I am extremely delighted and immensely thankful to welcome as a guest columnist Steven Bell who is the Associate University Librarian at Temple University Libraries. Steven’s frequent columns on leadership as featured in Library Journal’s Leading from the Library Series sparked my interest in having him as a guest speaker at the Maryland Library Association Conference in May 2015. Steven’s new book entitled Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library-Leadership will be a must read for anyone interested in leadership in the industry.
How many job ads for librarians have you seen that start like this:
We are looking for a creative, innovative…
In the course of my 38-year library career I would say I’ve seen, oh, thousands of them.
All right, maybe I’ve lost count somewhere along the way, but you know what I mean. It seems like every advertisement or description for a librarian position starts this way, with some variations on this theme. You know those words:
I’m still waiting for the librarian job ad that starts with:
We are looking for a dull, humorless control freak…
Of course we’ll never see that but think for a minute about all the job ads you do see where the dreamy unicorn candidate is the ultimate creativity and innovation master. The first thing I ask myself is whether this employer actually means what they say. Do they really want a truly creative innovator who will always be looking to disrupt library operations with a host of way out there ideas for new programs, resources and services – not to mention expecting everyone else to change to accommodate all those new ideas? And don’t forget that the employer wants this purple squirrel to work for peanuts.
You will question the thought process behind the word choice in these ads if you’ve ever applied for one them. You imagined yourself to be the ideal candidate whose overflowing abundance of creative and innovative powers would blow away the search committee. But you didn’t get the job, and quite possibly not even an invitation to interview. Then you found out the library hired a, well, dull, humorless control freak. Before going off the deep end you ask yourself why in heck they advertised for a creative innovator in the first place. What happened?
Let’s just say these employers actually found that creative innovator of their dreams? Then what? Exactly how receptive would they be to a new staff member eager to recommend some really creative and innovative changes? That’s what they were hired to do. How about coming up with homegrown subject terms instead of that old, traditional Library of Congress stuff. Its creative and innovative but would it be enthusiastically embraced? I suspect that the writers of these ads are not entirely sure what they have in mind, except to prepare copy that attracts eyeballs. We’d all like to think we’re that creative innovator who’s just right for the job, so we keep reading the ad and maybe we apply because we want to be in an organizational culture that rewards creativity and innovation. Until we get the job and discover there was some deceptive advertising.
Libraries should want creative and innovative staff members. It brings to mind something David Kelley says during the “Deep Dive” video about how IDEO encourages creativity and innovation to stimulate design thinking. Kelley says “If you go to a workplace and it’s a bunch of stiffs I can guarantee you they’re not likely to invent anything.” I think that’s the sentiment behind those job ad catch words. The intent is to attract the type of people who are likely to invent something, whether it’s totally new, integrating an idea from another library or even a new twist on an existing service. The problem is that most libraries have a disconnect between wanting creative, innovative staff and fostering a workplace culture that facilitates discovery and invention.
There are two things we can do about our “we are looking for…” problem. The easy solution would be to pay more attention to the type of job candidate qualities we ask for in our employment ads and the type of people we really want to hire into our organizational culture. Hiring a truly creative librarian isn’t going to turn a maintain-the-status-quo library into a wildly innovative workplace. What’s most difficult about the easy solution is admitting the library isn’t ready to hire a creative innovator. Why hire someone into a position that’s only going to lead to disappointment and regret.
The harder solution is to start working, before hiring that new creative staff member, to build an organizational culture that thrives on creativity and innovation – or at least perform a gut check to determine whether such a culture is in place or in the process of forming. Start by understanding the characteristics of innovative cultures and the ways in which they facilitate worker creativity. To paraphrase David Kelley, “If the leadership team is a bunch of stiffs…”. The leader who writes or approves those typical “We are looking for…” ads needs to look in the mirror and see a person who passes muster on the creativity and innovation qualification. Top administrators establish an innovation culture with their own creativity and advocate for boundary-pushing change. That’s where it has to start.
If leadership is committed to an innovation culture they demonstrate it by setting the right expectations for the workers. Ideally, it starts with hiring people who are inclined to and openly contribute to an innovation culture. Putting the right people into the wrong culture can be a recipe for disaster, so it’s equally important that the leaders listen to what the staff has to say and empower them to put their ideas to the test. Leaders recognize that creativity and innovation are not special super powers. They believe that with the right conditions and support, all staff members have the capacity for innovation – if there is an organizational acceptance that change is a positive force, supported by an allowance for risk taking.
I get why librarians start job ads this way. They don’t want stiffs. They want cool, slightly eccentric creative types who will come up with new ideas for really innovative projects that are equally cool, unique and set the standard for others to follow. Who doesn’t want a dynamic, innovative, energetic, start-upish, idea person as their co-worker? Then the rest of the staff can sit back and maintain the status quo while waiting for their creative, innovative new hire to figure out what we should be doing and how to do it. We all know how that’s going to turn out. It doesn’t have to end that way.
Fight the temptation to start that next job ad with the same old “We are looking for…” statement. Decide right then and there to be honest about what type of person will really fit into the library culture and how that’s best articulated in the job ad. Maybe there are better choices. It might be more like:
We want to build a more creative library culture. We’re not there yet. If you are looking for a job where you can do the same old stuff and get by, please move on to the next ad. If you want new challenges and are willing to work hard and collaborate, don’t worry if you are not the most creative or innovative librarian. We’re not interested in hiring a lone creative genius. We do want a colleague who will bring a fresh perspective that adds diversity to our team. If that sounds like you…
Instead of starting with the same old “We are looking for…” do your prospective candidates a favor and tell them about your organizational aspirations to achieve a more creative and innovative workplace – if that’s what you really have in mind. There’s nothing with wanting to hire a creative, innovative librarian to join your organization. Just be sure that’s what you’re really looking for.