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, August 25, 2011

August 25, 2011 - moving up the organization

I am annually reviewed by my bosses, a 7-person board. A few years ago one board member asked me what I was doing about succession planning. 

I thought, "Uh oh." Was this code for, "pick your replacement, bub, you're outa here?"

But in fact, to that board member, "succession planning" meant something far broader and more significant. 

Here's the idea in my own words, but very much derived from that board member's deep professional experience in organizational development work:

It all starts at the top. The governing body sets strategic directions. It has a goal or goals. And yes, I know that some governing bodies never get around to that, squandering their time on little operational issues. But a healthy organization has leadership that maps out a path to the future.

The board then looks at its Chief Executive Officer. Does that person have the skills to achieve the goals? If so, dandy. 

If not, what would it take to help that person acquire the necessary skills in a timely fashion? That becomes the "development plan" for the employee. If the CEO isn't within 18 months of having the skills necessary to get things done, the board may have the wrong CEO. 

But it doesn't stop there. Now the CEO does the same thing. 

At the next level of the organization there are people who may be within 18 months of doing the CEO job, too. What skills do THEY need? Once again, that gap in knowledge or experience becomes the list of annual development objectives. 

When I've talked about this to others, sometimes people express surprise. Why would a CEO train up his or her own competitors? 

The answer, to my mind, is pretty straightforward: because the job of the CEO is to help the institution succeed. The more smart, capable people on hand to fulfill overarching goals, the more likely that is to happen, particularly if they combine their efforts.

And note that this is not about anointing a single successor. It's about creating more than one potential candidate for key positions. It's about assembling a "bench" of people who are actively getting better, improving their potential organizational value through purposeful learning. 

But it doesn't stop there, either. At every level of the organization, supervisors should be doing the same thing. 

The skill set for a front line supervisor might well be different than those required of a CEO or senior executive staff. But whatever the level, the necessary skills are identifiable, and there's a list of strategies -- training, formal education, task force work, external partnerships, mentoring, and so on -- that help people acquire those skills. 

It is the job of every supervisor to know what skills their people need in order to align with organization goals, and to put together annual plans, specific to each individual, to help everyone move up in knowledge and ability.  

Ultimately, this process of assessing skills and building annual learning programs should touch every person in the organization, top to bottom.

Organizations have to be careful not to identify just one person for too many slots. Often, a single golden child gets groomed for several positions -- but when the time comes, he or she can take only one of them. The "bench" needs to be deep. 

This system of staff development -- and indeed, of system-wide personnel management -- is also an honorable thing to do for employees. It keeps them engaged in their jobs and careers, keeps them interested, keeps them excited by keeping them growing. 

But what if one of these people you invested in takes a job somewhere else?

My response: how wonderful for them! Now you have high-performing friends and colleagues who deeply appreciate the help you gave them. And they might come back to you later, even more able and experienced.

In the long run, such an organization gets a reputation for offering lots of opportunity, and for moving people up quickly. That, in turn, attracts brighter and more ambitious applicants.

So in the end, the right reaction to talk of "succession planning" isn't "uh oh."  It's "ah ha!"

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

August 4, 2011 - popular reading builds community

"Main Street Public Library" is a forthcoming book by Wayne Wiegand, an eminent library historian. It's the story of four public libraries - Bryant Library in Sauk Centre (Central MN), Sage Public library in Osage, IA, Charles H. Moore Library in Lexington MI, Rhinelander Public Library in Rhinelander, WI.

The public library movement, beginning in about 1876, was in many ways the response to waves of "foreigners." As Wiegand notes, nervous Americans adopted two strategies to regularize the newcomers: compulsory education, and such highly visible institutions as the public library.

The four libraries followed a pattern that applied to a lot of Midwest libraries. It went something like this:

A core group of civic leaders, usually radiating from pre-suffrage women's groups, issued a civic call. Some modest amount of funding was committed by town councils. A tiny start-up space was found, with a non-librarian and a small stock of "good books."

Eventually, someone hit up Andrew Carnegie, who ignored the request for awhile, then dickered over the price, then eventually provided capital funds -- but never for books, and never for operations. This strategy of requiring matching funds, proof of serious intent, had the effect of growing organized support essential for the establishment and sustainability of the library.

Over time library management became a little more professionalized. Library Trustees looked for "trained" librarians. Libraries that thrived -- meaning that they wound up with more space and money -- built relationships with their communities in three ways: children's services (mainly story times), the provision of public meeting space (both for individual reading and group gatherings), and, most powerfully, response to the demand for popular fiction.

With ringing and lofty rhetoric, librarians assured all that we were essential to democracy because we informed our citizens about the issues of the day. Indeed, this organized presentation of information, reliable, thoroughly reviewed and vetted, was the essential function of the institution. As the profession grew in stature, "collection development" meant the compilation and distribution of prescriptive lists. Those lists did indeed influence many libraries' holdings.

The anti-fiction hostility of librarians was pronounced. Many librarians sounded the alarm about the dangers of, yes, reading. Oh, the horror of women who read romances, boys who read comic books, and men who stashed the Police Gazette under their mattresses!

That prejudice lasted a long time, extending with particular ferocity against the Stratemeyer Syndicate (producers of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series).

But despite the civic mandate of local leaders, despite the profound anti-fiction bias of librarians of that time, there was a third player in the histories. It turns out that what people mostly wanted from the public library wasn't heavy-handed educational lectures. They wanted a rattling good story.

And by and large, they got it.

Wiegand advances the idea that libraries did in fact do what they were supposed to do: we built community. We just didn't do it the way we thought we did. Popular reading itself was the key.

Think about it. Which had more to do with the emergence of the American pscyhe: "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," or the by-his-own-bootstraps fiction of Horatio Alger? Which had more to do with national scientific progress: "Scientific American," or the inventions of Tom Swift? Who had more to do with our attitudes about gun ownership: Alexis de Toqueville, or Zane Grey?

Sometimes it's hard to tell if history teaches us anything or not. But I'm happy to pass along this professional update from your local librarian: go ahead and read. Really. Anything. For the good of the nation.

LaRue's Views are his own.