From the Director’s Chair:  The Best, the Worst, and Lessons Learned

Posted by Sarah Nichols on 9/7/2016

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This is the first post in an occasional series in which I’ll share experiences from my decades as an Information Services Director. Many librarians, researchers or knowledge managers get promoted through the ranks into senior management roles without the benefit of formal training in administrative and operational areas—me included. That can make things …interesting! In this series I’ll share my best tips, my worst mistakes, and lessons learned. Please read on for the most illuminating interview question you can ask when you’re hiring.

Priority 1: hire the best people

Whether you recruit and hire directly, or rely upon your human resources department to find candidates, you’ll need a position description and a list of responsibilities and necessary skills/attributes required for success in the role. Many of those are quite standard and are very useful for getting the “right” candidates in the door, but less useful for ultimately finding the best match. And by the way, unless your HR recruiter has lots of experience with librarians, researchers and knowledge managers, your time will be well spent if you sit down with him/her and go through the standard requirements in detail.

Trust your intuition

When you meet potential candidates, you’ll either have an affinity for them or you won’t. One thing I can suggest based on my own experience: never hire someone you don’t like or don’t believe is a good fit, even if they’ll be reporting to someone else. I’ve done that twice—once when I was a new manager and my own boss hadn’t come to trust me yet so he insisted on a hire I didn’t want to make, and once when I was desperate to fill a position under the pressure of a crushing workload. That last scenario reminds me of the “don’t text while driving” message from my cellphone carrier: it can wait! The lowered departmental productivity and morale problems that are the inevitable result of making a bad hire are simply not worth it.

It’s not you, it’s me

Sometimes you meet someone you like a lot, and wish you could work with—but you know they aren’t a good fit for the team and the role. That’s too bad, but make the hard decision not to hire them, and then keep in touch through professional networking channels. You may have the opportunity to work with them in time.

The most illuminating interview question ever

I came up with a question that I always, always asked candidates, many of whom commented that they’d never been asked it before, had never thought about it, etc. The responses were illuminating 100% of the time. Ask them: “What do you look for in the person to whom you report?”

I just saw an enjoyable interview hosted by performers’ union SAG-AFTRA, with the actor Hugh Grant. When asked what he needs from a director, he replied “Praise!” This might tell you that he’s narcissistic, but it definitely tells you that he is insecure, needy and likely to be high maintenance. (I actually am a fan, by the way!) So if the movie director isn’t interested in constantly praising his/her actors, it’s going to be a tough slog for all concerned.

On the one hand …

In my case, as a Director, when people reported to me, I absolutely did not want to micromanage. I believe in hiring the best people for the job, giving them the right training, resources and advocacy—with sanity checks as needed—and letting them do their thing. When I interviewed people who responded to the “what do you look for …” question with answers that showed a need for close, ongoing engagement and continual instruction, permission, etc. I knew they wouldn’t be a good fit no matter how skilled they were.

Conversely, if the role you are trying to fill requires a high level of teamwork, engagement with organizational priorities and serious consequences for inaccuracies, you won’t want to hire the person who says they require autonomy, control over their own time and projects, and solitude.

Go from 0 to 65 mph with one question

The basic requirements for a role are standard; it’s the cultural fit and impact on the team dynamic that are the differentiators every time. In my experience, asking what your candidates expect from the person to whom they report is the speediest and most accurate way to make the assessment.

Topics: Management, Interview Tips

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