If you could eliminate anxiety, save time, and utilize helpful conversations to develop the performance process in your library would you do it? On this show I speak with Brian Mortimore, Director of Human Resources and Organizational Development for the Kent District Library in Michigan. He shares a model of performance management that includes regular employee check-ins to make these things possible. 


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This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

If you could eliminate anxiety, save time and utilize helpful conversations to develop the performance process in your library, would you do it? On this show I speak with Brian Mortimore, Director of Human Resources and Organizational Development for the Kent District Library in Michigan. He shares a model of performance management that includes regular employee check-ins to make these things possible. It’s a conversation about a supportive and easy method of performance management that I hope you’ll tune in for.  

Enjoy the show!   

Brian, welcome to the show.

Brian Mortimore:

Hey, thanks for having me.


Thank you for talking with me today about performance management in libraries. Let’s jump right in. 

Question #1: First of all, why would leaders in libraries want to look at this? 01:35 

Brian Mortimore:

They’d want to look at this quite frankly, because this is the best system I’ve ever seen. I’ve been involved as an HR person at this library system for seventeen years. Prior to this I was in higher education, and prior to that—health care. I’ve seen a lot of different performance appraisal systems and the approach we’ve been using these last four, or five years, are hands-down the best.


Question #2: Great. So, we’re all going to benefit a lot from this conversation today. Can you give us an overview of performance management? Oftentimes this process is redesigned every three to four years, you’ve told me. Which means, you know, is the system broken? Or, what’s going on with that? 02:05 

Brian Mortimore:

I think what happens is that administrators and leaders are always looking for the thing that works best, right? They have a system in place, but it doesn’t always feel like it’s working really well. If you think about performance management, it’s supposed to provide feedback for a person so that they can actually improve their performance or sustain a great performance that they have. One of those two things, really.

It’s a system that’s really kind of uncomfortable for people. A lot of people find themselves in leadership roles and suddenly they have to do performance appraisals, and oh, my gosh, they just dread it. 

It’s that thing that—it just sort of looms on your calendar. I can tell you, I haven’t studied this scientifically, but anecdotally, the number of times either an employee or a supervisor calls in sick on the day of a scheduled performance appraisal, it’s really something. It happens a lot. And I think the reason why is because nobody likes doing them. They’re just this really uncomfortable thing.

Traditionally, you have to look at how this person has performed over the last year. You try to take a whole year’s worth of feedback and condense it into some form, that some HR person, somewhere created for you to use. It might not even feel like it’s right for you. But somebody, the higher-ups, decided this is the way we’re going to do this.

Then they’ve got, usually, a 3-point, or 5-point Likert style scale, maybe a 7-point scale that you’re supposed to rate people on in certain categories. That’s uncomfortable because you want to be consistent, but every supervisor rates people a little differently, so staff take issues with that. 

It just doesn’t feel good to people. And yet, it’s something that’s so important to do because people need feedback. We have to have this kind of documented feedback so that we can help people grow, we can justify their promotions. If there’s performance concerns, we have that documented feedback so that we can begin some kind of progressive disciplinary action, if necessary.

But under most circumstances, performance management does not really involve disciplinary action. That’s like few and far between. But those are the cases that everybody thinks of.

Everyone has a lot of anxiety. They head into these meetings. They’ve got that pit in their stomach that just doesn’t feel good. The managers very often forget about something great that happened eight months ago that the employee is just waiting to be recognized for. It just doesn’t work out well. That’s kind of the problem that we’re faced with right now.

Is it broken? In many cases the answer’s yes. Sometimes organizations—libraries will design their performance appraisals to tie directly into the strategic plan, or some goal that the individual’s working on. That’s great. But at the same time it doesn’t take away some of those other problems, or problematic situations that we just described. That’s why you get so many people calling in sick on performance appraisal day.


Question #3: Sure.  And we don’t want people to call in sick on performance appraisal day, we want it to be a good experience, right? …reduce anxiety, and you talk about consistent performance management—why is that important in this, to help with that? 05:50  

Brian Mortimore:

It’s important that people perform consistently and that we give feedback consistently. There’s a phrase that I like to say, and I’ve been quoted a few times with this. That is, that the lowest level of behavior we allow is the highest level of behavior we can require. The lowest level of behavior that we allow, is the highest level of behavior we can require. 

That’s very similar to one of the standards of just cause employment that everyone is treated fairly, and treated equally. It’s really important that people get consistent feedback, and it happens in a timely fashion, and that way they’re allowed to grow and experience all that’s good about working—all that’s positive, and fulfilling about contributing to a library system in your community, or making a difference for your team members as a manager. 


Question #4: Right, and that’s what we’re hoping for, a positive difference both for staff, for the public, and in everything we do in libraries. I know you do a lot of work on what can replace traditional performance management. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? 07:07 

Brian Mortimore:

The traditional approach—I’ve seen a lot of them. I’m sure your listeners have seen all kinds of different versions of this, but fundamentally they follow a pattern. There’s maybe a dozen, or a couple dozen different categories. They’ve got a Likert scale, it’s a multiple choice where you either are rating somebody a 1, 2, or a 3. Maybe it’s a point system 1 through 5. They go through that. Then there’s usually another section which deals specifically with some goals that were established a year or so ago. 

The managers get really creative about how they write those responses, or they reflect on those outcomes. It might be that something didn’t get accomplished, but they don’t want to acknowledge that it didn’t get accomplished because they feel like the reasons were outside the scope, or abilities of that individual. For any number of reasons, oh, let’s say a pandemic, for example. Let’s just assume for—I’m sure one would never happen, but let’s just suppose there was a pandemic…


[laughter] …right.

Brian Mortimore:

Then all of a sudden that changes everything, doesn’t it? At one point last January, a lot of people had certain goals for the year. Then a pandemic shuts us down. All of a sudden, you’ve got to tweak and modify your goals. 

In our library system, all of our programming went online. All the plans just went right out the window. We suddenly had to reinvent ourselves with prospective programming. The traditional model doesn’t work well, because here we are eight months, a year later—you’re doing an evaluation on somebody? It just doesn’t work, you know, it’s just not relevant. 

What’s neat about the new system is, the new system actually replaces the traditional, because it’s a system that actually puts the manager more in touch with their individual employees on a more frequent basis. 

We require a quarterly meeting. And we call it a check-in. We like calling it a check-in because we’re a library, and libraries are notorious for wanting to have fun names for things. You check-in books and materials. You check-in with your staff. It’s the same sort of thing.

Instead of having this very structured kind of form, we have some general direction for our managers, and our staff know to expect this. They ask certain questions during a check-in. They schedule their check-ins with their people. They sit down and they say things like, Oh, tell me what you’re working on. Let’s reflect on some of the things that you were working on when we met last. Let’s talk about that.

It’s just a conversation. And that conversation then includes things like, Is there anything that I can help with as your supervisor? Is there anything standing in your way of being successful—anything that I can do to help remove any obstacles? Then you have that conversation. The supervisor documents the outcome, or the details usually in two or three sentences. They record that stuff in our Human Resource Information System. But if you don’t have a Human Resource Information System, that’s fine you can record it on an Excel spreadsheet. It’s that easy. 

We record that information, and we do that every quarter. And in so doing, we’re validating that our managers, at least once a quarter, are formally meeting with their people on what their projects are, giving them the one-on-one attention that they deserve and need. We also know that this happens on a more frequent basis, but by having a minimum once per quarter, with documentation, then we’re all accountable for that. And when we’re accountable for something it gets done, right? We want to make sure we’re all accountable. 

But we also know that those informal check-ins happen on a much more frequent basis. Here’s the dirty little secret about all this—when we’re doing formal check-ins, and we’re creating conditions where managers and employees are having those discussions, we’re actually improving the supervisor-supervisee experience. We’re improving that, because now we know that our managers are engaging with their staff in this manner on a more frequent basis. And that’s what supervision is all about, right? 

And the trick about all this stuff is keeping it casual. It’s not secretive. We very often will sit down and say, Hey, we need to schedule a check-in. That gives the employee a minute, or two, to think about what it is that they want to talk about. And gives the manager a moment or two, to maybe look up the last recorded check-in and see what the person was working on.

With that, it’s very, very helpful in reducing that anxiety. Nobody really fears the process anymore. No one’s really looking at what their scores are. No one has to slide a piece of paper back and forth across the desk for the employee to sign, and the manager to sign.

All the angst that goes with that stuff is just out the window. 

We didn’t invent this process. This is something that’s happening across a lot of different industries. We just learned about it at the national SHRM conference, Society Human Resource Managers is SHRM. We learned about some other industries that are doing it. We thought we should try it here. And we did, and it’s been very successful.


Question #5: Well, I’m glad it’s found success in your organization. It sounds like it does just what we’re talking about, decreasing anxiety, being consistent. Also you know, more check-ins are maybe more supportive of both employees and supervisors. Can you give any real life examples of how this work? 13:24 

Brian Mortimore:

An example would be—let’s say I’m about to meet with one of my youth librarians, okay. I’m the director, and we’ve scheduled a one-on-one check-in. We know we both have the time on our calendar. We’re in a confidential place where we can both talk. We’re not out on the floor. We’re in my office, or in a meeting room, wherever, some place quiet. 

Then we get together, and I might say to my librarian, Hey, thanks for meeting with me. When we met last in June you were in the middle of Summer Reading Club. How do you feel it went this year? Then the librarian’s going to explain all the great things that happened in the Summer Reading Club, if there were any challenges or whatnot. And, you can talk about that a little bit.

That’s the ice breaker, reflecting on what’s happened in the past. Then, I can now talk about something that I assigned as a goal. For example I’d say, I know you were going to do some job shadowing with another librarian, Emily, for example—to learn some of her storytime techniques. How’s that been going for you? 

Then that librarian is going to give me feedback, at that point in time, on how the job shadowing with Emily is going. And, I might decide to set some additional activities or goals around that, or I might just move on. I might say, What else are you working on these days? You’d be surprised just by asking that question, What else are you working on these days? How often a supervisor will learn that there’s a few things that people are working on that they just didn’t know about. 

We take it for granted, but our people are really, really good at knowing how to run a library system. Even if we’re not necessarily there giving them direct feedback, or direction every single day, they know what needs to be done.

You might learn that there’s been a problem with one of the receipt printers and they’re working with IT to solve that, or who knows what the issue might be. But you might learn about it simply by asking that open-ended question. These are all open-ended questions, by the way. That’s really important.

Then you wrap things up with a couple more pieces and that is, Is there anything getting in your way, anything that you need from me, anything that I can help you with? Very often the employee will say, No, I think we’re good, you know?

This is also a time if someone’s having a problem with another employee, or is challenged by a decision, or is feeling like there’s something that’s truly getting in their way of being successful, they’ll tell you. And, they should tell you. And you want them to tell you can work through it. 

Then I like to wrap up with some appreciative words to this individual. Thanks for all you’ve been doing here and thanks for all your efforts. I’m glad you’ve been working well with Emily on the job shadowing project and glad you’re working through some of those other challenges. 

Maybe going forward I might say something like, Going towards this next quarter let’s make sure you get involved with our new strategic plan. There’s going to be some goal setting sessions. We need key individuals involved in that. I think you’d be great at that—maybe you could offer some ideas that we could adopt for next year’s Summer Reading Club, or whatever the topic might be.

That’s really how it unfolds. Those are the questions that I would ask. Those are the questions that our managers would ask. And the typical one-on-one is going to be about ten minutes. It’s not going to be an hour long event or an hour and a half long event. It’s going to be about ten minutes. If it takes more than ten minutes then there’s probably a major issue, or maybe you’re just doing it wrong.

It’s meant to be pretty comfortable, pretty easy-going. If you’ve got an employee who’s really got some kind of performance management issue where they need more coaching, or more direction, this is not the tool for that. The tool for that is more of a corrective action process. But again, those represent probably two percent of our interactions, in total, when it comes to managing staff. The vast majority fall under this generalized coaching session, or this general check-in.

And it works so well. It just does, because it’s easy. People don’t have to maintain huge files. They don’t have to fill out large forms. We don’t have to have everybody sending forms around for signatures. 

But there is an accountability component to it. I want to mention that, too. Somebody in your organization has to be responsible for ensuring your managers are doing this. Because even though this is easier than the old system, people will still have a tendency to put off the documentation of their conversations. That’s been my experience, anyway. That’s an important thing to note. That’s something to be mindful of.

In my organization, it’s the HR team. We’re the folks that monitor our managers to make sure they are doing their check-in’s every quarter. In fact, usually with about three weeks to go to the end of a quarter, we send out a reminder to our managers, just in case they’ve gotten a little behind on their documentation. We like to remind them. Then they get them done, and that’s great.

If you don’t have an HR department it can be the library director who ensures that happens. If you’re a much smaller library, and maybe you’ve got a personnel committee with a board, you could have the personnel committee monitor this sort of thing. 

Some people take a little issue with the idea of monitoring. But if you think about it, there was probably monitoring under your old system, as well. Because, if you didn’t have somebody reviewing an annual performance review documentation, what was the point? I mean, who did them then? The kinds of things that we measure are the kind of things that get done. That’s true here, as well.


Question #6: That is very true. And this sounds so doable, so approachable, easy. It just seems like a system that would work. Is there any part in that system where there’s pay-based recognition, or some kind of annual recognition for a job well done?  20:07 

Brian Mortimore:

You could certainly do that. You could build in a performance-based compensation system to something like this, and tie it to goals. There’s a lot of things you can do with this. That’s not how our system is set up, but there’s nothing stopping anyone from doing that. In that case what I think I would do, I would want to make sure that it feels fair and equitable, so that it’s well thought out, so that if an organization wanted to tie compensation to performance that they make sure they have good measures in place. Because, that’s where the tricky part of pay-for-performance comes into play. There’s usually a lot of subjectivity to it, so you want to make sure that it’s really objective. That can be an area that is a little fraught with problems.

With this system, if there was anything else that I would want to advise people on is this—before you just jump off the dock into the lake on this, try it with one or two of your teams. That’s what we did here. We’re not the largest library system, but we’re a Class 6 library, and we have a little over 300 employees. Instead of just rolling this out for everybody all at once, we took two different departments. We took one small branch and one small department. We in HR met with their managers, and we walked them through what this process looks like, kind of like I did here today.

We explained it all to them and we said, What do you think? Would you be willing to try this in lieu of doing your annual reviews for the next six months? Oh, they couldn’t wait. They just said, Oh, yeah, absolutely, I want to try this.

Then they tried it, and they reported back that, This is the best. We don’t ever want to go back to the old system, can we adopt this? And I said, Yeah, we can probably adopt it, but I need your help now. And he said, Doing what? I said, Well, it’s time to convince your colleagues, all the other managers that this is a change worth making.

Then we made a presentation. It wasn’t just HR, or leadership up there talking about the change. It was some of their own peers in management talking about why this is better. They weren’t just hearing from me. They were hearing from their colleagues who are fellow managers saying, This is a better system. You’ve got to give this a try. It saves me a ton of time. My people like it more. We’re just all happier about it, it’s great.

After we did that test pilot and then introduced it to our management, we basically rolled it out. Management was all too happy to explain it to the rest of their staff and give it a whirl. There weren’t too many growing pains along the way either, I have to say. It was something that just—everybody just kind of took to it. That was a good thing.


Question #7: This is definitely a new way of thinking for some of us. And I think that we will want to dip our toe in, like you say, and maybe find some resources that help us explain what this looks like, and try it out with some smaller groups, but it does sound intuitive. It sounds very exciting to employ, So, I’m really glad we’re talking about this today, Brian. Is there anything else you would like to share? 23:42 

Brian Mortimore:

Well, you just referenced resources. I actually wrote up the process. There’s been an article published on it, as well. If you would like to have a copy of that process, Adriane, I’d be happy to forward that on to you. If you could post that for your listeners to be able to download, that would be a resource for them.

There’s a lot of information out there in the world of performance management if somebody really wanted to take a deep dive. I think though, that after they did their research, and all their years of trying other methods, I suspect they would come back to this way of thinking, because it is just so effective.


Question #8: Sure, we can definitely post a link. Do you also have a title and a resource name? 24:20 

Brian Mortimore:

I do, actually. We call it, The Check-in Process. What I would send you is the Kent District Library’s—basically their standard operating procedure on the check-in process. You could have that. Anybody could use that, and adopt it to be their own.


Question #9: Oh, wow, that would be great, yeah. If you send that to me I will post that link with the show. It sounds an amazing resource, and very generous of you to share how this is done in Kent District. Do you have a favorite management, or leadership book, and why? 24:57 

Brian Mortimore:

Yes, so this—it’s funny, whenever I think of the different management, or leadership books that I’ve read, there’s one author that I really enjoy, and I actually got to meet him. It’s Patrick Lencioni. He writes in a fable style. Lencioni, he’s got this book that I read years ago. [laughter] The title of it—it’s just kind of a funny title, I’ve got to tell you. The title is called, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job.

I told him when I met him—I actually saw him about a year, or so ago, at another conference and he was signing my book. He’s got another book that talks about leaders and the advantages of different teams. He also wrote, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and whatnot.

I’m having my quick, Hey nice to meet you, I’ve enjoyed your work, kind of stuff. I told him, I’ve got to tell you my favorite book is, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, but the thing is that I can’t leave that out on my desk or people get worried. 



Brian Mortimore:

And he laughed, and he said, You know, the funny thing about that is we actually did a republication of it, and we retitled it for that very reason. He said, All the feedback we got was that nobody wanted to have that book out and about, or share it with their colleagues, because they were afraid that everybody would read into the title too much, and think they weren’t happy.

They retitled it. And the new title I’m happy to share is called, The Truth About Employee Engagement. It’s just a great book. It tells a story of different characters and different leaders engaging with their staff. I think your listeners would enjoy it. Lencioni is just—he’s just a great author. He really gets at the stuff of work in a way that just resonates. I like him a lot.


Question #10: That sounds like a good one, and so sensible to change the title so that it’s something that people don’t mind having on their desk all day long, and pointing to, and having as a great example. That’s neat. Brian, in closing, what do library’s mean to you, personally? 27:08 

Brian Mortimore:

Well, they’re all about community. I mean, I work behind the scenes. I’m not out at the front desk. I’m not directly engaged with the patrons like so many of our workforce are. But when I do get out into our buildings I see the community element of it. I see how people are just enjoying their time there. I’ve seen how the pandemic really put a crimp on that, and had countless people reach out to me, friends in my network, and family, and whatnot—just sharing how much they hated the fact that this pandemic is keeping them from their library, and from their favorite librarians, and the storytime with their kids, all the fun, the entertaining aspects—it’s like that space that you go to that it’s not work, it’s not home. It’s just another one of your places. 

When my kids were little, I remember taking our kids to the library one day, and I referenced the fact—back then we had a membership to the zoo. The kids liked going to the zoo. Because we had a membership, we went several times in the summer. And I said, You know, we have a membership to this library, and they said, Really? And I pulled out the library card and I said, Yeah, it’s right here, see? They said, Wow, yeah—we’re members. [laughter] It felt like a very wonderful thing to be affiliated with, as a member. 

And I think that in your community, this is something that we all have, we’re all members of—but we don’t always necessarily think of it in that sense because we didn’t necessarily write a check, and send in our dues, like you do for most memberships. It comes out of your taxes, perhaps. 

In this case, we’re all members. We’re all part of it. It’s part of the community, and it’s a beautiful thing. You asked what libraries mean to me? They mean that I’m here contributing to our community, making sure that people are in the right positions doing their jobs so that when the community comes in the door, they’re having a positive experience. What’s not to like about that?


There’s a whole lot to like about that, Brian. That sounds marvelous. And I’m looking forward to digging into this topic of performance management in a new way. And I hope our listeners will too. Thank you for being here today, Brian. It’s been so great talking with you.

Brian Mortimore:

Yeah, thank you so much, Adriane. I appreciate it.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at https://libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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