Leading in Transitions

Maintaining continuity in a time of change

Those of you watching the calendar have probably figured out that I’ve been on the job as the NLM Director for just about five months. My past 30 years were spent in academe, and I figured the biggest transition I would be facing was from academic to Federal employee—daunting but doable, I thought!

I had not figured on the difference between my transition from academic to fed and THE TRANSITION, the change brought about when a new president takes over for a sitting president and the reshuffling in the House and Senate that accompanies it. The logistics of a presidential transition are many—with a good percentage actually completed by October—including preparing briefing books for the incoming administration.

This task is more challenging than it might sound. Putting together a briefing book means distilling this $400 million operation down to a 3.5-page summary detailing our goals, staffing, and key actions for the near future. None of this would have been possible for a newbie without the diligence and insights of Betsy Humphreys, our NLM Deputy Director.

Beyond NLM, it seems to me that the NIH and the entire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is experiencing a mixture of business-as-usual, excitement about change, and curiosity about where a new DHHS Secretary and a whole new administration (with 4,000 new political appointees) will take us.

So what is my role in all of this?

My primary job is to ensure adequate resources for the men and women who work here to create and manage our products and services (such as PubMed, the Common Data Elements Repository, the UMLS, PubChem, ClinVAR, TOXNET, etc.), preserve our historical collections, conduct research, and develop new ways to document clinical trials. I also need to be an advocate for the NLM in NIH-wide discussions about how to foster discovery and support clinical practice in a time of uncertain direction. I must be mindful of my own tolerance for ambiguity, being sure to listen to the concerns of staff and colleagues, respond with confidence, and provide reassurance in a realistic manner.

No leadership job comes with a crystal ball, and my personal opinions about how the future will pan out do not serve as a guide for action. What does guide me is the wisdom arising from the strong NLM leadership team, formed prior to my arrival and now pivoting to guide me as I lead the Library not only in anticipating our third century but also in transitioning to a new administration. The NLM enjoys broad respect and acceptance, so I expect our core mission to persist, but frankly, I too am curious about what the future holds.

What do you think this transition will bring us?

Holidays Greetings from the Mezzanine!

Like most busy and productive workplaces, the NLM celebrates those times when social events intersect with everyday work. Just now, we are pausing to celebrate the Judeo-Christian holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah. Decorations are up, treats are appearing, and everyday greetings are complemented with good wishes for the holidays and the new year.

Arising from my family traditions and beliefs, I take this time to extend my greetings for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, your friends, and your families. In our large family of 10 children, Christmas was a time of giving and excitement, with crafts-leading-to-gifts, secret presents hidden till that special morning, and participation in the church traditions of our community.

Although perhaps the most visible holidays mixing religious ideas and social events, Christmas and Hanukkah are but two of the range of holidays practiced by different cultures and religious sects recognizing the passage of time, preparation for the future, and attention to fundamental faith tenets. Here at the NLM we have staff from nearly every corner of the globe. In Library Operations alone, we have staff who, collectively, can speak 34 languages other than English, and across the Library my colleagues’ ages span from late teens to over 80. While we are united in the goals of our work, we recognize and respect that among us are people who hold a wide range of beliefs and adhere to different traditions that mark the passing of time and visions of the future.

So, as I extend and receive holiday greetings, I try to be mindful that to some, other times and other events provide more meaningful signals in their lives of what Christmas means to me. I encourage you to commit yourself, at least once in the next year,  to learn of the traditions of one of your colleagues–this will extend our holiday greetings year round!