Why Aren’t We Hiring the Kinds of People We need?

Library directors talk among themselves about their frustrations in hiring.  “My staff continue to hire people just like themselves,” a director may say.  But anyone who ever worked for Jay Lucker at MIT knows one way to avoid that fate.

When Jay hired me, he made it clear that he expected me (and his other assistant directors) to chair every librarian search committee in our areas.  Thus, in my seven years at MIT, I hired 25 of the 40 professionals in public services and ate 123 search committee dinners.  Some weeks I had an interview every day.  At the beginning of the meeting with a candidate I would to announce, “We are interviewing for a librarian for …,” just to make sure I had the right search.

When I became a director myself, I used Jay’s method.  I made sure that my deputies and I had a shared vision of what we were looking for and that we made the final hiring decisions.  And I personally “charged up” every search committee at their first meeting.  I told each committee to look for the following:

  • Some relevant experience, but not necessarily everything in the position description; we want people to have the opportunity to learn new things;
  • Willingness to grow and change, since many jobs evolve rapidly;
  • Ability to write clearly and succinctly;
  • Ability to speak clearly and make engaging presentations; and, finally,
  • Signs of intelligent life. (This always gets laughs, but I am serious.)

I also warned search committees that the process would take a lot of their time and their attention.  Searches are tiring because you are using all of your senses all the time.  What has the candidate learned about us?  How well does he or she speak?  Answer the questions asked?  Ask us questions?  Many new librarians do not think about the questions they should ask during an interview; having questions about the position or the environment demonstrates active interest.

I always ask the candidates what questions they have for me and what they want to make sure we know about them.  And I ask them whether they are more or less interested in the position than when they began the interview day. 

Despite the time-consuming nature of searches, the committee should not settle for a maybe OK.  Recovering from the wrong hire takes far more time than continuing the search.  I know that from experience.


Coming soon:  Rethinking every position before filling;  Weaving new hires into the fabric of the organization


Who I am

My husband is a craftsman; he repairs rare books and manuscripts;  I’ve been a librarian/department head/associate director/dean/vice chancellor.  My husband and I talk about our work at the dinner table.  Consequently our children know many things – how to accept a responsibility that frightens you; how to do a performance evaluation; how to fix your mistakes; how to work a room; how to declare victory and move on when you hit a stone wall.  And much more.

I’ve been telling stories like these all my working life.  Of all the writing  I’ve done, the piece that has legs is Leading from Below or Risking Getting Fired – morals from the many stories I told to my colleagues as a senior fellow at UCLA.  It is time to bring those stories up-to-date, enriched by experience and expanded perspective.