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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