The Thirty Year Hire Fallacy

Today my team said goodbye to a colleague. I knew when we hired her that we wouldn’t keep her for years, but I had expected to work together longer than we did. She had only been with us for ten months, but that’s okay. In those ten months she improved several key work processes, unlocked a few stalled projects and started several productive conversations that have put us on a better path.

In my 19 year career, I’ve hired a lot of people onto our team. Finding great people is the part of my career of which I am most proud. Having chaired dozens of search committees, both large and small, I am invariably asked to consider if the person we are interviewing will stay for the next 20 or 30 years.

I don’t care.

When bringing new members onto our team, I am looking for two things:

  • Does the candidate have skills or abilities to help us do something we aren’t currently able to do or do well?
  • Does the candidate have the desire and ability to grow?

If the answer to both is yes, we have a match. Thirty years or thirty months doesn’t much matter. Finding someone who trusts you enough to share their talents, their time and their heart changes the game. Be a careful custodian of that trust. Build them up. Develop their talent. And when it is time for them to leave, celebrate.

I am proud of the team I serve. I am also proud of those who have left our team to build different dreams.

Thirty years? That’s the wrong question.

Will they help us grow?

Decorative image of road sign pointing towards growth

“Growth – Earnings Growth – Growth Sign”by gfdnova1 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

How to Measure a Career

I spent today in meetings. Day-long meetings are generally awful, but today I was with my fellow academic library deans and directors from across the state college system. I always look forward to these meetings. It is a rare chance to gather with peers who do the same work in the same system with the same goals under the same constraints. We share. We commiserate. We celebrate. We solve problems.

After 13 years as a higher ed administrator, I have worked with a lot of different people. Many have moved on to other things. Some have retired. A few died. At 45 years old, I am now the third longest-serving administrator in our group of 19 academic library directors. Today someone felt compelled to suggest that I have accrued something that passes for wisdom over those 13 years. I’m not sure this is true. I do think a lot and talk a lot. Someone who thinks and talks as much I do is bound to occasionally say things that feel useful.

Each time my friends and I are together, we reminisce about the work we’ve done, the challenges we’ve faced, the opportunities we developed, the absurdities we have endured. In taking stock I realize that the things of which I am most proud are not the things that I myself have accomplished. I am most proud of things I have helped others accomplish. Things I have helped others recognize to be possible.

Being the boss is hard. If you do it well, it is probably lonely. If you care about the work you do and the people with whom you do that work, you will never feel like you are doing enough. You will always be dissatisfied with your response to a need, your inability to provide a resource, your misunderstanding of a situation.

Be kind to yourself. Take inventory of your greatest successes. You are an effective leader if:

  • You have people who trust you to tell them the truth.
  • You have people who ask you to listen when they are struggling.
  • You have people who openly share their craziest ideas because they want someone to be excited with them.
  • You have people who thank you for who you are and how you work and how you help them work.

This is how a career is measured. Everything beyond this is just certificates in scrapbooks, plaques on walls and lines on the resume.

Showing Up

Whenever I feel too self-important, I think about the courage it took to walk across a bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Most of the people that day didn’t give speeches, address news crews or create a riot. They went for a walk. They got pushed back. They walked again. They walked until they made it.

The March to Montgomery took three tries, but 25,000 people arrived in Montgomery on March 25, 1965. The Voting Rights Act became law later that year.

Twenty-five thousand people showed up. They changed the world by taking a courageous walk. Together. I don’t know their names. I don’t know their stories. They changed the world by showing up.

2018. My country is broken. My daughter is 10 years old, and the world is nothing like the world I thought I would give her. I’m not doing enough.

I can’t be a hero, but the world doesn’t need heroes. The world still needs people willing to show up and take a walk.

Value-Added: Be Part of the Journey

When I began my professional career, I took a lot of pride in testing the limits of what I could do. I wanted to be the best reference librarian, the best teacher, the best administrator. I measured my value in exhaustive and exhausting projects and lists. The more accomplishments I could mark off the list, the more presentations I delivered, the more valuable I had become.

I felt a compulsive need to prove myself.

After a few years that wore thin. I still enjoyed turning in my best performance and getting big things done, but the satisfaction of each accomplishment was disproportionate to the amount of energy I was pouring in. I was getting tired, frustrated and more than a little bit bored.

And then something significant happened. I decided to focus less on what I could accomplish and more on what I could help other people accomplish. I discovered the joy of being part of excellent teams.

I lead a great team in my library. Every member of my team has a super power, though a few of them don’t quite realize it yet. The best part of my work is finding ways to help other people discover their super powers and ways to make those powers more useful. I also enjoy the challenge of finding ways to let their super powers increase my own.

Today my team said goodbye to Matthew Ownby. Matthew was offered an excellent opportunity with a major news company. It wasn’t a gift he sought. It was a gift that found him because he is excellent.

Matthew joined my team last September, which means he was with us about 9 months. In that time, he brought fresh perspective, aesthetic talent and good humor to projects we had already been doing. Matthew wasn’t always about doing new things. He was about doing useful things in a new way. He helped make us better.

And now that he’s left, people ask if I’m worried or scared to be back in the hunt so soon for a new team member. The truth of it is, I feel happy. I am proud of we did and excited to see what lies ahead for us all.

Too often, I think, organizations hire people on the belief that they need stability and some mythological thing called “long-term fit”, the person who is going to stay for 30 years. That is, I think, the wrong approach.

Better to hire the person who can move you forward, the person who can add value and help you become what you aren’t yet but need to be. Better to hire the person to whom you can add value as well, and then, when the time comes, part ways better off for the experience. Be it 9 months or 30 years, these are the people you need on your team.

I am grateful to have such people my teams, both in my library and in various projects outside. It is often humbling to find myself useful to excellent people. It is great fun to be part of their journey. Adding value and having value added — both are inspiration and a catalyst for the excellence I so often crave.

The Limits of Leadership

Good leaders sometime get lost. There are two options for when this happens: forge ahead anyway and pretend like you know exactly where you are going or stop and ask the team for directions. I’m not a big fan of the Fake It Until You Make It school of practice. The work is too important. Too much time gets lost. The team wanders out too far.

And so, from time to time, the leader has to look up and recognize that the team isn’t heading where they thought they were heading. The leader has to admit they took a wrong turn or missed a crucial path. This is difficult work. It can painful. It is almost certain to be embarrassing. It is also essential.

The best leaders I have known knew how to step aside, ask the team for directions and reorient themselves in the right direction for the good of the team. Before good leadership there is almost always great followership.

Better Than Busy

A few weeks ago a colleague at work stopped me during my lunch break to thank me for the contributions I make to our workplace. It was a nice moment. It is always nice to receive simple, honest validation from someone who understands and appreciates what you do. Still, I am a little bit haunted by the way he phrased the compliment. “Man, you are the busiest guy I know. You are everywhere doing everything.” Those words, simple and specific, sat on top of my own observation that, more often than not, my own team had started to apologize before talking to me. I started hearing things like “I’m sorry to bother you” and “I know you probably don’t have time for this right now” and “Its important but it can wait if you need.” This is code for, you’ve got yourself buried behind a barricade of work. We know you’re in there and just want to acknowledge that we can still see you.”

I used to admire super-busy people as exemplars of drive, ambition and stamina. Now that I have become one of those people, I feel a bit sorry for us. I can’t help thinking that extreme busyness is a symptom of some larger disorder. That busy people aren’t necessarily more productive, and that many of us are just incapable of proper prioritization or effective delegation.

I like to be busy. I like to work hard. I like to push my limits and practice with stamina and determination. These are virtues. Still, I can’t help feeling as if I have fallen into the busyness trap, substituting energy and effort for clear, specific results. I am reading Jim Collin’s Good to Great and working again with the idea of a Stop Doing List, an exercise in clarity by cutting away at things that don’t really need or deserve my attention.

I am also working with the idea that 21st century leaders, above all else, will be rewarded for their ability to bring clarity of focus to the people on their team. Helping others find and sustain clarity of focus requires strong relationships. Clarity of focus gets developed and shaped over time. This kind of leadership only happens when the leader slows down, models relentless discipline of focus and helps the team connect to their own purpose, their own intention and their own drive. This is the kind of leader I aspire to become. I don’t want to keep being the guy who is everywhere doing everything. I want to be the guy who connects everyone to what needs doing. This kind of  leader is still a busy person, but the pace is controlled, the focus is clear and everyone travels together. That’s a better way to be.

Why Martin Luther King Day Matters to Everyone

I was 12 years old when Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday. I grew up in the American South with a lot of kind, generous but sometimes confused people. I remember feeling frustrated by my conversations with people I respect who seemed to resent the new holiday and wondered why we celebrate this one man, Martin Luther King, Jr, with a day of federal rest yet do not honor our presidents in the same way. I was frustrated then because I didn’t have the words to answer their question.

Twenty-eight years later,  I have those words.

My country is addicted to the idea of our presidents as essential leaders. Every four years, we cast our ballots in hope, whether voiced or silent, that we are electing a uniquely gifted person who can lead us (all of us) into our better future.

We expect too much of this person. We make our president too important, and, inevitably, we are disappointed when our unrealistic hopes are dashed. We are angry when our president turns out to have too small a vision or lacks the will to break those things we believe ought to be broken.

I have come to understand Martin Luther King Day as a day to reflect on leadership. Not power. Not prestige. I think about leadership, the kind Martin Luther King, Jr. showed more than 50 years ago. It is the kind showed by millions of others right now, today. We just don’t have a name for it.

Authentic leaders give people a voice. They voice the shared thoughts of people who cannot be heard. They articulate the unexpressed aspirations of people who cannot place the stuff of their own heart into words. They simplify complexity. They make the impossible seem attainable. They declare what others secretly hope to be true. They create impatience where complacency has become harmful. Authentic leaders help people recognize and overcome barriers to their own self-interest. Authentic leaders inspire action. They recognize and develop the natural energies of a shared ideal. They shape ambitions and catalyze dreams.

And then, they step aside so many hands can get to work.

There are a few presidents who exhibit these qualities, but there are many, many regular people who lead this way every day.

And so, Martin Luther King Day, for me, is not a celebration of just one man and the remarkable things he was able to achieve.  Martin Luther King Day is a call to action more than a memorial. It is a reminder that this country is still being built and the building requires many hands. We aren’t finished.

We do need good presidents. We deserve better senators and representatives. And yet, our country is not made by them. Our future does not belong to them. We make our country, every day. America is its people. This, I think, is an idea worth a federal holiday.

Leadership is About Attention

“We need to make it clear that executive presence doesn’t refer to dressing well and appearing unflappable, but to someone who is in charge of his or her own attention. You cannot command the loyalty of those who cannot command your attention.” — Doug Riddle, “Executive Leadership”


I work with lots of teams. I lead a team of my own. I think a lot about leadership and what makes a person worthy of respect and attention.

As a young leader, I used to believe everyone needed me to have the best ideas. Believing this was stressful and limiting. I was often paralyzed by the gap between what I knew and what I thought everyone expected me to know. Things moved way too slowly because everyone waited on my ideas to arrive and I waited with them because I didn’t know any better.

I have recently been working with the idea that a good leader doesn’t need to have all the best ideas. The good leader just needs to recognize the best ideas quickly and clear the way to get those ideas in use.

I appreciate Doug Riddle’s post “Executive Leadership”. He places the focus correctly not on decisiveness but on attention. Good leaders don’t simply decide things. They have learned how to pay attention to the right things, the right people. They pay attention to the needs and accomplishments of their team.  Good leaders are in charge of their own focus. They know how to focus their team. Good leaders know how to recognize problems and also untapped strength in their team. More importantly, good leaders know how to slow down and give their team the right attention. A leader who can listen will find the best ideas more quickly and help get those ideas into play.

Leadership is about Standing Between

I still have a lot to learn about leadership. I am slow to delegate, leave projects unfinished and am miserably poor at moving paper from file A to file B. Whatever success I have had as a leader has come from three qualities: I don’t mind being uncomfortable; I am okay with uncertainty; and I enjoy standing between departments to get the really interesting work done.

For the past 6 months, I have been serving my college as Interim Dean of Student Academic Services. This assignment is almost at an end and I have enjoyed the experience very much. In this role I have had the chance to work with my team in the library as well as work more closely with the Center for Teaching Arts, Technology and Distance Ed and the Learning Centers.

These departments are natural allies. All are aligned to develop, organize and deliver the resources and services our students and faculty need to maximize learning. Working together, we have accomplished a lot. We have developed an online plagiarism tutorial, conducted mock research “hospital” workshops, piloted faculty development webinars, implemented classroom iPad pilots, organized a professional development academy and much more.

We did these things. I did not.

I used to think of a leader as someone who stands in front of people to show them the way forward. It is, I think, sometimes more accurate to think of a leader as someone who stands between people to show them the goals and talents they have in common and help them figure out new, interesting ways to put those common interests and gifts to work. That is, at least, the kind of leader I aspire to be.

Leading is About Courage

I have become very mindful of my growth as a leader. I run an academic library. I have been given additional, interesting administrative experiences at my college. Incredibly, there are people who trust me and seek my opinion. It is all very humbling and makes me grateful for the generosity of the excellent people who have mentored me over the past 20 years.

I am thinking of the high school teacher who encouraged me to pursue my weird passion for learning new things and to share that weird passion with others.

I am thinking of the boss at my first job who didn’t berate me when I made a huge mistake and, instead, helped me work out my own plan for correcting and preventing such mistakes in the future.

I am thinking of the college administrator who let me dream big and fail big, testing and discovering the limits of personal ambition.

I am thinking of the colleague who constantly encourages me to look forward, move forward and engage with change in a positive, proactive way. That is the only way we can shape the future.

All of these people have, in their own unique way, taught me one valuable lesson: leadership is about courage — having courage and lending courage.

Every team has a leader. Sometimes that person is officially paid to be the boss. Sometimes that person is the leader by default. I have worked both ways. In either case, there is always a leader and the members of the team look to that leader for confidence. A leader demonstrates confidence by clarity of vision, simplifying complexity and acting with consistency in changing circumstances. A leader acts with confidence and models courage. This is essential but also pretty basic.

As a leader grows, he or she is able to not only have courage but lend courage to others. Courage to try something new. Courage to sit with a problem and figure things out. Courage to voice unpopular opinions. Courage to accept responsibility. Courage to fail.

Nothing useful happens on a team that has no courage. No matter how much intelligence, experience, and vision is tied up in a team, nothing worthwhile happens without courage.

This is the lesson I work with everyday. I work to keep myself mindful and worthy of the example of those who have invested their trust and confidence in me. I struggle. I fail. I disappoint. I hope I also give courage where courage is needed.

The world is a difficult place. Everything is in flux. Nothing stays still. A leader’s job is to keep everyone moving bravely forward. We can accomplish nothing when locked up in fear. There is an openness and a lightness that comes when working with courage. When that courage is shared, there are no limits on what can be accomplished.