The Columbus Metropolitan Library turns the page to better serve customers

 

Patrick Losinski, CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, had a gut check moment about eight years ago.

A former leader of Battelle questioned Losinski about the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment for Literacy where children in Central Ohio were scoring poorly. His question was: “If you’re one of the best libraries in the country, how can we be doing so poorly as a community in terms of children’s performance in basic literacy?”

Losinski says that was a launching point for the CML to rethink its role in the community and what its priorities should be in order to better impact its customer base.

Rather than just measuring traditional outputs like how many books are checked out (more than 17 million items per year), the library determined it also needed to leverage its resources and measure how it could positively alter community outcomes.

Everyone has a charge to create value, he says. But when you’re in the middle of doing what has always been successful, it’s hard to understand how you need to think about your whole model differently in order to be relevant for the future.

“I think it’s easy to get lulled into complacency by your success,” Losinski says.

Luckily this gut-check conversation happened around the same time that e-books were emerging — it was another impetus that led the library’s leadership to examine its purpose more closely.

However, Losinski says the whole process wasn’t as linear and sequential as it sounds in hindsight.

“I think one thing that a leader needs to do is to try to understand the relevancy between those dots, if you will,” he says. “How do you connect those dots? How do you connect those experiences and understand how they apply to your organization?

“Because, you know, at some point perhaps, they could have been viewed by us as totally separate occurrences.”

Here’s how the CML and its 860 employees shifted focus to better serve the community with a young minds strategy that encourages learning and literacy in children.

Test it out

In order to go in a new direction, start with pilot projects.

Even before the library switched its focus, Losinski says the staff wanted to try a homework help center at a new branch that opened in Linden.

For years, kids had been telling their parents that they were going to the library to do their homework, so the staff wanted a place for those children to come in, sign in and tell volunteers where they needed help.

That pilot was so overwhelmingly successful, Losinski says over the next several years the library was able to secure donations to designate and equip homework help space in every library through the system.

“So little by little we built up to that effort,” he says.

It’s important to set aside startup funds to test a new idea and see how it works, in order to determine if it’s worth doing a full-scale effort throughout your organization, Losinski says.

“We’ve always been successful at convincing partners, and corporations, and others that given the library’s footprint in this community we could do more if we just had some startup funds to try a new idea,” he says.

For instance, the library’s leadership convinced the library’s foundation to invest in a pilot program called Ready to Read.

It focused on meeting at-risk parents in pediatric clinics, social service agencies, free stores, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and laundromats, in order to help them understand that they were their child’s first teacher to prepare him or her for kindergarten.

It also slowly changed the CML’s story time, as the library utilized training in order to shift what it had always done.

“Our story times in the past were really about creating an event and a social gathering for both the parents and kids,” he says. “Now there’s a real purpose involved, you know, real outcomes that we’re looking for over time in terms of letter recognition and sounds, and the growth in literary skills from birth to age 5 or 6.”

It was a different approach that they implemented little by little.

“As we had some success, it turned into more success and more time for people externally and even internally for our staff to understand that this would be an area of greater priority for the library,” Losinski says.

Seek the right help

Another key is admitting what you don’t know as you head into new territory, and then finding the resources and right collaborations to fill those gaps.

Losinski says he looked at how to supplement the trained librarians with early childhood reading specialists, and how to work with The Ohio State University to evaluate the effectiveness of the library’s programming.

As vacancies opened up, the CML sought new skills to meet its new needs.

The library also worked more closely with nonprofits and the school system to determine how it could use library resources in a different way.

Losinski says the CML now has a school delivery service that sends public library materials to supplement what is available in classrooms or the school library.

The library has a partnership and solicits community donations for the Books on the Bus program to keep children reading while on the school bus.

The CML came up with a special fine-exempt library card that allows children to check out three books so kids couldn’t be blocked from using their card.

It also started a Reading Buddies program where children practice reading for community volunteers who help them sound out words and test their comprehension.

You can only be successful when you understand your strengths and weaknesses.

“It’s recognizing which things we’re really good at and admitting where we might need some help, and understanding that we’ll have to secure those services from others,” Losinski says.

For example, the library has business analysts who help on the data side, because the CML is measuring so much more than just the number of checkouts.

Losinski says the library also has a pilot contract with Learning Circle Education Services to start to study the correlation between children who register for library programs and their school performance.

“We are constantly evaluating, looking at feedback, attempting to adjust in flight, if you will, to make sure that we’re doing a better job,” he says.

The original concept of the homework help centers, for instance, has been modified to help smaller groups for greater quality interactions, and the CML’s new branches embrace the fact that libraries aren’t just about circulation.

Losinski says the new buildings are larger. They have the same size collection but also include other features like the kindergarten readiness centers and designated space for educational partners.

Repurposed resources

When you’re heading in a new direction, sustainability is always an issue.

Losinski says the library was helped by the fact that it was able to inform the community when its 2010 levy came up. By educating the stakeholders on how the funding was going to be used, it got buy-in.

It also looked at reprioritizing resources and evolving essential services.

The CML had to determine where it could use technology to handle the transaction side of the business, so it could devote its people to the most important work — the relationships and human interactions, he says.

If you can get people away from checking out books, and instead talking to children about books, that’s a quantum leap forward, Losinski says.

“Now you go into our buildings and it’s understood and accepted by all that self-checkout really is the only option,” he says. “And so all of our customers check out materials, which has enabled us to repurpose staffing resources.”

The CML also has 100 fewer full-time equivalent positions than it had back in 2003, a result of the revamped purpose.

By thinking in new ways, the CML found a new mission, and Losinski says they’ve now had five to seven years of real success. But it’s no time to rest on their laurels.

“The one thing I think about as we’re building these new buildings is: Are we spending enough time thinking about the next strategy,” he says, “and how we need to rethink where we are today to maintain or to deliver even a higher degree of relevancy to our community.”

 

Takeaways:

  • As a leader, it’s your job to connect the dots.
  • Use pilot programs to find the right direction.
  • Reprioritize resources by knowing your strengths and weaknesses.

 

Thanks for lunch, with a side of advice

When Losinski moved to Ohio from Colorado more than a decade ago, he set out to get to know the CEOs of Columbus.

For the first three to five years, he had an average of two lunches with CEOs per week in his office.

“My standing joke was that I ate more turkey sandwiches than anybody else,” he says.

“But what that did was it created a connection with me personally to many of the CEOs in town who, as you can imagine, were not shy with sharing their advice on what we ought to do,” Losinski says. “And the wealth of talent in the community was really instrumental in helping me become a better CEO of the library just by tapping into the wisdom of those meetings.”

As a business leader, especially if you’re running a nonprofit, running the organization is only part of your role, he says. Talking about it, selling the organization and connecting with your current stakeholders, while developing new ones, is equally important.

The CEO community is very supportive, open and willing to lend a hand, if asked, and Losinski says you can benefit from a number of Harvard consulting sessions for the cost of lunch.

“I’m guessing that that probably works to a lesser degree in the for-profit world, but in the nonprofit world it is absolutely a tactic that I would tell people to attempt,” he says.

 

The Losinski File:

Name: Patrick Losinski
Title: CEO
Company: Columbus Metropolitan Library

Born: Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Education: Communications degree, University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point; master’s degree in library science, University of Wisconsin–Madison

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I worked on the farm that I grew up on, but I also flipped hamburgers for Hardee’s and loaded trucks at the United Parcel Service.

When you have those kinds of jobs you’re influenced by the leaders, both positive and negative. I try to remember those that seemed to be the most successful and I watched how they connected with people.

I remember a manager at UPS saying, ‘This is going to be a hard job, but I always want you to think that you’re working with me, not for me.’ And here I am 35 years later and I can still remember that conversation.

When you first came to Columbus to lead the library, you met with area business leaders. What was the best advice you received? During those turkey sandwich lunches, we looked at the strategy of the library, and I remember one CEO in particular said to me, ‘Don’t try to do all of these things because you’re going to be below average on a lot of things and I’m not going to pay any attention to you. I’m much more interested if you’re going come to me and say,

“We’re going to try to be great at three things.”’

Yes, the library is open to all, but if you try to do everything you’re going to dissipate your resources.

If you weren’t the CEO of a library, is there another career you’d like to try? Well, I’d probably be the president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers.

Are you a stock holder? I am.

When my son was 6 weeks old, I put him on the list for season tickets. And he’s now 21, and every year we get a postcard — he’s moved up from 18,000 to 6,000. So in maybe another 20 years he’ll have his season tickets.