Bench Building | Leadership

Success for your library means offering staff room to move up and having a plan for who can grow into their spots—even yours.

Success for your library means offering staff room to move up and having a plan for who can grow into their spots—even yours

Like making out a will, succession planning is not always pleasant to think about, and it’s tempting to wait until the need arises. But directors who plan ahead to fill the needs of their library ensure smooth transitions for everyone from leadership to support staff to patrons.

It’s in a library’s best interest to build its bench strength—a roster of strong employees across the organization who can potentially step into leadership roles—rather than preparing a select few. As in the sports world, a “deep bench” means a library will be able to fill a job vacated on schedule or suddenly, when employees resign or retire, die or fall ill, or take on shifting responsibilities in the wake of a key promotion. Cultivating potential leaders helps them build skills they can use whether or not they step into leadership positions and keeps them fresh in their roles and fulfilled by new ­challenges.

Growing together

Providing opportunities for employees to move up is important, notes Rivkah Sass, director of the Sacramento Public Library (SPL), CA, and LJ’s 2006 Librarian of the Year, but “there’s truly a difference between being an effective manager and being a leader.” To that end, one of the best tools is a leadership cohort that offers both training opportunities and organizational support through regular meetings. “It isn’t just learning what you need to know, it’s about being supported in that learning, and that includes real face time with one another,” says Sass.

SPL recently completed its first Leadership Development Program, consisting of 12 all-day intensive workshops spread over several months, with homework between sessions and components of both self-reflection and feedback. Participants, who included the deputy director, public services managers, supervisors, and librarians, were all self-­selected, although Sass and her staff will be tagging employees for future cohorts. “I want critical mass,” she explains.

STRATEGY AND LONGEVITY Top: Strategic Planning Team Meeting at Columbus Metropolitan Library (l.–r.): Chief Administrative Officer Grant Lynch, senior director of IT Burt Bardus, HR director Shannon Burt, director of property management Andrew Kistler, CFO Lauren Hagan, CEO Patrick Losinski, director of finance Stewart Smith, and public services directors Charlie Hanson, Marihelen Hatcher, and Shaunessy Everett. Bottom, l.–r.: Hartford
Public Library board chair Greg Davis, youth services library assistant Linda Montanez, CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey, and library assistant Angel Aviles celebrate Montanez’s and Aviles’s 25-year anniversaries. Top photo by Dane Khy for CML; bottom photo courtesey of Hartford PL

In 2016, the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) convened around 30 staff from all levels for its Future of the Libraries Forum. Luis Herrera, former San Francisco City Librarian and LJ’s 2012 Librarian of the Year, relied on his executive team to help identify potential leaders from their respective areas of expertise—not only managers but entry-level librarians or clerks, anyone they felt was ripe for the opportunities the forum offers. Focusing on areas such as community engagement, service, facilities, and technology, the rigorous forum helped set a road map for the library as well as preparing prospective leaders and giving them a deep dive into all levels of the library’s work. “Bringing them together,” Herrera notes, “was amazing; you could see the leadership percolate.”

At Baltimore County Public Library, Director Paula Miller has established “advisory groups” to provide a variety of internal learning opportunities. Ambitious branch and department managers can join the Budget Advisory group or the Advocacy Advisory Group; an Organizational Culture Advisory Group will be added next year. Three managers are selected for each one, says Miller, which are “meant to provide participation and insight into the decision points and process in those respective areas.”

In addition to forming teams, assigning employees challenging projects—a problem that needs solving or a key project the library is ready to launch—can provide the opportunity to grow leaders. For example, on several occasions Herrera took advantage of the need to analyze public service throughout the 27-branch SFPL system. The decision about where to modify or expand hours “can be very political,” he recalls, “so I would assign that kind of project to one of my division chiefs and say, ‘Go and do it and check in with me.’ ” Such responsibilities might seem overwhelming at first, but the vote of confidence, with steady guidance behind the scenes, can allow employees to flourish.

When Kelvin Watson stepped into the director’s role at Broward County Libraries, FL, last year, he made it a point to visit the system’s 38 branches continuously, identifying a group of talented managers—by watching them at work, talking to their colleagues, and later listening to their reports after many served as shelter managers during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. “I’m always stretching them,” says Watson, “having people make decisions that are sometimes above their scope.” His experience in the private sector, the military, and his previous role as COO and VP at Queens Library, NY, taught him how to be a strong coach for leader­ship skills, Watson says. “That’s what people did for me. I’m putting into practice what I learned.”

Stepping back and letting people learn by making mistakes is part of growing talent. “Thinking you have to do everything yourself isn’t allowing talent to develop,” notes Sass, “and there’s a lack of transparency in operating that way. There’s a balance of wanting to be in the loop as director because bad things can happen.... But the other side of it is you’ve got to let go.”

Libraries can also literally invest in talent, contributing toward—or paying for—an up-and-coming employee’s education. Tuition reimbursement is also a way to fill a needed position with the right person even if they don’t yet have the appropriate degree. In an area where graduates tend to move elsewhere, it can help ensure a stronger local talent pool.

“If somebody’s already here, and they love the institution, and they want a promotional opportunity, I want to be able to invest in them to be able to stay and grow,” notes Hartford Public Library (HPL) CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey. Besides encouraging ambition, she adds, supporting career changers with a variety of existing skills is a good way to bring in experience and new perspectives.


During 12 years at the helm of SFPL, Herrera took ample opportunity to deepen his bench. Identifying key employees early made his eventual decision to retire in February—and the resulting transition—easier all around. “When you have that initial vision of them as leaders, it really helps set the tone for a relationship where you start modeling your own values that you articulate to them,” says Herrera. “That sets a tone for a certain level of [performance] ­expectations.”

Notes Herrera, sometimes employees need to hear explicitly that they are more capable than they think, or will respond to a quiet offer of extra support. “It’s natural for people not to have the initial confidence...but I’ve also seen some folks who were very quiet and unassuming, and the next thing you know they rise to the occasion and do some amazing stuff.”

Having a solid relationship with the library’s HR director can help leadership locate strengths and gaps in staff skills and knowledge—as can, and should, supervisors in any department. And close communications with the city or county HR department will help ease the process of transition, so that local government is not caught off guard. The board also needs to be kept in the loop.

“For us, it starts with very open discussions with our Board of Trustees,” says Patrick Losinski, CEO of the ­Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML), OH (the 2010 LJ Library of the Year). “Our board not only has responsibility for hiring the CEO but for ensuring that the CEO is thinking about growth development and succession planning for key members of senior leadership.”

To help track leadership roles throughout the system, CML maintains a document listing the relevant details about each leader, including educational background, successes within the library, expected tenure within their position, and a list of internal candidates who could compete for that vacancy when it occurs. “For all of us it’s not if, it’s when,” Losinski notes.


That a division chief or manager is good at their job can be the result of a strong focus. But staying in their lane can also narrow their scope. To get ready to take charge, potential high-level leaders must understand how the library works from top to bottom.

“Anyone who’s part of my management team has to know the entire organization,” says Herrera. “They need to understand the broader organizational issues. If they look at just their little corner of the world, and say, ‘This is my job, this is what I’m hired to do,’ they’re not going to thrive.”

CML has organized a small leadership cohort of what it calls public service directors, typically department or branch managers in public services who want to lead or show potential, who are brought into the leadership operations of six to ten branches at a time. Group members get exposure to higher levels of management than they would ordinarily, Losinski explains—not only sitting in on higher levels of meetings but taking on specific assignments with leaders in the organization “so that you understand what the work is when you’re coordinating and coaching and guiding the development work of [those] branches.”

MANAGERS INTO LEADERS Broward County Libraries Division biweekly Library Regional Manager Meeting (clockwise from lower left-hand corner): assistant to the division director Elsie Lewin (in pink); library regional managers Lisa Manners and Valerie Simpson; assistant division director Carol Russo; Director Kelvin Watson; library regional managers Ellen Lindenfeld, Elaina Norlin, and Jill Sears; and administrative officer Sharon Morris.
Photo by Ari Rothenberg

Participants can ask questions and explain what they’ve learned at follow-up sessions, and they’re expected to bring that information out into the wider library as well. “We say to them, you’re getting an insider’s view of what’s happening in the organization at a higher level,” Losinski notes. “Your responsibility is not just growing yourself—part of it is going back to your colleagues and sharing what you’re observing, because not everyone has the privilege of being at that table. With it comes a responsibility to help educate others. It’s in our best interests as an organization to have as many people as possible understand the inner workings of higher level leadership.”


Even in small libraries with fewer moving parts, the big picture is not automatically a part of future leaders’ view. Bonnie McKewon, library services consultant at the State Library of Iowa, recently led a workshop titled “Pay It Forward,” funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), that looked at succession planning and staffing transitions for smaller and rural systems.

While larger libraries can appoint interim directors during vacancies and often fill roles from within, having a director retire or resign can mean a full turnover for a small library, says McKewon. “There’s seldom anyone in the position of an assistant director or even department heads. So there are seldom others on staff with management or supervisory responsibilities.”

Given the impact of this kind of turnover, she notes, an important part of planning for small libraries is logistical, from making sure job descriptions are standard for the town or county (and making sure they’re available online) to ensuring that all documentation is in place and accessible. Are policy, planning, and budget records in one place? Will the new director be able to find the furniture and fixtures inventory, or the safety inspection schedule?

“What I’ve encountered so often in these small libraries,” says McKewon, “when we have new directors they’re just floundering even to know what the logins and passwords are to their ILS system or to state library products.” To that end, she recommends cloud password storage systems such as LastPass.

The boards of smaller libraries need to be involved as well, she adds, introducing a new director to city leadership, Friends or foundations, and state library personnel. The board may have fulfilled their contractual duty when they hire a new leader, McKewon says, “but they can’t just walk away and say ‘Well, good luck to you, we’ll see you next month.’ ”

Tying a new director to the community they serve in a timely fashion is a concern even for a larger library, such as the 19-branch BCPL, notes Miller. “The need to make [local] connections rapidly is critical and can be facilitated by the board and leadership team.”


Of course, sometimes the best candidate will come from outside the library. Larger systems looking to replace a director or CEO will engage an executive search firm, going through a national recruiting process that can take nine months or more. Once several candidates have been selected, the board or, depending on governance, the mayor will appoint the next director.

“I think historically libraries have relied a little bit too much, except for the most senior level positions, on responses to job ads,” Losinski points out. “In a tight marketplace it’s really about being much more proactive in understanding that we’re competing [for] talent with the largest organizations.... You have to do some of that homework long before you might hire.”

New blood can also be invigorating—within limits. “I find it’s healthy to mix [in] new people who come in from outside, with new perspectives and ideas,” says Quinn-Carey, “but not in a way that doesn’t also honor the people you already have. I find the best success when it’s a balance between promoting from within [and] bringing in fresh perspectives from outside.”

A library that finds itself looking for outside talent more often than not, however, should take the opportunity to examine its practices and see where improvements can be made. Losinski posits a hypothetical situation: “If over the course of four years we have ten vacancies and only one [is filled] from an internal promotion, at that point we have to be honest with ourselves and say we don’t have a succession plan within our organization.... Our people aren’t competing with the outside talent.... The proof is in the hiring,” he notes.


While a search can turn up the best talent in the field, the flip side is bringing in someone who may not be familiar with the library’s—or city’s—culture. Quinn-Carey took the helm of HPL in 2016, so when it comes to local politics she feels most of her colleagues know more than she does—and she would consider tapping many of them for future top positions. “A lot of people in this system, they’ve grown up here so they know what’s going on. [They have] innate sensibilities for what’s happening locally and how to think about working with key stakeholders—the board or elected officials—on state and local levels.”

That deep understanding of the library as part of Hartford’s ecosystem, she notes, often coincides with people who are on their way up through the ranks. They’re already talking to local officials because they’re neighbors. “There’s an embedded culture here that being involved locally is really important.”

Watson has been using the model he saw in action at Queens, where leaders were deeply embedded in the community, to stretch his bench at Broward. The library’s outreach team has been coaching managers to build new relationships with elected officials and community organizations around each branch. “What we have done over the past year is stress the outward-facing…programs and services,” Watson says. He encourages his managers to serve as the public face of BCL, attending local events and appearing with the Broward County sheriff and mayor, so that “I’m not the only person who has the opportunity to do these types of things. I’m giving other people those opportunities as well.”

For a library with complicated governance such as Sacramento, where the director reports to 15 county board supervisors and budgets are drawn from several separate funding sources, there are obvious advantages to hiring from within. “That’s why I want somebody who’s been here, who gets our particular sui generis way of being, because we’re a joint powers authority,” says Sass. On the other hand, she adds, she was an outside hire when she stepped up to the job nine years ago. “I came into a governance structure that I was totally unfamiliar with, and I’m still standing.”


The final act in succession planning, of course, is letting those future leaders step up. “That was probably the most difficult decision I’ve made,” says Herrera of his retirement. “You never know if the timing is right. You love what you do, but then you realize that you don’t necessarily own an organization and it’s time for somebody else to come and give it their spin.”

Departure is yet another chance to learn for a director moving to another system. For Watson, interviewing potential hires to fill his spot in Queens got him thinking about succession planning; he began identifying promising leaders at Broward “from day one.”

A strong succession model embedded in the library’s strategic plan demonstrates that leadership development and future readiness are a key part of the organization. Setting that tone, in turn, helps manage expectations for employee performance—particularly for managers, who can then be asked to cultivate leadership within their own staff. “Be that manager who brings in people who are smarter than you, because that’s the best way to ensure that your team is going to be successful,” says Quinn-Carey.

For libraries including sustainability initiatives in their strategic plans, the idea that sustainability starts with a smooth and comfortable line of succession should be a natural extension. “You want to leave what you’ve done better than you found it,” says Sass. “I’m not ready to walk out the door right now. But I have some feelings about what I want to leave when I do.”

If your library isn’t talking about its succession planning process, now may be the time to start. “Raising the issue of thinking about succession, even [though I’m] fairly new...makes me feel like I’m being responsible,” explains Quinn-Carey. “I’m taking care of the organization.” She adds, “You certainly don’t want to leave your organization in the lurch if you leave or if you get sick or something happens.... I don’t think it’s something we talk about as much as we should.”

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