Setting sail as a CEO – what is the optimal tenure for a library CEO?

by Stephanie Hall*

This post is rather personal, as for a variety of reasons, I’ve decided to leave my job after five years as the CEO of a large library system in order to sail around the world on a tall ship. It’s a fabulous job, with an amazing staff and board, and I didn’t decide to leave lightly. As strong as the allure of sailing is, there was also an instinctive sense I had that the time was right for the organization. Our system had made many positive changes, and we were at a good handing off point. I wondered what, if anything was considered the average ‘ideal’ time for CEO transition, recognizing that individuals will vary greatly.

Looking at the corporate world, a 2013 study from Temple University suggested that, while the optimal tenure, as measured by stock returns, is 4.8 years, the average CEO stayed on for 7.6 years. The study’s authors suggested this may be due in part to a tendency of CEOs to depend more on exploratory learning and external input in the earlier part of their term, and to depend more on internal corporate input later in their tenure, potentially ‘losing touch’ with customers and clients. An earlier study of 2500 companies found that longer tenure was correlated with higher overall performance, but for both long and short tenure CEOs, performance was generally best in the first half of their tenure.

However, as we know, the corporate world has a different bottom line from the social sector. In Forces for Good, researchers looked at 12 high-impact non-profits and found that long tenure was a common feature among those high impact CEOs. One of the highlighted techniques emphasized in that book is the strategic use of partnerships. When I think about some of the most high-performing libraries in Canada, partnerships are a critical part of their success. Partnerships depend on trust and relationships, and both of those things take time to develop.

Have you been reading (or conducted) any research in this area? I doubt it needs to be said, but I’m not looking for personal CEO critiques here! I admire my CEO colleagues and respect their humanity and the important work they do. But, as to research on this topic, I’d love to hear your observations.

Fair winds and following seas.

*Stephanie Hall was the CEO of the Okanagan Regional Library from 2013 to February, 2018, and is about to board the tall ship Picton Castle on a 14 month circumnavigation of the globe.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

2 thoughts on “Setting sail as a CEO – what is the optimal tenure for a library CEO?

  1. Good luck, and thanks for your post! It’s such a difficult call – so many things take time in bureaucratic institutions, so at 5 years plans tend to just get rolling. And yet you’re right, sometimes people stay far too long, which can lead to complacency and lack of innovation. I’m certain you made the right call for you – I hope you have a wonderful adventure on your travels!

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