Podcast Episode: Assemble an Effective Strategic Planning Committee

The following is a transcript of this episode of the Advancing America’s Libraries Podcast.

Julia: Today we are talking about creating and managing strategic planning committees with Cathi Alloway, Library Director at Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, Pennsylvania. 

Pam: Hi, Cathi! 31 years in public library administration, right?

Cathi:  You betcha!

Pam: That's been in both Pennsylvania and Missouri. But I understand you're a big Michigan fan?

Cathi: Yes. I have my Master's in Library Science from the University of Michigan. Very interesting being a Wolverine in hostile Nittany Lion territory! I'm currently with the State Library of Pennsylvania. It really is a great community here.

Pam: And you're past president of the Pennsylvania Library Association?

Cathi: Yes, I am. We have a wonderful state library organization and I've been proud to be part of it.

Pam: Well, we're really pleased to have you today, and I'd like to begin the conversation by asking you what stage you're in in your most recent strategic planning process?

Cathi: This will be a fun conversation because I'm a real strategic planning geek. So right now, I have a committee of 3 trustees who actually monitor the current plan. But the plan expires in 2019, and we've done everything in the plan that we set out to do. We've adjusted as we've gone along because we have a committee and staff who monitor and actively use the plan. At this point we have just issued an RFP to seek the assistance of a consultant for next year, and we want to begin the planning process for the 3-4-year cycle. We have a planning committee of myself and 3 trustees, and we're in the process of trying to figure out who else we now want on our planning committee.

The strategic planning committee's job is to plan for planning.

Julia: So, you have this committee of 3 trustees. For the strategic planning committee itself, what role do you envision the planning committee playing throughout the process?

Cathi: The way I like to use a planning committee is they help plan how we're going to plan. They also help review the consultants that are out there and available. Hopefully this committee will continue its work later by helping us monitor the plan. I also see them having a role in being ambassadors when the new plan is finished. They may be able to help in meetings at civic groups where we unveil the plan, but this is really the core committee to help oversee the planning process. I do expect to enlarge the current group. There is currently a request out to the Centre Region Council of Governments to have one elected official be on this planning committee. There are 32 elected officials in the 6 municipalities that band together to fund our library. We have asked for an elected official to be on the committee so that we can be open and transparent. They do provide more than half of the income for this library and that is why we would like to have an elected official on board early in the process.

Pam: That is a great idea. What other capabilities are you looking to include on the committee?

Cathi: Right now, I'll just take anyone who has the time! As we expand there are a number of kinds of qualities that we are looking for in people. I want people to be interested. I want them to be engaged because, again, we are just planning the plan. There will be a lot of people we will get input from later. But I want someone who is into this and "gets" big picture thinking. I've worked with trustees in the past, either in my own library or elsewhere, where they didn't see the need for a long-term view. They could only see what was happening in the library that month or within that annual budget cycle. We need people for whom it comes a little easier to project long-term and to see the "airplane" view of what's going on in the community and the library. It's an important quality to have.

Limit your committee to 6-8 stakeholders, if only for the sake of scheduling meetings in a timely fashion.

Pam: So ideally, is there an optimal size?

Cathi: I would prefer to have no more than 8 people. Don't laugh when I say this, but when you get more than 8 people, it becomes devilishly hard to schedule any kind of a meeting. Even if people are not in the workforce, whether by choice or because of retirement, getting more than 9 people together on a regular basis can be a real nightmare. So I would like this committee to be 6-8 people to oversee the planning process and do the work of selecting and working with the consultant and staff to put together a robust process.

Julia: Other than the elected official you mentioned, do you plan to have external individuals on your committee?

Include library champions, community leaders, possibly even a frenemy, for a well-rounded, diverse committee.

Cathi: Yes. Let me back up and say, in general, who I think should be on these strategic planning committees. Obviously, the library director and any other critical staff that are germane to the process. In my case, I am going to have 2 other managers with me, and one of them is the district consultant. This is a person who in Pennsylvania helps support and train other public libraries in the area, and he helps them with strategic planning. I want him to be invested and involved in ours. We have to have trustees, an elected official, and 1-2 people from the Schlow Library Foundation. That organization used to be the Friends Group. They have a more serious sounding name right now, but they are the group that helps do advocacy and fundraising for the library. They also oversee our investments. Clearly, they need representation on the [committee].

Then we're tossing around—Do we have one of our large donors on the [committee]? A volunteer? Should we invite someone from the Chamber of Commerce? We do not have a union environment, but I think that libraries who do, need to have a union representative on their planning committee. So that's what I'm looking at right now and those are the kinds of suggestions I have.

Even if they don't turn around their opinion, it is always wise to have your enemy in front of you where you can see what they're thinking and what they're doing.

I'll also say one more thing that does not apply to Schlow but could apply to other libraries. In some communities there is someone who is NOT a good friend to the library. Many times it is an elected official who feels the municipality should not fund libraries. They don't want to pitch in any money for the library. Sometimes it's good to have an enemy on the planning committee. I've seen situations like this where their eyes really were opened, and they turned around their opinions. Even if they don't turn around their opinion, it is always wise to have your enemy in front of you where you can see what they're thinking and what they're doing. A library might want to consider having someone who is adversarial right on that planning committee.

Pam: That is Machiavellian, Cathi.

Cathi: Yes, I know it's crazy, but sometimes it works.

Invite committee members one at a time and explain why you value their perspective.

Pam: How are you going about inviting all of these folks?

Cathi: Gradually, one at a time. The Council of Governments will invite one of the elected officials to volunteer.  Then I've asked the head of the Schlow Library Foundation to nominate people whom he thinks will be good. There is one person on that board that I have in mind because he also used to be library board trustee. Then we're going to get together and pick one or two other stakeholders from the outside that we think might be a good fit for us.

Julia: We work with libraries who have invited members of the local school board or even a director of a prominent non-profit such as the United Way or housing authority. Is that something you're considering?

Cathi: Absolutely, yes. I'd ask the school district and ask the local downtown improvement, our local merchants group. The Chamber of Commerce here is county-wide, and I do have some concern because we are not a county system. They may have too broad of an outlook for us, but certainly someone from the merchant sector or the school district is fair game.

Julia: Your library is located in downtown State College. Bringing in someone from the business community makes a lot of sense.

Pam: How are you explaining the process to them?

Cathi: We really don't know the process yet because we haven't hired a consultant. And that will be key because they will help drive the process and give us good ideas. Basically, right now, the first question from elected officials is, "How much time is this going to take?" The answer is, "We would like to have you for the next 6 months for at least one monthly meeting, and then you might need to give reports to your fellow elected officials or participate in some interview. There also is likely to be a half-day or all-day retreat where we discuss the future of the library. We would expect you to be there as your schedule permits."

As we slowly recruit these additional bodies, that is the minimum amount of work that I see these people doing. But there are no details yet because we have not chosen a consultant who has the methodology.

Julia: I just put my marketing hat on for a second. When we approach people to be on these committees, perhaps it should be less about, "This is the role you would play or the meetings you would attend." and more about, "This is how we see you contributing to this process for this project based on your unique experience on the school board? Or foundation? Here is the value you bring and the perspective we're excited to hear about."

Cathi: That's a really great point. By the way, the school district gave me and other community members an opportunity to weigh in on their strategic plan. My approach would be, "My goodness, more than half of our business is supporting your school students and also getting pre-schoolers in this community ready for kindergarten. We really need your views and your perspective at the table because you can amplify the knowledge that we have of our local children with the knowledge you bring in your role at the school district. Your input will be invaluable because we want to include the school district stakeholders. It's a big part of the work we do, and you're the person who can represent them in this planning process."

Julia: They're the champions of their stakeholder group, and hopefully, they'll want to be there.

If they can't serve, just the fact that they were invited makes them feel more ownership of the process, more commitment to the library and interest in the outcomes.

Internal communications is vital for the committee, particularly if there are absent members.

Cathi:  I will say that in all the strategic plans that I've worked in within my libraries, the people most likely to be absent are the elected officials. Their workload is staggering. Many of the local officials have full-time jobs in addition to their role in the municipality. You can expect them to be absent. The point is they were asked to be at the table. If they can't make all these meetings, they can at least contribute input via emails. The library director and/or chair should be in close contact with people who cannot make it. These are all important elements as are family emergencies. They can send a replacement, or you can stay in touch with them a different way.

Pam: What are the pitfalls?

Cathi: I've seen committees where someone was really obstreperous or overly-dominated. There was one particular case where a union steward was a big obstacle in the process. Every time the library wanted to talk about being progressive and adding technology, this person saw it as a threat to jobs. In reality, it was going to change jobs into work that had more meaning such as helping people and less about shelving and restocking books. You have to be careful not to get someone who is too outspoken or narrow-minded or focused just on one issue.

The other place I have seen the process get sidetracked is when there is an adversary on the [committee]. A lot of times this person is from a community where a library branch has been closed. Closing a branch is so difficult even when a strategic plan or finances call for it. If that person is on the planning committee, they may only be able to talk about how you've hurt them by closing that branch. That is counter-productive to the process. There have been people who did not understand what the role of the committee is. The only solution is for the committee to get them off or to totally ignore their input; however, that is hard to do.

Pam: How do you handle no-shows?

Cathi: If it is an elected official, they may have good cause for it. It's up to the chairman of the committee—who really shouldn't be the library director—to put some pressure on them or ask them to find a replacement or find an alternate way to keep them involved.

Julia: I'm a fan of the nicely laid out summary email. "Here's what you missed. I've highlighted the important parts."

Cathi: Absolutely.

Pam: That's pretty politic.

An external consultant and strong leadership guide the committee to consensus.

Julia: We're striving to have diverse strategic planning committees in terms of perspectives and experiences. Diversity can sometimes bring difficulty in reaching consensus. How are decisions made amongst the strategic planning committee?

Cathi: If the committee is small enough with the right people, they should be able to work out the differences they have. Once a consultant comes in, if everyone has vetted and chosen the right consultant, that committee tends to solidify and unify with the leadership of that consultant who can explain, "This is why a focus group is done a certain way because this is a known best practice." "Let's do this kind of survey because we know in 2020 a phone survey is not going to work in a presidential election year." Once you have outside help and leadership, I think people converge together.

Keep the committee to a small, committed group, but invite additional stakeholders to planning retreats.

Cathi: I also want to say that there is a distinction between the core planning committee and the people you invite to the retreat. I am a fan of a small committee guiding the process, but if there are other people who are really important to you, you can ask a larger group to be at the actual retreat where you hammer out what are the issues and trends in the data and where can you go. For example, you may not be able to have a school district person commit to be on the planning committee, but two of their principals can come to the retreat. Leadership can be used at the retreat even if they are unable to commit to the planning committee.

Julia: Is the expanded group at the retreat an opportunity to bring in more staff as well or does their role come later?

Cathi: Absolutely yes. We certainly will have more staff representation there and may even have the entire library board because in Pennsylvania they are the ones with fiduciary responsibility for the library. After all, they are the ones who have to implement the plan.

Julia: That's a lot of people. Are they all involved in the mission and vision work or is there a smaller working group that gets down to that business?

Cathi: I believe our mission and vision are in good shape. Now it could be that once we get the consultant working with the committee that I find otherwise. People may have other opinions, but I think there will be less mission and vision work and more just figuring out the strategies for the next 4 years.

There are some big topics coming up including a library director leadership transition. I hope to retire during the next strategic plan, and like other libraries, we're at a real crossroads with financial sustainability. Government funding and fundraising just really isn't enough to cover some of the increases in expenditures like health insurance. So, we have to look at some new revenue models and do some new things to keep us relevant and to keep us financially solvent.

Work doesn't stop when the plan is published.

Pam: The committee does its work, and at a certain point, it transitions to staff. Where does committee work end and staff work begin?

Cathi: Once the plan is done and released to the public, we are likely to revert back to the board member-only strategic planning committee. Those will be the people who track quarterly progress of the library on the strategic plan. It might be nice to get all 8 people together on an annual basis or at least keep them informed of the progress being made. Those are relationships that are good to keep up. In fact, I would do that with everyone who will be at the retreat. It's up to the facilitator of the retreat. There are some facilitators who love to have 40 people at a strategic planning retreat. They do a lot of work in sub-groups. Other facilitators will say no more than 25 people. In either case, we'll have a reunion of the people who were at the retreat and keep them informed of our progress.

An abridged version of the plan serves as a quick reference guide and a promotional tool.

 Pam: I love that you're keeping people engaged even after the process. At the end of the plan, do you give them something they can use as talking points? How can you make the committee useful?

Cathi: I am a really big fan of short, sweet and elegant strategic plans. There are some libraries around the country like Anythink Libraries in Colorado which have that kind of plan, and we have that kind of plan now. The plans I like best often have between 3-6 major pillars or topical areas where the library hopes to make changes or advances. If you can create a really nice one-page well-designed graphic/infographic of your plan, then that's it! It can be on everyone's desk, and it gives you a nice version of the strategic plan for the ambassadors to use.

Let me give you an example here at Schlow. We have a major goal area that says, "Read it. Know it. Schlow it." The description in our current plan says, "The public wants more content in numerous formats. The Library will prioritize buying more books in different media to meet changing consumer habits." That's all you need to know about the fact that in the last 3 years we've been transitioning from less print to more e-books because that's what our public wants. They don't need all of the details such as what percentage each year is changing, what are the metrics, etc. They just need to know a goal area and a sentence or two about what should be achieved. This shortened version of the plan has worked very well for us and for other libraries who have done it.

Enable and encourage staff input during the planning process, so they can become active participants.

Pam: For staff who weren't involved, are they supposed to amplify on these brief statements?

Cathi: That's a really good point. I sincerely believe whoever we hire for this process will do something where every staff member will have input. Sometimes you do it through a survey. Other times we had a consultant who came to a staff meeting and did some exercises with the staff including a fun one for staff to draw pictures of what they thought the library would look like twenty years from now. At some point, all of the staff will have input, but not all of them will be at the retreat or be a leader in the process.

Pam: Someone has to keep the store open, right?

Cathi: Yes! I firmly believe in that. I know there are large systems where they might have 8 branches. We only have 45 employees and half are part-time. Even at large systems, there is opportunity to go out to the locations and enable staff to have input. Following up with a survey on some of the hot topics is a good way to go. If staff choose not to do the survey—and they have to have work time to do it—then that's their fault. They had a chance to participate in the plan, and they chose not to.

Pam: Cathi, this has been really interesting. Thank you so much for giving us your time. We wish you tremendous success as you march toward your next strategic plan.

Julia: We wish you a committed committee!

Cathi: The good thing about our library is that we're not dysfunctional at the moment. We have no major infrastructure issues or staffing issues. We have a lot of support from the community in the way of donations. The elected officials respect and regard us highly. There aren't any enemies in this cycle. I'm very optimistic.

The community is growing rapidly. We need to stay on top of the best way to serve them. We're really excited.

Thank you for the chance to talk about one of my favorite topics.

Pam: It's been our great pleasure!

Julia: We're just a room of strategic planning geeks right here!

Ivy Takeaways

Pam: I love the fact that Cathi has done this before and about to do it again.

Julia: She's still as enthusiastic as she was with her first plan, too.

Pam: The biggest issue she raised and looms in my mind are no-shows. People who show up but they're really not into it. I don't think there is an antidote to that. Either they are or they aren't, right?

Julia: Set clear expectations up front. Don't downplay the commitment of serving on one of the committees. Start the relationship by making it clear that it is time-consuming but so important, and here's what you can get out of it and what the community will get out of it. Let them know it's an investment in the cause. Inspire active participation!

Pam: Not to be age-ist. What you may get are folks who are older, retired people with the time. What you need are parents and those actively engaged in the workforce. It is very hard to get people due to time constraints.

Julia: It often comes down to when the meetings are held: 9 to 5.

Pam: Others might prefer breakfast, etc. Figuring out how to make it easier for young parents and working people is important. What did you find interesting?

Julia: I loved the idea of the small, on-going check-in committee. Work doesn't stop when the plan is published. That layer of accountability from leadership and staff is important.

Pam: Love that she said they checked off all the areas of their current plan! And I loved that you keep "frenemies" close, too!

Julia: I'd love to hear stories about this experience.

Pam: Let us know! We'd love to hear from you.  Thanks for listening!

Advancing America's Libraries Podcast episode with Catherine Alloway, Director of Schlow Region Centre Library in State College, PA