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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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