Shoot for the Moon

Shoot for the Moon

There is a truly great post over at Stephen’s Lighthouse, which is followed by a truly great discussion in the comments. And it’s right up my alley because while the gist of the post is about managing high potential employees in libraries, the underlying factors that make this difficult all relate back to the culture of libraries. Do we have a culture that is suspicious of exceptionalism?  Or is the problem in defining what makes a library employee exceptional?

In his post, Stephen says this:

“The usual result is that the library system garners praise for the efforts of these employees who often develop successful, leading, innovative initiatives and programs and communicate this broadly beyond the employer’s boundaries through their tweets, blog posts, Facebook and speaking engagements.”

I would venture a guess that these traits are also the very things that are cast in a negative light by some and raise suspicion that the “rock star” performing for a larger audience in the bigger arena is not really interested in the coffeehouse gig anymore. In other words, those who put themselves out there are not necessarily doing their own jobs or at least not doing them very well.

So the question becomes whether a high potential employee is someone who conforms to the standards of its organization and performs his or her job with precision, efficiency and little (direct) complaining or curiosity and has little interest in the bigger picture, or is a high potential employee someone who tests the boundaries and constantly seeks more responsibility, is never really satisfied with the status quo and always wants to know more? Well, that depends on what kind of potential you’re looking for and what kind of culture you want to foster where you work.

From my experience, there are two camps with some overlap–those who say, hey, just do your job the rest of it isn’t your concern. And those who say, hey, we have a responsibility to be engaged on all levels–with our jobs, our departments, our organizations, and our profession. I happen to firmly believe in the philosophy of the latter.

I can also imagine murmurings to the effect that high potential employee=high maintenance employee. I don’t think that’s true, but I think it is a perception held by some. Why foster the ambitions of a select few if others are content to maintain and the work gets done regardless?

My sense is that in the world of libraries it is much more acceptable to fit in than to stand out. It is much more acceptable to have a narrow rather than broad focus. It is much more acceptable to be content with the parameters of your own job than to explore issues that don’t have any direct relation to your day-to-day work. My sense is also that all things being equal, the high potential, high performing employee who flies well beneath the radar is more acceptable than the high-potential, high-performing employee who is on everybody’s radar.

But that’s just my perception, which may differ from your perception. When you think about it, exceptionalism is defined by perception and by the culture of libraries.

For the record, I don’t believe in the notion of “rock star” librarians or “movers and shakers,” and I know the use of those phrases can cause extreme reactions. And I think there are exceptional employees that run the gamut from task-oriented individuals with low profiles to free-range thinkers who are highly visible–and everything in between.

I also think there are high potential employees who have a lot to contribute to their own organizations but no real means by which to contribute at a higher level. Unless these employees are given real responsibilities and decision-making roles with genuine risks involved, they will never be tested. They will get frustrated, and they will want to leave their organizations even if they believe in the mission just as Stephen’s post suggests.

But with library jobs rather scarce, that just isn’t always an option. So these employees may flounder, become disgruntled, jaded, and cynical, staying in their positions but turning more and more outside of their organizations for affirmation, engagement, and visibility. They may start giving their best efforts in other venues where they sense a greater appreciation. Maybe you’re thinking, hey, a secure job and a paycheck should be appreciation enough to garner anyone’s best efforts. True. But to fail to give more responsibility to someone who is asking for it seems counterproductive to me.

According to Stephen’s post, another characteristic of the high potential employee is-

“They exhibit behaviors that reflect their organization’s culture and values in an exemplary manner.”

Maybe. Unless their organization’s culture and values don’t include valuing high-potential employees or are as yet undefined. Then they are simply standouts who may appear alien to others within the organization or to stakeholders.

It’s a quandary, that’s for sure. I’m fortunate to work for an organization that is in cultural flux–we are working toward branding our cultural identity.

I have high hopes that I work for a high potential organization. One that will be exceptional without exception regardless of perception.