Lately, I’ve been involved in a series of executive reviews. Some of them were delayed from the March year end because of the lockdown, and we have just completed a couple of others based on the June year end.

The executives in question have included a couple of CEO’s and some members of senior management.

I always find the CEO review to be an interesting discussion. He or she is the person paid more than anyone else. They’re also the person with the toughest job in business and one of the loneliest.

In most cases, the people tasked with leading a review, such as board members or in some cases outside consultants, have never been a CEO or even a senior executive themselves. Based on my observations across a number of different business sectors, including the voluntary or charity sector, many have little appreciation of the personal toll a senior role can take.

I therefore often find myself reading the comments from Board members and other reviewers regarding executive performance with my tongue firmly planted between my teeth. I also frequently find myself defending the executive in question.

I have had a lot of experience in hiring, managing and mentoring executives over the years. These experiences include numerous CEO’s. I have also lived the life of a highly appreciated CEO, and have once had a group of bosses who seemed particularly under-appreciative of what I was doing.

Most of the people who comprise most boards, have little experience of the role of the CEO. They often underestimate the pressures that come from every direction and the expectations that those pressures stop at you. They certainly underestimate the loneliness of the role and, if the CEO is any good at what he or she does, the frequent temptations as the invitations come to look elsewhere.

In looking at your management team it’s important to keep a balanced outlook. Everyone has strengths and we all have weaknesses too. I find it frustrating when those weaknesses are trotted out by observers irrespective of the good things that are being achieved.

In the environment we are now in, many executives will have been heavily distracted from what their original goals for the year may have been. The virus and it’s impacts were totally unforeseen and have resulted in huge consequences for business. So now is not the time to knit-pick at executive performance.

Now is the time to support our under-pressure executives. We all have shortfalls and we have all had plans sidelined by the events of the last few months. These situations should be regarded as opportunities for support, coaching and improvement, rather than as opportunities to criticise. And keep in mind, in most cases, a person’s shortfalls will be well and truly outweighed by their strengths.

Right now, we all have good people who are finding the going tough. We shouldn’t see that as a reason to be critical of their performance. Rather we should be prompted to get alongside them and support what they are trying to do.

“I think that now is a good time to go out of our way to appreciate our good people.”

Despite the environment we might be in, critical management skills remain the same. Knowledge about the business, a passion for the goals of the enterprise, and communication skills that get the message out are always in demand and never go out of date. Someone who gets things done despite the distractions around them, is worth their weight in gold at the moment.

I think that now is a good time to go out of our way to appreciate our good people. Sometimes that means we should pay them a bit more, or be a bit more generous at bonus time. It might mean that we look beyond the unachieved KPI’s in favour of the skillful management of unforeseen distractions and their impacts. And while there might be the odd failure, chances are that there are successes that are more important.

Even CEO’s need someone who’s on their side. The role of Chairpersons and board members has seldom been as important as they are right now. There is always a risk that ‘fault finders’ and ‘penny pinchers’ will frustrate the CEO or members of the team, until he or she falls victim to ‘an exciting offer elsewhere’.

The best advice I can give to leaders and managers going forward is to be generous with your key people. Be as tough as hell on everything else. We need to keep a close eye on the financials, and costs in particular, and our expectations of performance should continue undiminished. Meeting deadlines and delivering to expected standards continues to be critical. So it’s fair to be really tough on those things.

But if you have people, whom you trust, who are doing a good job and holding things together, then that is the one area of the business that a smart leader can be a bit generous.

Good talent is hard to get and easy to lose. It always seems to make sense to hold on to what you have rather than to start again.

So before that next review, think about what you really want to achieve out of the process. And consider the positives as well as the negatives. It might just shine a different light on the outcome.

This article first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on 1 August 2020.