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Personal Editorial: Managing High Potential Employees in Libraries: The Rock Star Dilemma

I’ve noticed that some libraries are challenged with managing high profile and high potential employees.  The usual result is that the library system garners praise for the efforts of these employees who often develop successful, leading, innovative initiatives and programs and communicate this broadly beyond the employer’s boundaries through their tweets, blog posts, Facebook and speaking engagements.  These people are the canary in the mine of the library future.  They also bring back ideas and insights into the home organization.

Sadly, I’ve also noticed in the last year that many of our best and brightest have been unable to achieve success in their current employer.  This usually hasn’t been because they’ve grown beyond that employer, they’ve usually had their wings clipped for all the wrong reasons.   I’ve noticed dozens of my friends and colleagues jumping ship (or feeling pushed) this year into new employment or, sometimes, consulting.  Some of these folks are in their early careers and some are more seasoned.  I don’t see any pattern in their demographics but I do see a pattern in their behaviours and competencies.  These folks are often:

a. socially and professionally connected to a wide variety of librarians and others.  They’re often very well known within their ‘bubble’ of library practice sectors and enjoy respect in their field.

b. share their knowledge, ideas and insights widely and accept comments as learning and discussion opportunities.

c. are little idea and innovation hamsters and try small experiments all the time.

d. are good to great public speakers, communicators and writers and often challenge current thinking and structures just for fun.

e. have strong personalities and resilience, have great passion for librarianship combined with a little humility and desire to learn from others.

f. have good senses of humour, shared widely, but that often have an ‘edge’.

g. they’ve got guts and they’re ambitious (not the bad ‘power’ kind, the make-a-difference-with-my-life kind)

h. a big challenge to manage, focus, direct and lead.

I worked for many years as librarian in a very large global HR consulting firm.  I often did research on how to handle the HiPots (high potential employees) well.  Corporate leaders typically look to the top-rated 3 percent to 5 percent of their employees as candidates for fast-tracking. This rarely appears to be the case in libraries with our often smaller staff contingent and the likelihood that high performing employees look like tall poppies and stick out.  Mature, well developed organizational cultures celebrate this, while others may support conformity, or worse, jealous and sabotaging behaviours.  How do we ensure that the library tent works well everyone as determined by their abilities?  How do we support and grow individuals who “consistently and significantly outperform their peer groups in a variety of settings and circumstances. They exhibit behaviors that reflect their organization’s culture and values in an exemplary manner. Moreover, they show a strong capacity to grow and succeed throughout their careers within an organization—more quickly and effectively than their peer groups do.” (HBR)

I worry when I see that so many talented librarians and library workers are dissatisfied.  Are we doing something wrong or is the best solution that so many of our top people move on?  On the other hand maybe it’s best for the entire profession that these folks get wide experience in a number of organizations.   This may work for some, but in a profession where a large number of practitioners don’t have as much mobility as some other professions due to family responsibilities, among other reasons, this might not be a good singular strategy and we need to make sure we cultivate all our folks for the future challenges better. One of the changes I noticed in the early days of the Internet (pre-web) was the identification of awesome librarians who didn’t work in large institutions/system or big cities gained ‘fame’ through discussion lists and more.  There was an expansion of the voice of librarianship due to the Internet medium.  This situation has increased even more with the web and webinars…

Researchers see a huge divide between what employers think motivates high-potentials and what actually motivates them. Employers cite lists of what “we’ve given them,” and in the often rule-driven or union context many library employers can feel disempowered to support high potential individuals. Research shows that these individuals as less motivated by compensation and desire opportunities to more directly influence and direct their careers and more-challenging assignments with real risks and rewards.  I’ve noticed that many of the high potential people I see abandoning their current libraries are taking pay decreases or putting their total compensation at greater risk just to get more control over their careers, follow their passion and make a bigger difference with more exciting projects.  How do we engage these people in place and avoid demotivational strategies.

Check out this article:

The Care and Feeding of High-Potential Employees (SHRM)

This article expands on these strategies to handle HiPots and boost morale and engagement:

  1. Tell them they’re special.
  2. Align individual and company needs during a consultative process.
  3. Delegate real responsibility.
  4. Be flexible.
  5. Show them they matter.
  6. Tap effective mentors.
  7. Foster visibility.
  8. Make learning and advancement seem never-ending.
  9. Focus on developing the attributes leaders are bound to need.
  10. Give managers assessment tools they need and will use for selection.
  11. Use a systems approach.
  12. Put assessment to the transparency test.
  13. Part on friendly terms.
  14. Get buy-in from top leaders.
  15. Offer What You Can Afford

I’d add that in times of tremendous change (like now) there are a few stupid strategies:

1. cutting the professional development budget

2. cutting the travel budget completely

3. applying all travel and PD to pre-retirement staff

4. having HR strategies based on equal treatment instead of equitable treatment

5. engaging in non-transparent HR management strategies

6. rewarding the whiners who attempt to cut down tall poppies instead of using the example of rewarding great non-conformist behaviours that match future needs

I know there’s a paradox here with the collegial nature of library culture.  It would be too bad if we lose too many of our best to other professions or to serve as examples that we’re not the kind of employer that can handle difference, innovation and success.  Now is the time to develop our next leaders.  Our library HiPots are one place to start.

Look around.  Do you have  potential library rock star on staff?




Posted on: November 28, 2012, 11:37 am Category: Uncategorized

25 Responses

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  1. Stephen, I think this is a great editorial. I would add though that a companion list for the employee on the care and feeding of their employers would not be amiss. There are definitely things the employee can do to ease their own way and too often I have seen HiPots mishandle the employer relationship as badly as the employer mishandles them.

  2. Good idea. I find I give a lot of advice in this area. I’ll start working on a post to that effect.

  3. Eileen, I think you are absolutely right! I’d love to see a flipped editorial on what HiPots can do for their employers too! I think it runs both ways.

  4. To me it comes down to, “When people want to be awesome, let them.” It baffles and saddens me that so many organizations seem to invest so much energy into getting in the way.

  5. Just wanted to mention that “vocal and visible” isn’t always equal to “productive and innovative.” Also be on the lookout for those in your organization who achieve a lot but self-promote less. In my experience much of the real work and the groundbreaking implementation of new ideas isn’t being done by the people who often get the credit for it.

  6. Kelly: And that’s the saddest part. I see so many great library folk fearing that they’ll be chopped down if they publicize their innovations that they keep their candles under a basket. Not only do they get little credit, their innovations remain beautiful little craftwork gems that don’t diffuse through the profession and we’re all professionally poorer as a result. Libraryland needs to develop a better culture of innovation and support for our innovators so they needn’t fear the haters (and I’ve known a few!). Some actually stopped blogging or using social media because of so-called peers having Neaderthal skills on feedback – and I’m probably inapppropriately insulting the Neanderthals!

  7. Eileen brings up an excellent point, although I really would love to see administrators weigh in on this first. Also, do any union librarians have anything to add?

  8. This limiting behavior is rampant in Academic Libraries, especially when it comes to librarians of color. The systematic exclusionary practices of organizations toward librarians of color saddens me. I know informally at least 20 individuals, that are “extremely” unhappy facing daily or weekly racial microagressions, exclusion, and limited access to opportunity. I don’t think that High Potential Individuals are made to feel limited…only if you are the “right kind” of high potential professional. The “right kind” is usually when a leader sees herself in that person. They rarely see African-American, Latino, Native-American, or Asian professionals as someone they should support.

  9. Once again you’ve hit the nail squarly on the head. Speaking as a non-rockstar librarian, but simply as a younger member of the profession, it seems to me that administrators like to talk more about change and innovation, than actually put those things into practice. The faux-congeniality I’ve encountered in my professional jobs is disheartening to say the least. Management seems more interested in either CYA, or attempting to get buy in from everyone (to avoid hurt feelings), coworkers won’t agree to change if it means they have to do any more work or if they didn’t come up with the idea themselves. A member of management once told me that he expects to manage the gradual shrinking of the library over the next few years until we finally close the doors. This isn’t climate that allows for any innovation, much less rock-star level innovation.And yet, management continues to take part in every CE opportunity that comes along, travels to all of the conferences, have library supplied cell phones/tablets/laptops, etc. because they believe they have put in their time so now they are owed this perk.

    I’m actively looking for jobs outside of the library world where I can use my creativity and be rewarded for it rather than being cut down. A helpful additional perk to working as a librarian outside of the library is that the pay and benefits are vastly better.

  10. Stephanie said

    As a library administrator (yes, in a highly unionized environment) and manager of IT, I honestly think our library does a good job of trying to encourage innovation and professional development – on a pretty shoestring budget. But I will comment that within academia, there are sometimes things that make it hard to push innovations through. Academe can get mired in its own culture, and the additional endless red tape and regulations of being a state institution in a state famous for insane amounts of red tape – well, that complicates things too. It takes the stubborness of a mule to push through it, and a refusal to give up no matter how many times the answer is “No”. And yes, we have been able to keep our stars, and hired more, to the point where I think there are really only a very small handful of employees who contribute little. But it has taken years to achieve this. Another frustration is the lack of opportunities for major advancement. You can get put in charge of all kinds of initiatives and projects here, and there are lots of opportunities – but there are few people who retire or quit, so there aren’t many opportunities in senior management. But then, not everyone is very interested in that either.

  11. Cyndee L said

    As a library administrator (and someone identified as a HiPot just a few short years ago), I look for HiPots and want them to understand the following:
    1.You work within a context…the mission, vision, strategic initiatives and politics of the organization. Those may or may not change fast enough, but they are what you’ve got to work with for awhile
    2.The organization is not solely responsible for managing your potential. It is a cooperative investment and effort
    3.Respect the fact that everyone in the organization has a significant contribution to play, even if they have not been ( and maybe they do not want to be) identified as a HiPot
    4.You have a responsibility to mentor and cultivate others

  12. The timing of this post is eerily appropriate. I’m wrestling with finding opportunities for several HiPots in my library, with no money available to spend on them. I’m willing to take the risk to encourage them to take secondments or negotiate exchanges to add to their experience, in the fervent hope that if I treat them fairly, they will come back to my library with needed skills and experience. It’s a huge risk – but less than risking losing them forever because they’re frustrated and unsupported.

  13. As a library administrator, I agree. One of the key responsibilities of a director is to set a tone and a culture. If you give your attention and care to those who are, or could be, stellar achievers, you get more of them. “Succession planning” really isn’t anything more than bringing as many talents to bear on library initiatives as possible. It’s good for the organization, good for the staff, and just incidentally, makes the director look great.

  14. As far as I’m concerned as a manager, the more high potential people I manage, the happier I am. They = change and move us – and librarianship – forward.

  15. Dear Stephen,

    I was pointed to your article by some colleagues in The Netherlands, because of a blogpost I wrote last week about the very same issue but then from a employee’s (my) point of view. It’s in Dutch, but maybe Google Translate will help.

    Kind regards,

    Jeroen de Boer

  16. Is this about me? 🙂

  17. Blake: LMAO … Without you nothing I do would work!

  18. I’d like to forward this to my leadership, but “dilemma” is misspelled in the title– and my director, a former journal editor, would zero in on that. If you could correct that, I would then be able to forward it. Thank you.

  19. Fixed!

  20. I’ll tell you what you don’t do with one of these employees. Give them a 3 out of 5 on their performance evaluation (meanwhile the narrative of said evaluation is reflective of a 4 and individual ratings were more than a 4) and screw them out of a raise.

  21. This is really interesting and makes me think a lot about motivation in the workplace. I think one of the most common things I see happening in libraries (or at least mine) is that there isn’t enough delegation of real responsibilities, as you put it. The upper group keeps all the power and control in their own hands, which is frustrating for those who are trying to learn and advance.

  22. There is room for both Rock Stars AND the drones in libraries. The HiPots tend to be broad stroke visionaries who need someone to follow behind crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s. I have seen very few of either type able to exist profitably without the other. Budgets have to be kept, desks have to be manned. Not long ago I suggested that the first question asked shouldn’t be, How is this going to help ME? It would be better to ask, How is this going to help the library?

  23. Infogirl said

    This entry hits what I’ve experienced in libraryland right on the nose. I am an early adopter who was raring to go when I graduated with my masters. I was excited about all the technological changes happening in libraries and was eager to start applying my skills to the field. I was lucky to get an adult public librarian position soon after graduating and had a boss who trusted me to do a great job with little supervision. I flourished in that environment because I had the power to shape my job to some degree. Then the economic decline hit. We lost huge numbers of staff, so those who were left had to do much more. That meant less time to focus on the new trends and more time doing non-professional grunt work. All money for conferences was taken away from staff and given to administrators. All money for programming was taken away. All librarians basically became interchangeable as they made everyone focus on the same things. Whereas we were once applauded for taking initiative and going the extra mile for patrons, we were suddenly admonished and scolded for doing superior service. Customer service – the whole reason we exist in public libraries – went down the tubes. Everything you mentioned that were unhelpful strategies in these times were all adopted by the system. I very much fit the profile of the tall poppies, but things changed so much in terms of policies that my skills became detrimental and threatened my ability to stay in the good graces of my administrators. I am no longer in that situation, but think about my colleagues who are still going through this in that system. However, because of all the policy changes, most of the tall poppies were either let go, retired, or found employment elsewhere. I believe that the early adapters need encouragement and opportunities to show their system just what they are capable of. It is a waste of an expensive degree to be an untapped resource doing paraprofessional work. Administrators need to use the resources they have by investing in their staff – giving people opportunities to learn, grow, and experiment in their jobs. Otherwise, it all becomes drudgery.

  24. Heatherbrarian said

    I don’t know if I’m “high-potential” or not. But a lot of what you said resonates with what I want in a workplace. I’m incredibly lucky to have landed in an amazing library right out of grad school, where I’m given both the freedom and the necessary support to imagine, plan, and implement new initiatives and ideas. Though I don’t plan to leave for a while yet, having heard all sorts of horror stories, I’m already terrified of changing jobs – of possibly ending up somewhere bureaucratic and stifling.

    When I start looking for my next job, my plan is to a) pay attention to how potential employers behave during the application process, as I think that’s a pretty good indicator of how decision-making works and how I would be treated as an employee at that library, and b) when interviewed, ask about how they support their staff in professional development efforts and about the usual process by which new ideas and initiatives are brought to fruition in that library. I’m hoping that these things will give me a reasonably good impression of the culture of the organization so that I can determine if it’s a good match.

  25. Excellent post. I’m torn between giving my rockstars everything they need and not having the drones feel like they aren’t valuable. Any strategies for not risking the latter by doing the former?