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.

Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Luke Skywalker Cannot Save Us Now

Oprah Winfrey gave an incredible speech last night at the Golden Globes. She was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” Oprah used the opportunity to connect her experience seeing Sidney Poitier win that same award in 1982 with the experience of young girls who were watching her last night. Oprah was focused, inspiring and, most of all, generous.

We live in a distracted world. Moments when everybody pays attention are rare and getting rarer. Oprah used her moment to direct our attention to the importance of a free press to bring truth to light against corruption and abuse of power. She brought the forgotten life of Recy Taylor out of history and into my attention for the first time. She connected the often unseen struggles of industrial, agricultural, service and military women to the #MeToo movement of Hollywood. She honored the achievements of women while reminding that those achievements are often well-supported by the work of like-minded men. She did it all in under nine minutes.

Predictably, the Morning After headlines read “Oprah for 2020”. I love Oprah. She brings people together rather than pushes them apart. She inspires people to search for the best in themselves and bring that out. More importantly, she inspires people to search for the best in others. She came up through tremendous adversity to become one of the most influential, successful people alive today. Should she be president? I don’t know. I don’t even care right now.

We need to be careful. We have solved or are solving most of the simplest problems in the world. The problems that remain are really, really hard — racial intolerance, global resource distribution, climate change and nuclear holocaust to name just a few. These problems won’t have a single, simple solution and they won’t be solved by a single person, corporation or nation.

And yet, with each passing year, we seem increasingly fixed in the blind hope that electing the right president will save us. President Barack Obama received the Noble Peace Prize just eight months after taking office. The award underscored a phenomenal accomplishment, becoming America’s first African-American president, but the award also seemed to be aspirational, a down payment on expectations that one person’s vision might permanently transform reality. The Nobel Prize was an honor about which Barack Obama himself was conflicted.

Seven years later, slightly less than half of American voters elected the candidate who stood on stage at his party’s national convention and actually spoke aloud the words, “I alone can fix it.” You’ve probably been following the rest of that story.

We keep searching for saviors. The problems you and I face together are scary. They are overwhelming. We keep looking for an Abraham Lincoln, a Winston Churchill or a Luke Skywalker to save us. We won’t find them. Not even Luke Skywalker can save us now.

And so, as we watch Oprah’s eloquent moment, let’s accept it for what it is. An inspiration. A challenge. A call to action.

Oprah for 2020? I don’t know. For the moment, it is just all of us together. If we are inspired, challenged and working together, that can be enough.

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.

No News is Bad News

People often say, “No news is good news.” I have said it myself many times. It’s a  lie. This is a thing we tell ourselves when we aren’t sure where we stand or how a  project is really going. This is the credo for the path of least resistance. This is the motto for the path of greatest avoidance.

I run an academic library at a mid-size community college. If you think libraries are drowsy, dull places where routine is revered and nothing ever changes, you are flat wrong. Everything is changing. My library is wrestling with eBooks, eJournals, iPads and other mobile technologies. We are building chat-based reference services and piloting embedded course librarians to more effectively teach our students good information habits. We are reshaping our print collections and working with other departments to develop online learning objects to be used in the classroom. One of my favorite projects at the moment is piloting the delivery of  real-time telepresence research assistance at a satellite campus via the use of a Tandberg hi-definition video conferencing unit. My library is a busy, interesting, and challenging place.

I want these projects to succeed. I want them to solve somebody’s problem. I want them to address a need.

Anytime a team starts a new project, the effort receives the benefit of the team’s full attention. Everyone is paying attention and watching to get to the project off the ground. Quickly after launch, the immediacy wanes and the project becomes a normal part of life. Once the initial vigilance fades, we begin to shortcut our assumptions about how the project is going. We lose touch with reality.

In those first few months of life, we are continually searching for flaws in the project so we can fix them and improve. Eventually, the search for flaws becomes an assumption of strength. In the absence of negative feedback, we convince ourselves that things are going well. If things were going poorly, someone would tell us. Ergo, no news is good news.

The truth is opposite. No news is bad news.

If things are going well and people are being well-served by your product or service, they will tell you. If things are going poorly and people believe or expect something better from your product or service, they will tell you. In either case, clients, customers or patrons are engaged with your service and are willing to invest their feedback into making your product stronger. If no one tells you anything good or bad, then no one is really engaged by your product or service and you are operating in a void. You aren’t meeting a need and no one cares enough to tell you.

Complaints are a sign of health. When people complain and point out flaws, it is a sign that they have a greater expectation of your product or service. Since nothing is ever perfect, some manageable volume of actionable complaints is a sign that people value what you are offering. Act on all reasonable complaints and you can only grow stronger.

When people praise your product and point out strengths, celebrate and work to preserve and increase the specific value they have recognized.

Listen. Be patient. Don’t be defensive. Feedback, both positive and negative, is a sign of engagement. In either case, be grateful.

Silence is the enemy. Silence is deadly. Silence means nobody cares.

No news is always bad news.