacles.