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CAO evaluation criteria (Part 2)

by George B. Cuff
in Governance, Magazine

In the May issue, we explored the question “Can a council evaluate a chief administrative officer?” In the June issue, the focus was on “What should a council evaluate?” This article continues that discussion on evaluation.

Last month, I identified the following performance indicators:

  • council’s expectations;
  • corporate performance; and
  • relationship to the mayor and council.

While I would argue that a decent performance review could be focused solely on the foregoing, there are obviously others. If I am to press on to other chapters in this series on CAO performance evaluations, I will need to focus somewhat generally on the additional indicators discussed below.

Relationship to management and the organization

Recently, I have been asked both verbally and by email what role a council should have in being a party to a CAO’s evaluation of the other senior staff, and whether or not a council should be involved in face-to-face exit interviews with managers who have departed (for whatever reasons). Generally speaking, the answer is “no,” council should not be involved. These are management processes that ought to be undertaken by your CAO. He or she is council’s employee. Nothing should be done that undermines that relationship or that calls into question council’s trust in their CAO.

A council needs to rely upon some degree of intuitive powers to assess: Are other senior managers respecting their boss? Does there seem to be a reasonable degree of mutual support and respect? Do the managers bypass the CAO on their way to council? Do their facial expressions indicate their disapproval of the CAO’s statements to council? Or, do department heads seem to appreciate the CAO’s defense of their areas of responsibility? Does the employee morale seem to be positive or abysmal? Are quite a number of employees leaving the organization for positions elsewhere (and where a vastly improved salary does not seem to be the motivating factor)? What is the “emotional quotient” when senior management gathers?

An astute council sees these things and can quite accurately describe the state of employee well-being and rapport. I have seldom had the experience wherein I have asked councillors for their candid assessment of this relationship and had them “get it wrong.” Is that a precise indicator? No. Is there one? No.

Degree of Alignment with Council’s Goals

Last month, I spoke to a CAO needing to be in sync with the expectations of the council. These expectations I suggested, should be made clear when a new CAO is being retained. “This is what we as the council expect of our CAO.” Saying that at the outset is generally less stressful than having to explain what was upsetting the council just before it pulled the plug!

Part of this speaks to council’s goals. These goals should be articulated at the outset of any term of office (within 60 to 90 days) and generally discussed again every year prior to budget preparation. It seems logical to think that the council and CAO will be on the same page in terms of goals; but, that is not always evident. In order that “buy in” occur, the CAO must be a part of the council goal-setting session(s) and needs to understand the thinking of the council. The reporting on progress (which ought to start immediately thereafter) should illustrate to council that yes, their goals are important and are driving the corporate agenda.

Profile in the Community

I recall with less than fondness the CAO who sent me his speech to the local chamber of commerce. If it had been delivered by the mayor, I would have applauded. Unfortunately, it was delivered by a CAO whose ego had run amuck and whose pride was leading him to the inevitable fall. While a CAO needs to have some degree of local profile, a wise CAO will ensure that the mayor and council have a much higher profile and, where any credit is being handed out, to recall the “Cuffism” that states, “When you take delight in seeing your name in headlines, ask what position you are running for; if unelected, be sure to get in front of the crowd on your way out of town and make it look like a parade.”

CAO Goals

Regardless of a council’s goals, each CAO also needs to have his or her own goals and these should be articulated to the council. The goals of a CAO will naturally pertain to what he or she is hoping to accomplish administratively over the ensuing year: improvements to the budget process; a new performance management system; a better internal communication system; etc.

Without such goals, a sense of organizational drift ensues. Every issue looks the same; every staff member’s hopes are treated cavalierly; it is “same old, same old”; and the morale begins to head south. Goals that are carefully considered and that are developed through discussion with the other members of the administrative team provide focus and inject energy into the organization.

John Maxwell, one of my favourite authors on leadership, in his book Ultimate Leadership, writes, “Members of a team must have mutually beneficial shared goals. They must be motivated to work together, not manipulated by someone for individual glory.”


A thorough performance evaluation provides a degree of focus on the intangibles in the council-CAO relationship (e.g., trust, respect, openness, transparency, etc.) and on the tangibles (i.e., what you and your administrative team accomplished). While it is essential to have a good relationship, being friendly is not all there is to a healthy ongoing partnership. Every performance period should be highlighted by a thoughtful and fulsome response to the question: “How did you move the yardsticks down the field?” Such a question keeps the heat under the CAO: it is this constructive tension that brings the organization into clear focus. Are we marking time; dancing; or moving ahead?  MW

Next Article: Who evaluates the CAO?

GEORGE B. CUFF, FCMC, our governance zone expert, has been involved in local government in one way or another since 1970. He has been a recreation and youth specialist, a department head, a mayor for 12 years, and a consultant/advisor to municipalities since 1976. He is the author of Off the Cuff: A Collection of Writings by George B. Cuff – Volumes 1, 2, and 3 and Making a Difference: Cuff’s Guide for Municipal Leaders, Volumes 1 and 2, published by Municipal World, as well as dozens of magazine articles and columns in Municipal World since 1984.

as published in Municipal World, July 2013

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Who evaluates the CAO? (Part 1)