Modernizing the Library Experience, With Alison Circle – [CB6]

Alison Circle Columbus Metropolitan Library

Episode Overview

Episode 6 of The Human Duct Tape Show Podcast is with Alison Circle, who is the Chief Customer Experience Officer in another unexpected industry: the library System.  The work that Alison and the leadership team at Columbus (OH) Metropolitan Library has in fact been heralded around the world in their innovative approaches in this industry many might think is moving toward retirement.  At Columbus Metropolitan Library, they are doing the opposite — essentially revitalizing what it means to be a library. Starting with the lives of their customers and the responsibility for a community of learners, they are rethinking the library experience, from how they define their customer, the design of their buildings, how they unite leadership to a higher purpose and what and how they enable young minds to read and establish community. I hope you’ll join me as Alison and I go deeper into each of these subjects.

About Alison

Alison Circle, Chief Customer Experience Officer for Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML), has more than 25 years marketing experience. For 13 years she was National Marketing Director for Garrison Keillor and “A Prairie Home Companion.”Alison Circle Jeanne Bliss Podcast
Following that she was Creative Director and Account Director at Jack Morton Worldwide, a global branding agency. In 2004 she joined CML as Director of Marketing and Strategic Planning. In that capacity she rebranded the organization and won over 20 national and international awards for her work. In 2010 that work was recognized with the Library Journal’s Library of the Year and in 2011 she was named a Library Journal “Mover & Shaker.”
She is an in-demand speaker on issues of libraries, customer experience and design. In 2012 she was promoted to Chief Customer Experience Officer where she serves on the Executive Leadership Team and oversees 23 library locations, Marketing and all programs and products. She leads programming, experience and design for the library’s building program for 10 buildings, including the Main Library. Most recently she has launched a Customer First philosophy to lead CML to a new level of customer experience.
You can connect with Alison on LinkedIn.

Take Away Messages For The Audience

  1. As other CCOs we’ve had on the podcast have noted, this work takes time — when Alison started in Columbus, she had a 60-day plan and a 90-day plan. That was in 2004 — and to a large extent she’s still working on elements of those plans.
  2. People are crucially important to any organization and to the success of this work. She makes an interesting point later in the podcast about semantics — if you call someone ‘Chief Talent Officer’ as opposed to ‘Head of HR,’ it sends a message internally that talent really matters and resonates.
  3. Single-minded focus is crucial in this work. Customer, customer, customer.
  4. Creating a vision around which people can rally — and a story customers can understand — is crucial.
  5. A lack of clarity in an organization is a leadership problem, not a managerial-level problem.

Alison’s Journey

We begin our show understanding Alison’s journey from marketer to Chief Customer Experience Officer.  A “doer” as a marketer — like many of us who take on these roles — Alison learned quickly that different engagement skills are required to change an entire organization.  Alison shares her ups and downs in this process.

Defining Success In CCO Work

Alison and I then discussed her work to establish a new set of definitions of ‘success’ within the library leaders and with all the people who work and volunteer there.  Moving from traditional metrics of number of people attending an event, for example, to defining success by childhood achievements is a key shift that Alison is working on with everyone across the library to connect the work to a higher purpose.  At its highest level, this means uniting leaders at all levels to inspire actions that Tactically, this means evaluating and improving the business operation.

Guiding, Enabling, And Inspiring Others

Alison was very transparent in her description of her evolution from a marketer, running and able to take action, to her role as CCO – where she needed to change her approach – to guiding, enabling and inspiring fellow leaders and the organization. This is one of the most interesting and potentially challenging parts of this role that people taking it on really need to adjust to.

Approaching Organization-Wide Engagement

In our conversation, Alison walks us through her approach to engagement of the organization, and how that has led to ground-breaking practices in the world of libraries.  Alison is truly embracing “experience” to adapt to the new world of digital, to advance the library building to a place of engagement, and to be proactive in taking accountability for helping young minds grow.

She also discusses marrying vision (strategy) with implementation (day-to-day execution), and how that’s helped along by four of her direct reports being librarians.

“What I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then”

We end every podcast show asking what I call the “pay it forward” question: a piece of advice these seasoned leaders can share to help others also walking in their shoes. Alison noted:

  • The journey is about yourself — and understanding the time you need to take in order to invest in people from the beginning. Most of her career bumps were about issues of trust, and she now views those as character-building opportunities. Any business is rooted in people; that has to be your first step. (As I often tell CCOs, “You have to check your ego at the door.”)

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One thought on “Modernizing the Library Experience, With Alison Circle – [CB6]

  1. Michael Brandt says:

    I’m sorry but I’m very skeptical. The Columbus Metropolitan Library has gone through a lengthy remodeling and when it was done Alison and the rest of the upper library management pretty much took away everything I liked about the Columbus Metropolitan Library. I just wrote a letter to her detailing what I don’t like about the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s New Order. I see from your article that Ms. Circle is a very busy woman so that even though she is the Chief Customer Experience Officer I doubt that she has the time to give much consideration to the feedback of an ordinary library user. She seems to be too much of a high flyer to have time for an ordinary library user.

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