Collateral Damage

Collateral damage occurs when an person gets battered as an innocent party in larger actions.  A long career almost guarantees that you will be collateral damage at least once, more often if you are unlucky. 

How bad can collateral damageget?  This example began with a casual statement from the director to the relatively new supervisor of an inconsequential department.  “You should apply for our head of public services,” he said.  The supervisor was intensely flattered, had some doubts about readiness for such exalted work, but did apply.  And, of course could not compete with outsiders with more experience and did not get the job. A valuable lesson learned with only temporary embarrassment.

But the organization was in the midst of a broad restructuring.  And the director then called the supervisor and asked her whether she would like to become head of circulation.  (Circulation in the class system of libraries was not then highly thought of; indeed it was usually headed by a non-professional.)  Knowing about other open positions, the young supervisor said, “No, I’d rather be head of reference.”  Director indicates that a more experienced and highly respected colleague had asked for that position.  So supervisor says, “Then I’d rather keep my current position.”  Director says, “I already promised that to the (non-professional but very good) reserves supervisor.”  This story ultimately has a happy ending although it is not relevant to the purpose here. 

What is illustrated here is that good and very well-meaning leaders can inadvertently injure some of their best people by statements that they cannot follow through on.  If one is really talented and hard-working, collateral damage is more likely to catch you.  When faced with a promising employee, the urge to praise and encourage is strong.  But the line between acknowledging good work and implying promises is a fine one.  And we have all crossed it at one point or other in our career.  Catching oneself in this – especially if you have ever been on the receiving end – is a humbling experience; I know.

Crying at the Dinner Table

Even the most successful career has low points, frustrations, dashed hopes, interpersonal conflicts.  Each person copes differently, usually out of sight of prying eyes.  The worst require getting away from the work site  while the pain lessens.  Some take long walks.  Some wounds have to wait until the end of the day and involve crying at the dinner table.  Some drive sedentary souls to actually exercise.  Yoga works in some situations – relaxing, breathing deeply, focusing on your third eye (the invisible one in the middle of your forehead).  But I recommend avoiding crying at the dinner table if you have children.

The causes of crying at the dinner table may be promised promotions or salary increases that fall through, projects that come to nothing for suspect reasons.  Many of the blows arise from well-meaning, clumsy or thoughtless leadership.  Sometimes the leader wasn’t aware that what he or she asked you to do could not be done; the leaders might not have been familiar enough with the landscape to know where black holes exist.  You may know there are obstacles but hope that your leader has the power to overcome them.  But sometimes he or she finds the political cost is not worth it or it may use up scarce political capital or not even be worth the leader’s scarce time.

These setbacks may be hard to take.  But even harder to take (and humbling) is when you find yourself accidentally inflicting one of these blows on your own staff.  For some unwritten law, you often wound your best people.  They may inspire you to take make some promises or take some chances that you can’t really follow through on.  Once you have been the inflictor, it reduces the bitterness that you may feel at having been an inflictee.

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.