What is the purpose of a modern library?
Many of us have fond childhood memories of the library: afternoon story time, librarians who knew everything, and all the books you could read for free. Today, libraries are that and more: a place to learn language skills, access the internet and even warm up on a cold day. Libraries are arguably the only third space where we can spend unlimited time without being expected to purchase anything.
All of this and more is true for The DC Public Library (DCPL) in Washington, D.C. But when an organization is so many things to so many people, is it possible to have a single "purpose"? And if so, how do you support employees to achieve that purpose? These are quintessential culture challenges, and we were thrilled when the library came to Great Mondays for help.
A COMMUNITY INSTITUTION
For long-time residents of D.C., the library is an establishment. Founded in 1896, it runs 26 branches and employs 600+ staff members. But as leaders of any long-standing operation know, to serve customers and community to the best of their ability, every so often they need to look at what they can do better.
In 2020 the DCPL commissioned a talent management evaluation to identify the most significant opportunities for change. One of the most pressing was the organization's culture. More specifically, the assessment found no clear answer to the question: "what is the purpose of the DC Public Library?". Nor could employees recall the organization's values.
To begin understanding the institution and its value to the community, we worked closely with the people who represent the best of the organization – leader-nominated culture ambassadors. With the help of this diverse group of staff, we agreed that the library's ultimate why is to support people's growth. While it's true that the library continues to provide knowledge through books and digital resources, it is what that knowledge does for people that sparked for our working group.
Ultimately we generated a purpose statement for the library that captures the relationship it has to the citizens of D.C. The end result is a clear and bold initiative that for what we hope will be the next 100 years: To be a cornerstone of community progress by activating dreams with knowledge, access, and hope.
THE VALUE OF VALUES
At the center of our collaboration with DCPL was the desire to create a tool to articulate the ideals and the behaviors that the library wants staff to stretch towards. Over the many months we invested time in a dual process of discovery and alignment, first to create the purpose and then the values. With a clear purpose on the page, we moved to the organization's core beliefs, what would eventually become their stated values, and the priorities that help their employees make culturally-aligned decisions.
We homed in on five characteristics deemed essential to acting on this new purpose. As the graphic above shows, we ordered the values according to the hierarchy of commitments: to themselves, their team, organization, customer, and finally to the community of D.C. itself.
GIVE AND GET RESPECT
Seek equity. Embrace diversity. Listen to understand
Equity begins with respect. That is why we respect everyone's value and voice, and every role and level. We respect the diversity of our staff because our strength comes from our differences.
BE A WE
INVEST IN US
Defining an organization's Purpose and Values is the first step in effective change management. Leaders and staff must understand, embrace, and be able to share the elements that will drive this evolution of culture. This is what is called culture activation, the second critical piece of launching a new culture program.
READY, SET, ACTIVATE
The head of Customer Experience and project owner Cori Schauer introduced the new Purpose and Values to all the staff in an online webcast so that any of the 600+ employees could join or watch the recording. We then co-designed a leadership training session, what we refer to as a Culture Lab.
With input from Schauer, our ambassadors and the head of HR, we guided a group of 90 supervisors, managers, and executives through the purpose and values development process. We reviewed the content, what it means, and how they connect to behaviors over the short and long term. "One of the key takeaways," says Schauer, "is that this is a journey, and we'll need their support every step of the way." The expectation is that every leader must also go through this process with their staff to ensure the culture is broadly understood and lived every day.
All the information we introduced in the Culture Lab wasn't going to stick after one day: we gave the employees, the executive management, ambassadors and all those who comprise the future of the DC Public Library a lot to learn. To support recall and inspire application we shared swag like totes, stickers, and posters. Cues like these help individuals remember the meaning of the work.
We also introduced a Culture Playbook, a document for all employees to use as a single source of truth. It includes why culture is essential to the institution, a deeper dive into the Purpose and Values, and conversation starters. Leaders won't be the only one's to have this tool, every employee will get a copy.
As an institution, the DC Public Library is a point of pride for the people in a town that cares deeply about its community and history. To see this 125 year-old institution emerge from the pandemic with a new purpose supported by employee-created values is an incredible experience. The team at Great Mondays is watching eagerly to see how they'll bring it to life.