Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Help Wanted

I have a friend who is trying to make the leap into her first job as a public library director. She asked me for my ideas about what a library director's role is today, and what red flags to watch out for in the interview process. Here is what I wrote back, but I'd love to know what you think about these questions; I'm sure she'd like to know, too!

In my opinion, a director's role is to be the public face of the institution. A director should be someone who can absorb large amounts of frequently conflicting information about the community's desires and make sense out of it, so the staff can take action on those desires. A director should have a sense of the institution's past, so that he or she can build on that past, but he or she also needs to have a sense of the future, so that the institution doesn't get bogged down in legacy systems and projects.

As far as the Board goes, the director's role is to provide the trustees with the information they need to make informed decisions. This includes that sense of excitement about the future that the director can bring to the Board's deliberations. This isn't about rejecting what the institution has done in the past; rather, it is using the institutional history as a springboard for the future.
The director and the trustees need to be simpatico, having a shared vision of the future. They also need to have clearly delineated roles, although from everything I read about corporate and nonprofit governance, the line between the board's job and the director's job is changing fast. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal last Monday (January 14) about this. The thrust was that CEOs (and, I think, library directors) will go further with their boards if they level with them about major problems and ask their advice before acting.

In a political sense, a public library director's job is not to make trouble for the elected officials of his or her community. Don't do anything that would reflect badly on the elected officials, and if something bad may be about to happen, give them a head's up early. Also, get every elected official involved in every GOOD thing the library does: "READ" posters with the mayor's picture, ribbon cuttings with the entire city council, offering the library's meeting room to state and US senators and representatives who don't have funds for a local office...all of these ingratiate you to the power structure.

During your interviews with trustees and staff members,
I'd ask the staff and the board, "What do YOU expect from the director?" The greatest statement you can make if you want to be known as a good conversationalist is, "Tell me about yourself." Give them a chance to talk about it. Then relate what they tell you to the better bosses you've had, or make a point of showing what you've learned from bad bosses. (Not mentioning any "bad boss" names or locations, of matter how tempting it may be.)

Watch out for a board that expects too much obedience or too much miracle-work; you will inevitably disappoint them, even if you can walk on water.

Watch out for a staff that tells you just to stay out of the way; they will be very resistant to change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

George, I enjoyed this, and I agree with what you have to say. I would add the importance of demonstrating stewardship to the staff, board and community at every opportunity.

Director's need to be true and honest both in the interview process, and as they move forward with the staff and board.

Make sure that your philosophy matches that of the board (and therefore community) you are going to serve.

Have a vision of the future for the library, the community and yourself when you walk in the door for the interview, don't be shy about sharing those visions and when you get a job, walk the talk of your vision.

Good luck, friend.... –Chuck Gibson