This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

March 13, 2008 - evaluate performance, not people

Every other year, the Public Library Association has an annual conference. This year it will be held in Minneapolis, at the end of March.

It happens that several of our staff will be presenting at the conference this year, evidence that Douglas County Libraries is well-regarded across the nation.

One of the presentations is a partnership: Eloise May, the director of the Arapahoe Library District, and I, are teaming up with two Board members (Howard Rothman from her library, Mark Weston from ours) to talk about the topic of "evaluating the director." This presentation is directed mainly at the other citizen trustees of libraries around the country.

Eloise did a lot of the research, pulling in representative samples from various kinds of libraries: municipal, county, independent district. Then we've tried to make sense of the different approaches.

One of the clearest summaries we've found was written almost 20 years ago by Nancy Bolt, Colorado's former state librarian. She described three broad approaches to annually evaluating the chief administrator of a library:

1. Traits. Here the focus is on individual personality characteristics. For instance, the director is rated on punctuality, or communication style.

This might be helpful for a first time director. But after a board works through this once or twice, it quickly becomes obvious that most people don't adopt a whole new set of behavior traits over the course of a year.

Trait-based evaluation may help a board get to know the strengths and weaknesses of a new leader (and might help the new leader identify some skills that need work) -- but that doesn't necessarily determine how well the organization is doing.

2. Job description. Here the focus is on comparing director tasks to the job description as created by the governing body. Of course, it does make sense, from time to time, to make sure that directors are spending their time on the duties for which they are being paid, and that those duties are accurately described somewhere.

On the other hand, this approach doesn't usually capture strategic initiatives or planning goals. It's generic, by necessity over-broad. ("Prepares an annual budget." But to accomplish what?) A list of tasks is useful for lower level jobs, but tends not to work so well for administrative positions.

3. Organizational performance. Here the idea is that directors are not being judged as people, or by how well they fit the description of duties, but by how well the organization is doing according to its long range plan.

The Board (or other governing body for some libraries) sets the direction: we want to accomplish X by some date.

The director is then judged by whether or not X got done by that date, or can at least measure significant progress to that end.

To our surprise, a great many of the evaluation processes being used in the library world fall into the first two categories. It's the kind of approach that CAN lead either to irrelevancies, or to the status quo, as opposed to the accomplishment of clear business objectives.

To be fair, of course, a leader who has rapidly deteriorating behavior traits, or fails to perform some key part of the job description, needs to be confronted about that.

But the truth is, in both the public and private sectors, we get distracted by tasks and personality quirks. We lose sight of the fact that successful organizations actually set big goals, and work to achieve them.

And that should be the primary focus of leadership evaluation.

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