I got a phone call from an exasperated Chief Executive (CEO). His Board had called in an ‘expert’ and redone the KPIs to be a better match to their large and unwieldy Strategic Plan. “Help,” he said, “can you review this and let me know if you think I’m off in telling my Board that this is unreasonable?”
I reviewed his KPIs that, to put it lightly needed a PhD to interpret, and I reassured him that his concerns were valid. I then attempted to map the complicated KPIs back into a simple structure that focussed on key performance areas. The CEO found this approach much more manageable, but unfortunately, the Board remained steadfast in their stance, ultimately resulting in the departure of a highly capable CEO.
Drawing from my own experience as a former CEO, I recall a year when I was tasked with managing 18 KPIs. Although things were going smoothly with the Board at that time, it was challenging to allocate attention to all 18 KPIs effectively. However, during a less successful year, the Board suddenly became deeply interested in the peripheral KPIs that were falling short. These experiences motivated me to explore more effective methods.
Doing good sets of KPIs is actually really hard, and I have a lot of sympathy for Boards. It is also hard to know where to get some help. I get confidential calls from CEOs around this time of year asking me to work with their Boards who are struggling with the KPIs.
We know that retention of a good CEO is one of the major risks faced by organisations in a world where there is strong competition for talent. The development of KPIs is critical to retaining a CEO but also to the performance of the organisation to prevent unclear priorities and strategic drift. ‘What’ is being measured is critical because that which is measured is tracked more closely. The ‘how’ an appraisal is done is also critical to the motivation of the CEO. Conducting a performance appraisal should be consistent with the values of the organisation in the way people (including Board members) are expected to treat one another.
In the KPI work Tribe Leadership does across Boards and CEOs the key questions we ask are, “What are you telling the CEO that success looks like by the way you do their KPIs?” and, “By your KPIs for the CEO, are you really showing them the type of organisation you want the CEO to build?” We have developed two forms of CEO KPIs that often depend on the maturity of the CEO – one set we call ‘Functional KPIs’ and the is called, ‘Strategic KPIs.’
These KPIs are when the Board wants to focus on monitoring the management performance of the organisation more closely across a small set of functional areas critical to that organisation (finance, work programme, staff engagement etc). They are heavy on managerial KPIs and lighter on strategic KPIs. A Board may use this approach when they want more structure around the CEO. Maybe the Chief Executive is new to that level, or maybe the Board feel that the CEO is losing sight of the basics. However, often Boards take this approach because they believe that their governance role in ‘monitoring performance’ is best done this way. Whilst this may feel like governance doing its job better, it does not necessarily lead to better outcomes.
It teaches a CEO that ‘success’ means to focus on detail more than strategic outcomes. That is an error.
A second alternative developed by Tribe Leadership is more strategic outcomes-focussed KPIs, but with a small core of management-focussed KPIs (like the finances and staff engagement). This set of KPIs is for the CEO who is consistently delivering on the ‘hygiene’ of the organisation, and the Board wants them to now raises their eyes and focus strategically. A common mistake is for a Board to try to capture all of the Strategic Plan in the CEO KPIs. We help a Board to take a helicopter above the organisation’s plans to ask key questions like, “What do you really want to achieve from this organisation?” and, “How do you want it to be fit-for-future?”
Whilst you may want to match the KPIs to the Long-Term Plan, this approach is a straight-jacket and a road to over-complicating CEO KPIs where the CEO will need a PhD to interpret them.
A mistake that Boards can make is when they naturally choose a ‘Functional KPI’ approach when the CEO is new but fail to adapt that into a ‘Strategic KPI’ approach once the CEO has developed the core management (hygiene) skills. The approach to KPIs should shift from Functional to Strategic over time with the development of the CEO.
What I’m saying is – your People & Culture Committee on your Board that oversees the CEO KPIs may need some support with this. The approach to setting the KPIs should evolve and not stay static. I'm always ready to assist in discreetly rectifying KPI issues, but ideally, such interventions shouldn't be necessary.
David Hammond is Head of Tribe Leadership Executive Search and has recruited 12 Chief Executives and over 30 Board members including Iwi (such as Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Whai Māia), For-Purpose, commercial, & local government.