Your Library’s Future

Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Library Journal. Originally published in vol. 129, no. 17 (Oct. 15, 2004).

We read the stories in the paper: an organization with tremendous influence goes from leading edge to leaderless in one horrible stroke of fate. Recently [April 2004], McDonald’s Corporation announced the sudden death of its chair and CEO, Jim Cantalupo. Yet the organization barely skipped a beat, announcing a new chair and CEO within days. Investors barely responded, and the $40 billion multinational purveyor of Big Macs and Supersize Fries survives better than most of our waistlines.

The saving grace for McDonald’s is succession planning, a common program in large corporations. Leaders of such organizations understand that they are obliged to stakeholders to ensure a successful transition. Without plans for replacing top leadership talent, whether the departure is sudden or not, the corporation will suffer.

Many librarians understand that they, too, have enormous responsibilities to stakeholders-the members of the public who rely upon their libraries for education, research, enrichment, and enjoyment-as well as the library’s employees.

Take a look at your demographics. We [were] working with a large East Coast urban library that realized it was time to begin a succession planning process. The first thing we did was to analyze where it was. This is how its leadership pool breaks down:

Director and deputies, Department and Assistant Department Heads Total: 24; age 55+, 10 (42%); 50-54, 5 (21%)
Branch and Division Managers Total: 63; age 55+, 29 (46%); 50-54, 16 (25%); 71% are over 50.

Most under 50 are not in public service. Of nine assistant department heads, none is under 40; 63% are over 50. Thus, the current leadership and those who would be their natural successors will retire simultaneously, leaving a huge leadership vacuum at many levels across the library system.

The right people

To confront this problem, some libraries have adopted what William J. Rothwell calls “comprehensive succession management,” which “anticipates changes in management,” creating a strategic plan that provides for putting “the right the right the right times to do the right things.”

The public sector has burdens that private employers may resolve with a few more dollars: whereas in private industry most managers possess MBAs and formal management training, library managers come from the ranks of librarianship. They rarely receive formal instruction on how to achieve goals, motivate staff, prepare budgets, manage buildings, and maximize employee potential. [Editor’s note: the Certified Public Library Administrator Program includes these topics and others.]

Succession planning is more than planning for contingencies if the proverbial Mack truck wipes out your management team (heaven forbid!). It means assessing, as the Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR, has done, the number of key positions (not just top management positions but all variety of specialties and areas of expertise) that could become vacant in the near future. And, once the gaps are identified, providing training, coaching, special assignments, and other developmental opportunities so that staff members are ready to move into them when the time comes. This development of “bench strength” is important in small and large libraries alike.

At the root of the issue is the appreciation that the library’s most important, most valuable asset is its people. Succession is an issue for any generation, but it is hitting the profession’s radar as the culture at large begins to confront the expected retirement of the baby boomers (63 million or so). Most prescient managers understand that there is not a huge cadre of trained, skilled workers ready to step into their places. The profession is asking who will run the libraries when this talent leaves.

The answer is simple. Libraries will be run by people identified by current managers as both qualified and trainable and who are given the right opportunities to develop the needed skills.

Tap inside talent

When the Multnomah County Library began looking closely at its potential loss to retirements in 1999, the library found that its figures were similar to those often quoted in the literature: 40% of library managers and 20% of librarians would be eligible for retirement by 2003, with another 33% eligible soon thereafter. At the same time, a staff survey ranked “advancement possibilities” low as a reason to work at the Multnomah County Library. The library had a solid reputation that attracted strong external candidates, but the research indicated a competitive recruiting environment, as well as an anticipated shortage of library school graduates.

Armed with this information, senior managers listed key management and knowledge positions and identified potential successors for their own positions and developmental experiences for those individuals. Some examples of developmental needs include budgeting, career planning, supervisory skills, exposure to new people and challenges, networking and relationship building, influencing without authority, leadership, political acumen, and political savvy. The library also launched an effort to make all staff aware of the need to focus additional energy planning for future staffing needs, including building a resource on the library’s intranet devoted to succession planning.

The library encouraged employees to make their career interests known. Based on feedback from staff, the library saw the need to shift a portion of training (structured and self-directed) from technical and functional expertise to soft skills, including leadership and employee development. The Employee Development and Project Bank Intranet sites were created to provide staff tools for self-directed professional development.

Harness potential

A new performance management system was implemented. Staff now have an opportunity to participate in a 360-degree peer-review process and regularly discuss their performance and improvement needs with a supervisor. There was some initial concern and resistance to this process, so it was made optional. Considerable training was provided for all reviewers. Peer reviewers have learned how thoughtfully to convert daily gripes into feedback that can help a colleague improve work performance and working relationships. Many staff members who took advantage of this form of feedback have found it to be positive and supportive.

The Lead Worker position was introduced at the Central Library. This gave staff represented by the union (most library staff, including librarians at the Multnomah County Library) an opportunity to experience some aspects of a leadership position in their work units. Lead Workers were encouraged to select a mentor and meet with that person regularly. Since then, additional informal mentoring relationships have evolved around the library system.

Skills curricula

New soft skills training curriculum was created to cover developing leadership, managing change, motivating staff, resolving conflict, budgeting, facilitating meetings, developing supervisory skills, handling anger/emotions in the workplace, and team-building. The library also began introducing external nonlibrary trainers and curriculum.

Staff were also encouraged to take advantage of leadership programs inside and outside the library profession, including the Snowbird Leadership Institute, Leadership Portland, Urban Libraries Fellows, and Pacific Northwest Library Association Leadership Institute.

As a result, the library has seen over a dozen internal promotions in the last 18 months alone. Several librarians and support staff have had the Lead Worker experience. Overall, the librarians at Multnomah County Library report seeing lots of excitement surrounding the competition for promotions, with strong internal candidates available for most openings.

And the need has certainly been borne out: since the initial studies, Multnomah County Library has seen a 50% turnover in the makeup of its senior management team and a turnover of one third in its branch heads. Despite this, usage continues to grow, budget problems have been dealt with, and responsive new programs expand the library’s offerings.

The future is around the corner. What you do now ensures the viability of your organization going forward.

Succession Planning Tool Kit

The right ingredients

Succession planning will only happen when the right ingredients are there at the start:

COMMITMENT FROM TOP MANAGEMENT Management has to see this as a burning issue that requires focused attention and dedicated resources.

OWNERSHIP Succession planning may be developed and administered by human resources, but it is owned by management. Management has the talent and skills to identify the attributes of future leadership, provide development opportunities and the feedback necessary for high-potential employees to morph into leaders. In smaller libraries without HR departments or personnel specialists, the library director has to take the lead and implement plans to deal with these issues.

VISION OF WHAT THE ORGANIZATION WILL NEED Understand the changing demographics and how they will directly impact the organization and over what time period the changes will hit.

SNAPSHOT OF PRESENT CONDITIONS Have a frank, objective, and accurate understanding of the current work force. What talents are currently found in the organization and which are lacking? Strive to understand how the skill sets will change over the planning horizon and develop ideas of how the library will recruit or develop needed skills.

OPENNESS TO NONTRADITIONAL SOURCES OF TALENT If library leaders continue to look for employees in traditional labor markets, they may fail. More likely, leadership will have to redefine the ideal worker, who may be part-time, multilingual, telecommuting, or a shift worker. Alternatives to traditional working hours and locations will facilitate staffing.

A WELL-DOCUMENTED TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM Succession planning works best where the organization already has a culture of learning and development. Organizations that practice “just in time” learning and development have yet to develop the foresight or the patience to cultivate new leadership over years. Those who hope to establish succession planning processes in these places have a Herculean task before them. They will have to persuade the library’s leadership to take a broader and longer-term view of the library’s HR needs and to invest in a formal training and development process.

Know where you’re going

Succession planning is a trip to Tomorrow Land that can be accomplished by following eight directions:

DETERMINE THE ORGANIZATIONS STRATEGIC DIRECTION Considering the enormous changes in the populations’ age and diversity, and tremendous changes in our access to information, you are probably due to make a real strategic shift. Are you planning to make significant changes? Are changes in your customer base going to force major changes in the way you manage your library? How will any changes influence how you serve core clients and develop services for the future?

IDENTIFY CRITICAL MANAGEMENT AND TECHNICAL POSITIONS Will the next generation of leaders have to be especially adept at understanding technology? Will they have to be extremely flexible and insightful when dealing with employees of different cultures, backgrounds, and motivations? If you had to write a job description of your organization’s next generation leader, what skills, knowledge, abilities, and experiences would you list? An excellent model for thinking this through is provided in Lou Adler’s Hire with Your Head: Using Power Hiring To Build Great Companies (Wiley, 2002).

PROJECT FUTURE VACANCIES You have an existing work force of employees at all stages of their careers. Inventory your employees just as you would inventory your up-to-date materials in the reference section. This entails looking at who is on staff, how much longer you expect them to stay, and what their capabilities are and could be, given growth opportunities. Who, with proper mentoring and developmental assignments, can provide the critical skills, abilities, and knowledge identified in the previous step? These are the future leaders waiting to be developed in your organization.

DETERMINE EXECUTIVE DESCRIPTORS FOR FUTURE LEADERS Executive descriptors, or competencies, are organizationally based requirements that support performance success. Examples might include Customer Service Orientation, Fiscal Responsibility, Innovation, Results Orientation, and Teamwork. Many competency directories include competency definitions and assessment options. Rely on HR staff or a consultant to facilitate model development, or appoint an individual or team to research and develop a model. A generic model is available through the U.S. Department of Labor.

IDENTIFY HOLES IN STAFFING Determine what your future potential leadership needs will be and who might be available to fill the gaps. You may find that you have adequate staff to meet future needs. If not, where will you find candidates, and how will you attract them to your organization?

DIAGNOSE DEVELOPMENTAL NEEDS Ensure your potential leadership pool have the skills, knowledge, abilities, and experience to take on the mantle of leadership. Review your candidates against the job specifications, including competencies to identify developmental gaps. Planned development can close these gaps through training programs, special assignments, leadership opportunities, and other means.

CREATE A DELIBERATE DEVELOPMENT PLAN You may believe that leaders are born, not made, but they all need time to gestate. Implement development opportunities. Your high-potential candidates will need care and cultivation to amass the skills still needed. Provide the lead time-two years is a good time frame-to allow them to learn from the experiences you provide. And develop several high-potential candidates in tandem. Your first choice may abruptly redirect his/her career or be enticed by another employer so it’s best to be prepared.

REVIEW PROGRESS AND PROVIDE NEW ASSIGNMENTS Tell your high-potentials that you are giving them development opportunities for future leadership positions. Tell them what their gaps are and how you see these specific opportunities as helping them bridge the gaps. Provide plenty of feedback on how they are progressing. If they are not progressing or meeting expectations, lay the cards on the table. If they are meeting expectations, provide additional assignments to challenge their learning. If someone is ready before the expected position opens up, don’t worry. With the turnover many libraries are experiencing and the increased need for people to work on or manage special projects, there will be something for them to do in most every situation.

Paula Singer, Ph.D., is the Principal Consultant, the Singer Group, Inc.; Jeanne Goodrich, MLS, is President, Jeanne Goodrich Consulting; and Linda Goldberg is a Senior Consultant with the Singer Group.