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Evaluating the General Manager: Setting and Meeting Standards of Performance

More than two decades ago there was a push for private clubs to adopt the chief operating officer model of governance, whereby club boards were encouraged to clearly delineate their role of governing at a strategic level and the general manager’s role as managing club operations. The concept has slowly gained traction such that today, a high percentage of general managers have COO attached to their title. This is not simply a gratuitous change in title. General managers today are better prepared to assume the chief operating role than they were when the concept was introduced. While we can celebrate today’s higher credentialed general manager, there is still the responsibility to evaluate them on an annual basis. As professional and qualified as general managers might be, they can always improve, and they deserve a formal and consistent process for receiving both encouragement and constructive criticism. We explore below our recommended process for evaluating a club’s general manager.

Documenting the Process

We have long advocated the development of the board policies manual (BPM) to communicate how the board will carry out its role as club governors. Among the policies in the BPM are statements delegating authority to the GM, designation of the GM as COO or CEO, the contents and timeliness of reports the board needs to carry out its fiduciary responsibilities, and the process used for the formal evaluation of the GM. Of the BPM policies, none is more difficult to carry out or more frequently avoided than the process of evaluating the GM’s performance. Clubs often turn to the president or the executive committee to conduct an annual evaluation. This deferral to a person or subset of the board has two shortcomings: First, it can mean the non-involved board members do not have a say in the evaluation process, thereby inappropriately limiting the breadth of the evaluation process. It’s true that the president will have the most interaction with the GM during the year and their opinion is more heavily weighted, but because the full board hires the GM, gives the GM the authority to manage operations and monitors the performance of the GM through reports and interaction, the opinion of each board member deserves to be counted in the process of evaluating the GM.

The second reason to avoid deferring entirely to the president or the executive committee for the GM’s evaluation is the annual or biennial change in personnel that can lead to a discontinuity in the evaluation process. With each new president there may be a new style or way of thinking as to the priorities for the GM and how they should be evaluated. Without an established process documented in the BPM, the GM is often left to adjust to the new style of the incoming president.

Recommended Evaluation Process Features

Foremost among the ingredients of an effective process for evaluating the GM is a clear written policy stated in the BPM. Without it, the process will default to the president and risk a year-on-year discontinui- ty. The recommended steps in the process include2:

  • Establish an evaluation committee. Although the president is often a committee of one superintending the evaluation process, we recommend including two other members of the board to serve on an evaluation committee: one chosen by the president and the other chosen by the GM. The role of the committee is to provide both formal and informal feedback to the GM and participate in the semi-annual feedback discussion (see below) as well as the formal annual evaluation process.
  • Set annual goals. Make sure the goals for the year are documented in the BPM along with the expectations for the GM to meet those goals. They will undoubtedly include quantitative goals e.g., meeting the budget, rounds of golf, increasing membership, and qualitative goals, e.g., member survey results, number of member complaints, external recognition as a premier club. Agree on the goals with the GM at the beginning of the year and let them inform the content of the GM’s reports to the board to reinforce the role of the goals as metrics in the GM’s annual performance review.
  • Offer a mid-year summary of performance. Don’t wait until the end of the year to give feedback. Schedule a mid-year discussion between the evaluation committee and the GM highlighting both the positives and the areas that need improvement. Although this can be an informal meeting, don’t let it lack substance and specific points. Prior to conducting the discussion, require the evaluation committee to conduct either an executive session of the board or individual meetings with board members to solicit their opinions of what is included in the committee’s discussion with the GM.
  • Require a written GM self-evaluation. Most GMs will know where they have performed well and where they need improvement, and most will be candid in their assessment. Sharing the self-evaluation with board members will help remind them of the evaluation process, the goals set for the year, whether the goals were attained and other information the GM wants to include. Moreover, the quality of the self-evaluation is a good indicator of the GM’s self-awareness and his/ her openness to constructive criticism.
  • Hear from each board member. Ensure that the evaluation includes input from the entire board, collected by members of the evaluation committee. A board usually comprises members with different perspectives and possibly different expectations of the GM. Although some opinions may be more emphatic and may deserve more weight, no single view should be dispositive. Give the GM the benefit of the whole counsel of the board, not just the officers or the loudest voice in the room.
  • Deliver the evaluation. Once the evaluation committee has heard from their colleagues on the board, it consolidates the views and prepares a summary for delivery to the GM. The ensuing discussion with the GM may raise additional points that deserve inclusion in the evaluation. With any refinements resulting from the discussion, the evaluation is shared with the entire board and filed in the GM’s personnel file.

Arguably the most important job of the board is to develop a strong working relationship with the GM. A relationship built on trust and a commitment to helping the GM succeed requires two key objectives facilitated by a well-documented evaluation process, one that provides earned praise and constructive criticism.