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#OnTheRoadULC: Featuring San Mateo Public Library // Two Librarians & A Microphone Podcast

Live from the Urban Libraries Council Annual Forum, we’re interviewing Carine Risley and Laura Liang from the San Mateo Public Library about their revamped Employee Evaluation Program. 

San Mateo Public Library has transformed the dreaded annual self-review into a process empowers and motivates their many employees. Through the implementation of weekly check-ins and transparent communication, employees are more satisfied and higher performing. With 93% of their employees feeling valued in the workplace, the library can truly live up to its greatest potential...and your's can too.


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Learn more about their innovation here


Jim Heuer [00:00:17] Hi everybody, this is Jim Heuer, host of The Ingram Library Services Podcast, Two Librarians and A Microphone. I'm here with librarian number two, Donna George. We're in Baltimore, Maryland and we're excited to be recording live at the Urban Library Council Annual Forum. Ingram Library Services is a proud sponsor of the Innovation Awards that the ULC bestows upon its members. Today, we have two of the top innovators from San Mateo County with us. We have Carine Risley. Morning, Carine.

Carine Risley [00:00:47] Good morning, I'm really happy to be here.

Jim Heuer [00:00:49] And we have Laura Liang. Good morning, Laura.

Laura Liang [00:00:51] Good morning!

Jim Heuer [00:00:52] You all have been bestowed a Top Innovator award in the Organizational Change and Strategic Management category. We were talking about it this morning. Donna and I were really excited to talk to you because you guys have done something to change the employee evaluation program system, the way things go in your county. Could you explain that program to us and that innovation?

Carine Risley [00:01:19] The program is taking an approach of employee development and performance acceleration and using evidence to determine what it is we're doing. What we're not doing is annual performance reviews, self reflections, things like that. Instead, we have three sort of pillars. One is required weekly to check in with the employee and manager for at least 15 minutes every week to really put a focus on coaching and future focused conversations. We have weekly survey questions which give our managers immediate data to act on in terms of what their employees are saying. We also have an employee recognition function, a "cheers," which allows people to celebrate one another's accomplishments.

Donna George [00:02:06] I'm sure everyone's dying to know, how did you do it? If somebody wanted to start doing this, what is kind of step one and how did you create an atmosphere at San Mateo where it was okay to even think about doing this.

Carine Risley [00:02:20] It was pretty cool. San Mateo County Libraries is a joint powers authority, but our employees are employees of San Mateo County. We have a pretty cool program called The Executive Leadership Academy where higher level managers have an opportunity to do a rotation in a different department. I had a chance to go over to HR and they asked me to help them out with a project on performance. Initially they asked me to just tweak the questions of employee evaluation, but as I did the research, I saw that I couldn't find anything to support doing annual evaluations and many, many pieces of evidence to indicate that it's probably the worst thing you could possibly do if you wanted to encourage employees to do better.

Jim Heuer [00:03:01] Ugh! I hope lots of people in our company listen to this podcast! So, there's a book that I've read called Thanks For The Feedback and there's a line in there that has yet to leave my brain and it said, "The worst thing to do is to get an employee evaluation. The only thing worse than getting one is giving one. The only thing worse than giving one is getting one." You put that phrase meets expectations together and that doesn't ring very supportive, right? Selling this to the county, that seemed like it would have to be an arduous task?

Carine Risley [00:03:39] A lot of private companies have moved in this direction and there's a smattering of public agencies across the country that are looking at doing this. We did feel some reservations, but when we took it to the executive level, everyone was excited about it. In fact, everyone wanted to participate in the pilot and we weren't able to accommodate all the department heads who wanted to participate. The same thing with our board. They were just delighted. They felt like it's moving the organization forward, and really, our highest expenses are our employees. Trying to do something that's going to positively influence employee growth is something that they really wanted us to see and pursue.

Donna George [00:04:22] I'm not sure if there's been an obvious community reaction to this innovation aside from the fact that when the community walks in to the San Mateo Library the employees are grinning like crazy about this change. What kind of feedback have you seen, either from the community or from your staff?

Laura Liang [00:04:40] From our staff there's a lot more positive reactions than when we first tried to implement it. There were some reservations and hesitations as to how it would work. But over time our staff have really benefited from these weekly check-ins, we are more in touch with what's happening at that moment and I see a lot of growth with our staff. Some of our staff, one in particular, was incredibly shy, and she was really reserved, but after these weekly check-ins, giving her the support that she needed, she started coming to me with ideas about what programs she could bring to the library. She has a creative arts background and I would have never thought of asking her what she wanted to bring in terms of creative arts programing, and she brought up the idea that maybe she could run a paint night for the library. She told me she notices that there's a couple of programs that are very similar. She'd love to observe them and then love to bring her own ideas to the library. I was like, "Oh my goodness, of course! Let me offer you that kind of support. I'm glad we were able to check-in. Let's follow up with that, let's set those goals, and put this into place."

Jim Heuer [00:05:53] You know those are the success stories that I read about in behavioral management books all the time. That's so cool that you guys are seeing that. Time element though, you mentioned you have quite a few people that report to you, so setting aside 15 minutes every week, did you find that to be hard? Was that...

Carine Risley [00:06:11] It took a little bit of getting used to. We were in such a routine of doing monthly one-on-one check-ins, and then it was like this breakdown of 15 minute check-ins. Really it's the same amount of time that I'm giving them but in the 15 minutes I feel like we're getting more because they're not feeling rushed to have to cover everything in a month to give to me. Once we got into the routine, in the beginning it was like 30 minutes, 45 minutes, but then we started getting used to the routine of doing that weekly 15-minute check-in, and now it's been so much easier to get that into place. I set those meetings every Monday with the same employee and the same staff, or every Tuesday at the same time, so they know, "All right, I can check in with Laura very quickly at this time. I don't have to worry about waiting until the end of the month to figure everything out and have that sort of talk about what programs I want to bring." It's actually worked out better.

Jim Heuer [00:07:11] There's an immediate feedback loop for you working with the folks on your team then, right?

Carine Risley [00:07:16] A lot of what we're trying to do is coach and mentor our staff into more forward-thinking practices. So, instead of waiting for feedback, they're asking for it now. I do the same with them. I ask them for feedback on what they think we should be working on, and what we can do better. But I think it's this great practice that will really help us change the culture in which we work and really shift our mindsets.

Jim Heuer [00:07:46] That's fascinating stuff. From Deputy Director level, what are the things that are you most excited about in this implementation, other than your program nailing it.

Carine Risley [00:07:58] Well one, I'm really happy to see the positive reception of staff really saying that they're building relationships with their managers and supervisors, they're feeling more comfortable. Really, you can listen to different research, but we really feel like that once a week really builds the trust and the familiarity and safety, so that you know if there is some feedback that I need to advise a growth opportunity for this staff member to work on, that it's a safe conversation and not threatening. One of the things I've really love about this whole process is every week seeing the results and also the write-in comments, and just appreciating once more how incredibly challenging communication is and it's so hard. I'll have managers say, "I can't wait until you see my results this week. They're going to be like out of the park!" Then they might be lowest in the organization and that's okay. We don't use it as a gotcha, but it's an opportunity to understand what's going on here and figuring out, okay, the team was really distracted this week and sending an email wasn't effective. Or mentioning at the staff meeting, staff aren't still understanding what's going on. But what I'm really excited about is that we've got a strong foundation here, some really healthy habits in place to really drive forward something else we've been working on which is really a culture of growth mindset and increasing the quality of our conversations that are now happening every week. That's what we're going to be looking forward to doing

Carine Risley [00:09:25] in the next year.

Jim Heuer [00:09:26] What were some studies that come to your mind as really helpful? If somebody says, "Oh gosh, I want to do the same thing in our system." What were some of the things that helped you kind of push this initiative forward internally?

Carine Risley [00:09:38] One thing that I've observed in the research is that people will accept some of the findings about annual performance reviews, but they won't make a whole switch, if you will. One thing I would caution against is going to any sort of documentation-heavy system. The documentation in most cases doesn't help you. It's not really for anything. If you have someone who's on an improvement track, that's a different situation. But for the majority of your employees, really all you need are these conversations and this continued support. Something else is just not missing the opportunity. People don't like annual performance reviews. If you can connect not doing that with very specific best practices, I think you'll get better results. What Laura mentioned is something that I think we're all pretty proud of, which is recognizing and asking for feedback is much more powerful than just receiving it, and so real centers even use our weekly questions as prompts. Like you know, "Did you ask your manager for feedback anytime in this last month?" Then depending on the results, it just gives us an opportunity to do work. The other thing is just to make sure that the staff do have access to the data, like instantaneously, because anytime you're holding the results, you're diluting the effectiveness of what people can learn about themselves. I think the classic example's the annual employee engagement survey, which captures people on one particular day when they may or may not have been in a good mood, and then often the managers get those results,

Carine Risley [00:11:06] one, three, four months later, and it's really hard to act on those findings. But when you see something that your team is saying today, it can really inform your approach to the coming week.

Jim Heuer [00:11:17] Wow, that's amazing stuff. Are there things that you're thinking for next year that you want to incorporate, or is it because you meet so frequently that you don't have to wait for a next year? You can incorporate changes immediately.

Carine Risley [00:11:30] We can incorporate changes immediately. Right now, we're in the process of putting together a work group to really continue to advance this. We're going to be champions for it throughout the organization. One thing that we're continuing to look at is people are still figuring this out, there's lots of strategies going on in the private sector and I'm just trying to find the right complement of questions. Employee engagement correlates with increased performance, but we're just looking for other ways to really get at the power of what we're doing. Something else we started doing is using our weekly questions to just create tighter connections to organizational goals. We'll ask people, "Do you know what our current strategic priorities are this year?" And then, depending on the answer, we have a chance to react. But we actually know. That's the interesting bit about communication, is just seeing how much work and how much effort has to go into making sure that every employee does know what our current strategic priorities are, and then does every employee have a goal that aligns with the strategic priorities, and then later are you discussing your goals. Just ways for us to know the best practices. It's great to have a goal. It's great to have a goal that aligns with strategic priorities and for you to know how your work ties in to the larger causes that we're all working on.

Jim Heuer [00:12:42] Wow, it seems so transparent, so empowering to employees. 93% feel valued at work. I want to find the 7% and say like, "What are you looking for here," right? Like, "What do you want," right? This seems amazing.

Carine Risley [00:12:56] Maybe we'll have that solved by next time we talk.

Jim Heuer [00:12:58] Excellent!

Carine Risley [00:12:58] We'll work on it.

Laura Liang [00:12:59] Maybe it was just a bad day.

Jim Heuer [00:13:00] Clearly, obvious to us why you guys won this Top Innovator award. That's amazing and good luck. We'd love to see this become a wave that goes across the country. Things start in California and move their way east, so we'll extend our congratulations. That's fantastic!

Carine Risley [00:13:17] Thank you so much.

Jim Heuer [00:13:17] Thank you.

Laura Liang [00:13:17] Thank you.

Jim Heuer [00:13:20] Two Librarians and A Microphone is brought to you by Ingram Library Services, it is a division of Ingram Content Group. Our producer/director is Rachel Cope, sound engineering by Craig Simpson, special assistance by Essence Brisco, and Elizabeth Wilcox. The research done by our librarians, Trisha Bengel and Donna George. I'm Jim Heuer, thanks most of all to you for listening. Please follow us on Instagram at @thelibrarylife, tag us in your #thelibrarylife moments, because we've got some cool stuff going on, on that social media platform. We're going to be giving away some exclusive books, ARCs, perhaps a signed copy. In order to make sure you're staying tuned to this podcast, we'd love for you to go to our landing page, but most importantly, the best way you can show your support for us, is we'd love some reviews on Apple iTunes. If you can go on there and leave us a positive review, that would really help. We'll see you in your libraries. Thanks everybody.