The town manager’s performance is critical to the success of any community. The selection, development and retention of the right manager—the individual who can lead the organization toward achieving its strategic goals, becomes the primary responsibility of the Town Council or Board of Selectmen. At the same time, the manager’s ability to work collaboratively with the Board is of paramount importance and will determine the success of the manager, the Board and the community. It is for these reasons that an open dialogue, honest feedback, clear expectations and defined accountability standards must be in place.
Most managers and Boards understand the value of performance management. Boards want to provide their managers candid feedback on their performance, allowing the opportunity to address problem areas. They understand that the review process provides an ideal time to clarify roles, expectations, set goals, open communication and enhance the relationship between the Board and manager. The evaluation process ensures that both Board and the manager are in sync on the direction and goals of their community.
While most agree to the benefits of the evaluation process, many communities differ in their approach, others question its effectiveness, and some opt to not do it at all.
When the evaluation process is formalized, it usually includes a manager self-evaluation, Board completion of an evaluation form, a review of goals, and an evaluation interview with the chair. Some communities include a 360-degree review with input from department heads and citizens. Citizen input can be received both informally and formally through citizen surveys. Compensation decisions are sometimes part of the process, but are frequently handled separately as part of the manager’s contract. On the other extreme, an informal approach to the entire process can be as simple as a discussion over coffee between the manager and the chair. Either approach can work.
Regardless of the approach, the review process works best when you have clear, agreed-upon purpose: Do you want to improve the overall performance of your municipal government or the individual performance of your manager or Board, or all of these? All reviews should include:
- More conversation with less emphasis on the form
- Clear understanding of the respective roles of the Board and manager
- Well defined expectations and goals
Getting a good performance from the manager takes more than the completion of an evaluation form. It requires clear job expectations and accountabilities and ongoing communication. While Boards (and frankly any manager of people) may find it uncomfortable to discuss performance issues, it is critical to the process. But as with all open dialogue, it can only work when mutual trust and respect exists. When the relationship is positive, one can more easily work through conflicts, disagreements and challenges. Success begins when the manager establishes positive rapport with the Board. Disagreements and healthy debate will happen and frankly should be encouraged and embraced. The genesis of most good ideas comes through these types of exchanges. However, it should never come at the expense of the relationship.
The evaluation form itself can often create stumbling blocks. As one town manager stated “Boards are not human resource professionals. Some have never managed staff, developed goals, or written an appraisal. It’s foreign to them; forms can be intimidating; and frankly most would prefer to not have to fill them out. What matters the most is the conversation.” Never make the form the focus of the appraisal. Asking Board members to complete a long form is a huge time zapper and many members may either not do it or will find it difficult to complete in the time frame required. A process I recommend is the use of an independent third party to interview each Board member and discuss the manager’s strengths and areas in need of development. Each of the comments then can be summarized in a report and presented to the Board which can then incorporate this into their evaluation, giving the manager candid, but anonymous feedback on performance.
Role clarity and governance can also be a thorn for many managers and Boards. While the job interview may be the best time to outline the respective roles, the evaluation interview should be a time to review this again. Boards want their managers to manage their “company;” carry out their mandates; manage and grow their staff; and prepare the organization for the future. Boards should be focused on their strategic role—directing their attention to the future of the organization, and leaving the tactical aspects of managing to the manager. Effective Boards should be focused on setting strategy and goals with the manager, providing ongoing developmental feedback, and serving as a conduit of information between the manager and the community.
Today, communities face tremendous challenges and Boards expect their managers to be adept and savvy enough to meet them. Beyond the expected municipal and business acumen, managers must have relational smarts. Town Managers have a lot of bosses. As one mayor told me of his manager, he is an exceptional politician who has survived due to his political instincts and vision. He can work with advisory Boards and the community; multiple unions; and an exacting state legislature. When working in government, being political is a good thing. Like a doctor, managers must be able to take the pulse of the Board and community and then prescribe the right course of action.
Good managers must be able to listen. Many make the mistake of talking too much and not listening enough. They must also stop dealing with things that happened in the past and focusing on issues generated by previous Boards. Their focus must now be on today and tomorrow. They must understand that when a new Board is elected, it is their priorities that must be front and center, and nothing else. Continuing to fight the last fight is counterproductive.
Successful managers forge strong relations with their Board members, citizen groups and staff. But most of all, they must be clear about the Board’s expectations and mandates, carry them out, and ensure their success. Everyone must be on the same page with regard to the community’s mission, vision, values, direction and strategy.
The direction of the community is often set through the comprehensive plan or a strategic plan. It provides focus to both the Board and the manager. While not all communities incorporate such goals in their manager’s evaluation, most do. The biggest frustration of many managers is not knowing their Board’s priorities. When managers operate without clear direction or understanding, problems occur. The manager and the Board must be clear on the goals and priorities, and these goals should be consistent with the communities’ comprehensive or strategic plan. “Multiple conflicting priorities” is a recipe for disaster.
Evaluating the town manager is integral to the success of the community. It will provide the manager the essential knowledge they will need to drive the success of the business. To best help the manager, I recommend the Board do the following:
- Develop a professional job description for the manager. Though job descriptions do not cover everything, they do provide a framework of what the Board expects of their manager.
- Develop a robust performance appraisal process and, if they have never conducted one, get assistance in writing and delivering the appraisal to the manager. This is key in ensuring accountability; setting direction; maintaining open communications; and growing the manager.
- Develop annual goals and objectives for the manager and tie them to your comprehensive or strategic plan. Keep your manager and municipality on track and focused.
- Conduct a quarterly review with the manager on his/her progress toward achieving these goals and objectives. Quarterly reviews ensures that you are not moving off course, while at the same time, also provide an opportunity to make critical “mid-course” directions. Managers want and need regular feedback.
- Support professional development. A well-educated manager is needed to lead your organization. The upfront costs of education will yield a ten-fold return on your investment through increased productivity, new ideas and an energized and engaged manager.
- Conduct a Board self-evaluation. This involves an annual review to assess whether the Board is operating effectively and whether each of the members is focused on the big picture.
- Work on the relationship. Everything you do or want to do is dependent on a positive relationship between the Board and manager. Rapport is everything.
The best communities have highly productive, focused managers who maintain positive working relationships with the Board. Doing so ensures organizational success and effectiveness. Add in timely, frequent and consistent feedback and your strategic goals will be achieved. This can only occurs when the Boards and managers are in sync with the direction of their communities and share a positive rapport with each other. Like a well-rehearsed orchestra, when each comes together working in harmony, beautiful music emerges. Evaluating your town manager is a key instrument in making this happen.
To develop this article, I interviewed a number of Town Managers and Board members and/or received information about their programs. Special thanks to: Jim Bennett, City Manager, Presque Isle; Richard Michaud, City Administrator, Saco; Michael McGovern, Town Manager, Cape Elizabeth; Stephen Eldridge, Town Manager, Lisbon; Steven Buck, City Manager, Sanford; Nathan Poore, Town Manager, Falmouth; Jessica Sullivan, Town Council, Cape Elizabeth; Teresa Pierce, Town Council Chair, Falmouth; Mark Johnston, Mayor, Saco; and Marston Lovell, City Council, Saco