Managing and Retaining Your Main Street Director

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What's the difference between a high-achieving Main Street program that is able to expand its support base and implement increasingly complex and visible revitalization activities, versus one that founders, moves in fits and starts, and never quite achieves its full potential? Among other factors, a key difference is staff.

Never underestimate the power of staff talent and continuity. A talented director who stays with a Main Street program for several years is able to expand the program over time, building positive partnerships, implementing the organization's vision, and providing continuity throughout board and organizational turnover. Each of these activities can lead to the kind of results that make one say "Wow! Look what Main Street did!"

Enter reality: the average tenure of most Main Street directors is between two-and-a- half and three years. Executive directors leave Main Street for a variety of reasons: better pay, the desire for a "normal" work schedule, burnout, personality conflicts, or relocation to another community. However, if the board of directors -- especially the board president -- makes a concerted effort to keep the director happy, challenged, and rewarded, the Main Street program will benefit from continuity as well as retention of talented staff.

Investing effort in staff management and reward is time well spent when a Main Street program has a talented and dedicated director. (Conversely, the board should move swiftly to discipline and/or dismiss duds within legally acceptable procedures -- but that's another subject for another time.) If your program isn't managing or rewarding staff, you're increasing the likelihood of staff turnover and disruption of the program's activities and projects. Here are some ways that the board can ensure effective staff management.

Management Systems

At a minimum, each Main Street program employ the following personnel management tools.

  • Job Description. Every Main Street staff person, from the director to the administrative assistant, should have an up-to-date, accurate job description. The board and the director can jointly review the director's job description and revise it accordingly. The director should do the same with other staff.
  • Performance Plan. Annually, the board president and Main Street director should discuss and agree on key performance benchmarks. The plan should include specific projects and objectives, as well as any areas of staff development or improvement the board believes are necessary.
  • Performance objectives. An essential element of the annual performance plan, objectives should be specific and measurable; they should focus on activities and results the board expects the director to achieve during the year. For example: coordinate four downtown marketing events; improve the working relationship with city council members; or set up new accounting procedures. The director's performance objectives should support and further Main Street's annual and long-term goals.
  • Development objectives. The performance plan should also contain, if necessary, a few skill-building objectives for staff -- essentially areas where the board would like staff to improve performance. For example, improve public speaking skills; attend leadership institute; or reduce time spent on personal calls while at work. It's likely that board and staff will have ideas for both sets of objectives. All ideas should be discussed and prioritized. (HINT: Supporting staff objectives is a good way to retain your director. Being given the opportunity to expand knowledge and address projects that he or she considers important will increase the director's job satisfaction.) Once consensus on staff performance and development objectives is reached, put them in a written document and define the time period covered by the plan (usually a year). The board president and executive director should both sign the performance plan to indicate mutual agreement.
  • Communication. Daily direction of the Main Street director is usually the board president's responsibility. Good communication between the president and the director ensures that each is informed about the other's activities. More importantly, they can discuss expectations and progress, thereby addressing any performance issues or conflicts before they become larger problems. Each should provide feedback on their working relationship as it affects not only performance but also broader Main Street issues. While the president and director will develop a comfortable communication format, weekly or bi-weekly meetings are suggested. These can be face-to-face or over the phone. Breakfast or lunch meetings are also effective.
  • Formal Performance Review. Formal performance reviews are essential. Not only are they necessary to evaluate staff progress and achievements; they also offer a collaborative opportunity to reflect on the program's last year and make plans for the future. Additionally, formal performance reviews provide good legal protection for both the organization and the Main Street director.

Performance evaluations are usually conducted by the board president or personnel subcommittee. Both quantitative and qualitative criteria should be used to gauge staff performance. Quantitative criteria include measurable standards -- those established in the performance plan. Qualitative criteria include such items as enthusiasm for the job, contributions "above and beyond the call of duty," and other less tangible aspects of performance. Ultimately, however, the director's performance should be measured by the objectives outlined in the performance plan. Qualitative areas can be addressed, but should not form the sole basis of the performance review. Remember to evaluate staff on performance, not personality. While the board president or personnel committee members may not personally like the director, they should evaluate the individual only on his or her performance of the job as stipulated.

The president or personnel committee should prepare for the review by identifying the pros and cons of the director's performance. These observations should be put in writing, then discussed in a face-to-face meeting. Positive performance should be discussed, as well as any areas in which the director's performance was unacceptable or in need of improvement. Staff should be given the opportunity to comment on each issue. A final written version of the performance evaluation should be signed by the director and board president.
·When to review. A new director should be reviewed more frequently. Ideally, some type of evaluation should take place at 30, 60, and 90 days to ensure that the director is performing appropriately. Following that initial period, an annual formal performance review is sufficient.

That said, the board president should take the opportunity to provide less formal feedback in the interim. Praise good work, and take the time to discuss any concerns or problems as they arise. Feedback gives staff a clear understanding of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. The director will have a clear understanding of the board's expectations, and won't be left to wonder and wander -- wonder whether the board is satisfied with his or her performance and wander around working on projects that may or may not support the organization's goals and priorities.
·Keeping other cooks out of the management kitchen. Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth. Nothing is more frustrating for a Main Street director than having to 12 different board members tell them what to do. Staff should have one "boss" on a day-to-day basis -- typically the board president. Other board members should give their suggestions of work priorities or performance improvement to the president who can then filter the feedback and provide direction to staff as appropriate.

The exception to this rule is praise. Anyone with a good word about the director's performance should say it loud and long. Main Street directors frequently deal with lots of conflict and competing interests, not to mention long hours and a stressful workload. Praise and encouragement are excellent motivators, as well as a tactic to keep staff happy and on the job.

Rewarding Good Performance

When staff is compensated for good work, staff is motivated to continue that good work. In other words, rewards can motivate a good director to stay with the organization.

There are any number of ways to reward good performance, both monetary and non-monetary. Here are just a few. Remember, however, that the reward must match the individual. Boards must know their directors well enough to determine the kind of reward that will mean the most to each individual.

Show Me the Money! A raise in salary is always an effective indication of appreciation for good performance. Boards should make salary increases a budget priority. Consider it a small investment in keeping a valuable person on board. And if the prospect of fund raising seems intimidating, just think how scary it would be to lose your program director!

In addition to salary increases, Main Street boards can provide other financially based incentives. For example, if your director must travel a great deal for the job, adding a mileage allowance to the compensation package is important. Additional benefits, such as expanded insurance coverage or more vacation time are also great rewards and retention tools. Some communities have even provided housing or a housing "subsidy" for their directors. Gym or country club memberships can also be a nice perk that says "we appreciate you."

Non-Monetary Rewards. So your program doesn't have the biggest budget. So you don't think you can afford a big raise or a golf course membership. Or maybe you know that money isn't the most important thing to your director. Less than 10 percent of individuals in a recent Washington Business Journal poll cited money as the chief motivation in their job. This is particularly true in mission-driven work like Main Street.

There are plenty of low-cost yet meaningful ways to reward staff for good performance. Don't use these in lieu of paying staff a decent wage, however; Main Street directors need to be paid comparably to other economic and community development professionals in the region. Instead, use them to supplement traditional compensation package and to say "You're great!" Here are few examples:

  • Hire support staff -- lighten the load of your hard-working director.
  • Expand staff responsibilities (a vote of confidence, especially for a new director).
  • Give the director responsibility for a new project or initiative -- good for the veteran manager who may be getting bored by routine.
  • Thanks, thanks, thanks. Verbal or written thanks for staff efforts goes a long, long way.
  • Buy new office equipment -- sometimes an investment in new tools, technology, or even furniture can be a great reward.
  • Make time to listen. Nobody knows the organization better than its staff. Make sure the director is included in discussions, and seek his or her opinion regularly.
  • Take your director to lunch.
  • Invest in professional development. Full or partial tuition for conferences or courses related to the job provides double reward: staff is happy and has new skills to contribute to the organization! And don't forget travel expenses!
  • Offer public recognition and praise -- let the world know how important your staff is; make sure the spotlight shines on the director from time to time.
  • Surprise staff with flowers -- especially good after a tough day or big project.
  • Grant time off -- a day off can be a great reward, especially when staff has been working extra-hard. Make sure the director gets out of the office and turns the off cell phone and pager!
  • Make a contribution to director's favorite charity -- a great personalized touch.

The Last Word

It's no coincidence that some of the most successful Main Street programs have staff who've served for several years. And you can bet those long-term managers all have boards that provide good management, feedback, and reward. Take the time to examine how well your organization manages and rewards the director. If you're not using these management tools, start now. If you're not using them well, make it a priority to use them better. Remember that Main Street is a partnership of volunteers and staff. Staff constantly takes care of volunteers. Make sure you as a volunteer are taking care of your staff!

Annual Review: Do's and Don'ts
Praise good performance.
Identify problems and discuss them.
Evaluate performance based on written plans and objectives.
Discuss performance, not personality.
Allow the director to respond -- create a dialog, not a diatribe.
Ignore performance issues and hope they go away; they'll only snowball.
Focus only on negative items.
Compare director to previous staff.
Punish staff because of personality or style.
Limit evaluation/feedback to once a year.

62% of Main Street programs invest time in board development.

Only 42% of Main Street programs conduct personnel management or review activities. Source: NMSC 2001 Main Street Census

Main Street Benefits
50% of Main Street directors have health insurance.
18% have dental plans.
10% have eye care plans
16 % have performance-based bonuses.
11% have a 401(k) or 403(b) plans.
6% have retirement pensions.
75% have mileage reimbursement.
Source: NMSC Salary Survey, November 2001

In Their Own Words

What makes an effective board? We talked with some current and former Main Street managers to get their perspective and here's what they had to say:

Ted Alexander--Shelby, North Carolina: "I have an exceptionally good board. The beauty of our program is that there are no personal interests, no hidden agendas that can sometimes demoralize and destruct a board. Meeting weekly with my board director for lunch or breakfast fosters great communication and demonstrates a firm time commitment and willingness to listen. I also feel very comfortable with person to whom I am directly accountable; the structure is very clear in order to avoid micro-management. The board understands that managing a Main Street program is a profession, not a volunteer commitment, and have proven that in terms of salary. It's understood that one person can't do it all, and our staff is rewarded for their hard work."

Timothy Bishop--Walla Walla, Washington: "My board gives me great flexibility in terms of scheduling; they understand that Main Street managers do not work 9 to 5. If we're organizing an event that demands a 70-hour week, including working weekends and evenings, they are very flexible about compensating for the extra time afterwards. The board also understands the importance of professional and personal development, which is a great benefit. I have the freedom and am encouraged to visit our state office and other Main Street neighborhoods or to attend conferences, all of which provide great networking opportunities."

Toni Gaylord--Coronado, California: "Our board meetings are more like roundtable discussions in that we are very philosophical and visionary. The board entrusts me with the day-to-day management of the program, while at board meetings we will discuss more position-forming issues, such as ‘how do we feel about mixed-use on our Main Street?' The board is supportive not only of the program, but also of my role as manager."

Dan Larner--Dorchester, Massachusetts: "All of my board members are active in the community, and at least two are available and accessible at all times. I see my board members on average four or five times a month. The board provides a great support network that not only makes my job easier, but also benefits the program."

John Simone--Connecticut Main Street Program: "A thoughtful evaluation process with clear objectives, scheduled review periods, and clear channels of communication is integral to a good working relationship between boards and managers. Clearly defined roles allow the board to empower both the Main Street manager and the community to achieve the pre-determined goals of the program."

Valecia Crisafulli--National Main Street Center: "The chief management tool for the board to use in working with the program director is communication. I was very fortunate when I was director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., to work with two board presidents who made one-on-one communication a priority. It was a rare workday when I did not speak, either by phone or in person, with the board president. When the president is willing to devote that amount of time to making the relationship work, the entire organization benefits."