You can scroll down to the bottom of the article if you’d like to see my final answer, but you may find it interesting, even important, to consider all of the caveats and variables in considering this question.

In 2019 I assisted three CEO’s in doing the reviews of their direct reports.  Having been a Head of HR for several large companies, I am versed in what CEO’s face when it comes to Review time.  There are considerable challenges and even reasons to consider not doing it:

  • Is such a menial task below the prestige of their high position?
  • Shouldn’t Senior Staff, themselves COOs’s, CTO’s, CMO’s etc. be so driven, so self-directed and aligned with the organization’s mission that they don’t require Performance Reviews?
  • How can a CEO, with so many high level strategic concerns to attend to on a daily basis, even find the time to carefully consider and write (yes, write!) reviews for each of his/her 5-6 or more direct reports?

There may well be other reasons for the CEO to avoid this perennially unpleasant task.  But remember! The fact that it may or may not be unpleasant has nothing to do with whether or not the activity is valuable. Here it is important to note that there will always be a new vendor, technology or system that claims to make the process easier, more streamlined and effective. To some degree there may be a novel advantage in using a state of the art system that is well designed and implemented, but whether it is “Continuous Performance Review” or the traditional annual process, whether it Narrative or Point-based, 360 Degree or Single Reviewer, or any other variation on the multitude of very good available tools, is there really any substitute for the Reviewer (in this case the CEO) actually thinking about and writing down comments that will be given as feedback?  A system that merely auto-generates all of the “comments” for the Reviewer, while saving time for sure, can do a disservice to the person being reviewed. COOs’s, CTO’s, CMO’s etc., especially, will see right through bland and generic comments which are merely generated by software.

And what of the objection that these direct reports are at such a high level themselves that they should not need that kind of “hand-holding” and that a mere word from the CEO is sufficient to let them know that they are are on track or not? If a CEO truly has such an optimal level of communication with all of the C-Suite, with no exceptions, then I say, “yes”, he/she may be able to forego the Review Process, but there are multiple cautions there that may have Legal and Comp-based implications, and that would be the subject of another article. I have never seen such a situation where communication and feedback among the senior team is so perfect that there is no need to document anything, but if it genuinely exists it may be OK to dispense with the formalities.

Another scenario in which I would say that it may be better to forego the Review process entirely is if it is being done and is to continue to be done poorly, in a pro-forma, “check-the box” manner.  This pitfall is there for Reviewers at all levels, not just CEO’s. This may actually make the whole process more unpleasant for all involved – if they feel it is charade. A big reason some organizations may be ditching the annual Review cycle in favor of a continuous model is that it is seen as a miserable chore without a lot of payoff; any new approach that promises to dispense with the bureaucratic drudgery can seem appealing.  But then maybe it turns out that any “old way” or “new way” depends more on how well you execute it. If a “new way” devolves into superficially checking boxes in the new, cool software, quarterly or monthly even smaller doses, instead of annually, then how much has really changed? Of course feedback and direction should be continuous. By all means, do that continuously! But the more frequent it is, the less formal it can feel. Informal can be very good.  But there is also a power in the formal, if done well, that has no substitute, whatever the chosen intervals may be.

For CEO’s as for any Reviewer then, it is the “Quality” of Review that counts and I submit that there is no substitute for setting aside time to actually consider and do the Review.  How much time? If the Review is to be “evidence-based”, which it must be, and using as a benchmark that a CEO may have 5-6 direct reports, I suggest that for an Annual Review a good eight hours are needed at minimum, including time for gathering relevant data. I have been able to reduce the CEO’s time commitment to about three hours by taking all of his/her input verbally and then using the software and transcribing the real comments verbally given to me by the CEO with 5-6 hours of my own time.  Must there be comments in a Review – because this is surely the most time-consuming part of it? I will make a big generalization here to say that any Review in which the individual sees that the CEO actually stepped back, gave some thought and offered in writing specific, personalized feedback is a much higher quality of Review.  So can there be formats for reviews where quantifiable, evidence-based feedback is given without comments – and that feedback is valuable? Certainly, this approach can have value. But seeing the CEO’s genuine, written words has value and impact like nothing else.

Finally, isn’t it simply being realistic to say that some CEO’s are just plain too busy to be able to agree to the time commitment involved?  Too busy to focus on the people on whom he or she will be relying more than anything else to make things happen – to achieve the organization’s objectives?  Too busy for that – really? Come on! CEO’s aren’t that different from the rest of us, really. They need to prioritize on a daily basis as we all do. It’s just a question of whether doing Reviews is enough of a priority.  If so, they can make the time.

A further consideration is that the CEO knows that the C-Suite needs to lead by example in giving feedback and providing direction throughout the organization.  They’ll need to provide it to their VP’s, Directors or whatever titles there may be among their reports. If the CEO takes the process seriously, then the first example is given that this is a value and priority for all.

So here is where I come to my answer to the question posed at the top. It’s a qualified, but very strong “YES”.  The CEO must do Performance Reviews and must do it well, whatever the chosen format may be.

Happy to hear comments on these thoughts.