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OCLC’s un-hire

In the few spare moments I am allotted, I’ve been working on an article (a weekend project, as my weekday pattern  is commute-work-work-work-commute-gym-eat-sleep-repeat), but in the back of my brain I’ve wanted to follow up on OCLC’s un-hire of of Jack Blount, particularly in light of my “I am the man” post several weeks back.

The article is about librarians and image — depressingly, one of those topics that, the literature underscores, is only assigned to library administrators of a certain age, though I appear to be one of the few women to weigh in on this ancient topic. I promise not to be a jerk: no railing about Kids These Days; no grotesque generalizations;  a goodly amount of evidence — though when a Facebook colleague asked me if I was writing a book, I decided it was time to begin wrapping up the research end of things. (Were you aware of the Special Libraries Association Presidential Task Force on the Image of the Librarian/Information Professional, established in 1989 with representatives from a number of library associations?)

Like most of my writing projects, I started out with some working ideas. Some were irrelevant, some were validated, and several are being proven entirely wrong. I love this part of the process — like most librarian-writers, perhaps a little too much; it’s the phase where I begin learning something new.

My writing activity ties into my ruminations about the non-hiring of Jack Blount, because here is a case where an employer was absolutely convinced of the right person for the job, until the employer wasn’t. (Not for a moment does anyone believe that Jay Jordan strolled into a meeting and said he was wrong, he didn’t want to retire.)

I don’t know the reasons, and am not even that interested; but I was intrigued that there was no hue and cry to keep Jack Blount. After the initial pop of interest, everyone moved on. Had OCLC continued with the hire, and Blount turned out to be wrong for whatever reasons they uncovered, that would have been the defining information about OCLC for a good long time to come. As it stands, the un-hire became a non-event disappearing into the swirls of time.

So, good for OCLC. I cannot over-emphasize what I have said elsewhere about hiring: it’s a chimerical process, and if you have any doubts, even doubts you can’t entirely pinpoint, don’t hire. Pick up your skirts and flee.

The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense

Then there is the flip side: for all we know, Jack Blount woke up one morning in a cold sweat and said to himself, “I should not take this job.”  I cannot tell you how many colleagues have confessed that they accepted a new position — relocated to it, sold homes, took their families — and within days or weeks realized they were not merely not in Happyville but had been dragged into its Dante-esque antithesis, complete with howling wraiths and massive workplace dysfunction. (I recall a colleague describing university staff meetings, rife with discord, where one librarian would take off her shoes and clip her toenails–and this was a uni of size and reputation.)

I’ve not once heard anyone say they later had second thoughts about leaving as soon as humanly possible.  If it’s that bad, then GO. And if your sixth sense tells you not to take that job — heed those feelings. Boy howdie do I have that teeshirt.

What I don’t understand about OCLC’s process is why they are not using an interim director. This role is not a placeholder who warms a chair; the interim is a very intentional position designed to help the organization determine its needs, reorient itself along the lines of the new reality, and position itself for its next long-term executive. There’s even a saying in church work: if you don’t have an intentional interim, you risk having an unintentional interim. That’s particularly true where the executive has been there a long while, has a strong personality, or has left under difficult or problematic circumstances. Jay Jordan clearly fits the first two categories.

A good interim is not an insider; he or she is never a candidate for the permanent position or any other position inside the organization. The interim has enough industry experience to have a well-tuned nose for bullshit; is in a position to be fearless; is willing and able to make decisions where needed; but is also compassionate toward the people in that organization and the transition they are going through.

As Leslie Morris wrote in 2004,

The Outside Interim, because she has no ties to the current staff, can make needed, even though unpleasant, changes in staff and procedures. … An Outside Interim has the ability to make needed changes without long-term repercussions and worrying that the staff may not come to her annual spring party where hats are required and the food is vegan only.

Many organizations muddle along without interims, not realizing that the first year or two for their new executive is preoccupied with pre-work, in lieu of any real strategery. They “clean house.” They “restructure.” They find the hidden budget mess. They let people mourn. They dress wounds. They steer the organization toward its new directions. (In a sense, John Palfrey was a sotto voce interim at Harvard’s law library: he came, he saw, he rejiggered, he moved on.) And if the organization survives, then it’s assumed that process works. But that’s like assuming that applying leeches is good because it didn’t kill the patient.

The next time you hear of a CEO who whirled through a revolving door, ask yourself if that organization would have been better-served with an interim. For that matter, watch OCLC — which whether it likes it or not is a very public diorama for leadership transition.

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6 Comments

  1. Barbara Fister wrote:

    Part of me thinks you buried the lede. (She clipped her toenails?! For real?)

    The less silly part of me thanks you for writing about something that is utterly baffling. It’s too bad that major decisions that affect huge organizations can be cloaked in silence because “it’s a personnel matter.” Leadership when it works is also a personnel matter, but one we celebrate loudly. I can’t help but think about the University of Virginia and how some trustees tried to hide the mess they made with a “personnel matter” cloak. As it happens, it was a personnel matter wrapped inside an economic philosophy inside a power struggle. So the cloak didn’t hide much for long. The community wouldn’t let it. But they had a cause to champion, a person and a process to defend. All we have is silence. And given that implies something really embarrassing and awful might be behind that cloak, we’re all being polite and looking away, when in fact it’s probably one of the very understandable scenarios you describe.

    Your suggestion of an interim is wise. I also think we need some kind of honest explanation. Perhaps the real reason people aren’t demanding one is that they feel OCLC is something that happens to libraries but is not any more under their control or responsive to their interests than the weather. Since we really need to work together right now, that’s a shame.

    Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  2. For real! One of those “ok, you win” war stories.

    OCLC is such an interesting beast — and its posture as a quasi-corporation doesn’t serve it as well as it thinks.

    Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  3. Ann wrote:

    Interesting post! I, too, was curious about the OCLC leadership issue. I think the reason no one was rallying to have Jack Blount stay on was that he hadn’t started yet (very different from the University of Virginia situation), and besides, probably very few library folks actually knew who he is, outside of those who had Dynix systems several years ago when he was CEO there (and seemed to do a good job–he definitely listened to customers).

    An interim seems like a good suggestion for a place as big as OCLC–but since they were able to get their former executive to stay on, in my opinion, that is even better. Someone who knows that he/she plans to leave the organization can actually do a lot to prepare the place for new leadership.

    Another model to consider is what a lot of businesses do–they have a leadership development program, and often have a few leaders waiting in the wings, ready to assume a position when needed. This gives the organization continuity, and there is no need for interims, or multi-year searches, as sometimes happens to libraries that are seeking new leadership.

    Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
  4. “Someone who knows that he/she plans to leave the organization can actually do a lot to prepare the place for new leadership.” No, not really. That person can only be a ditto machine for his or her own leadership. Let’s face it, leadership has a strong stamp of personalization. Jay Jordan can prepare the way for a Mini-Jay, but he doesn’t have the perspective to understand where he triumphed and where he sucked.

    I’m all for growing executive leadership, but the “continuity” argument makes me wary. Even an excellent organization benefits from fresh eyes and new perspectives.

    Finally, the need for interims isn’t about how long it takes to do a search. It’s about what an organization needs to prepare itself for the next stage.

    Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  5. There’s no hue and cry because I don’t think anyone was particularly excited (or un-excited) about Blount.

    I agree with you about the oddness of no interim director — but note, it’s not that they have no director, it’s that they announced that, in fact, Jay Jordan will be staying on indefinitely, there is not currently an executive search going on, but instead OCLC will be “be assessing its succession planning process as it moves forward.”

    Which is a very odd way to end an executive search.

    While there hasn’t been a lot of talk about this, I’m not sure that means it hasn’t hurt OCLC. There hasn’t been a lot of talk because, well, there isn’t all that much to say.

    I think many people, however, have probably noted it as another reason to suspect that OCLC is floundering at the moment, is NOT boldly moving forward with a clear organizational strategy. OCLC’s been trying to present an image otherwise, and is/was convincing some people of it — but I suspect this incident greatly increased the number of people not-convinced, and they will be even more difficult to convince in the future now.

    Monday, July 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  6. In churches, “interim” is a specialization, but it seems rare in other kinds of organizations. It is an interesting job: clean up any obvious messes, uncover any mass hallucinations, resolve the grieving (especially after a long tenure), and keep the ship afloat for the next pastor. Also, try not to close off strategic options. Not a job for the timid. Any ruffled feathers are a gift to the next pastor who can smooth them back down.

    Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 1:08 am | Permalink

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