Letters from ALCTS

charles wilt, alcts executive director

From the Office

Charles Wilt, ALCTS Executive Director

So You Want to Be an Executive Director…

When my son was younger, he asked me what I thought was an interesting question. He asked me what an executive director does. Not a surprising question, since at the time his mother (my first wife) was also an executive director. He was curious since he was the only kid he knew whose parents were both executive directors. Guess he wanted to know if our jobs were real jobs. I do not think he was really convinced, even after seeing that I had an office and people worked for me and with me and other people worked in the building.

Long story short, it was not that easy to tell him what I did. “I run an association” was, I think, my general answer, not that that was much of an answer. Occasionally as he has gotten older, he still asks me what it is I do. It is a little easier to explain but not much. It was much easier when I was a librarian and he asked.

I often think that most members, maybe including you, wonder what I do and how I got here. I do get asked how I got my job. My reply: “dumb luck.” But first let’s talk about what I do as a division executive director in ALA. Then maybe I will tell you about a certain past-President who nagged me into accepting my job.

What I Do

The official line is that I manage the resources of the association and work with the Board of Directors and the membership to ensure those resources are appropriately managed and grown to provide value for the members. “Resources” being a broad term meaning everything we do, financial, programmatic, publishing, meetings, staff, etc. The devil is in the details, however. Many details. No, many, many details. The other most important aspect of what I do is to represent the interests of ALCTS in and to ALA, mostly internally. In other words, I am the voice of ALCTS in the building, as are Julie and Christine within their own realms. If I do not speak for ALCTS, no one else will because they are busy speaking for their own groups.

So on to the details. I guess I have six main jobs:

  • the budget,
  • the staff,
  • the President and the Board,
  • ALA,
  • helping members, and
  • making sure everything runs well and that we move forward, plus “duties as assigned.”

The Budget. Although the Budget and Finance Committee has significant input into the process, mostly the chair, and the Board has to approve both the preliminary and final budgets, it is up to me to write up the draft from which everyone works. The budget template does not change much from year to year. We only have certain project areas that we fund and certain revenue and expense projects, so it is not too complicated. I do spend time looking at trends over a couple of years to formulate the budget, particularly the previous year. The work is not preparing the budget; it is monitoring the budget each month as we go through the year. I have to write reports for ALA after most months and do long and short term projections based on current numbers and the budget. So if you do not like budgets, you do not want to be an executive director.

Staff. Division executive directors have the responsibility for hiring their own staff, determining the responsibilities for each position, and then evaluating each staff member. Although I determine the position description at the outset, ours are more fluid in how they are actually performed. Julie, Christine and I share many tasks, and we are constantly tinkering with their positions so I match what they do with what ALCTS needs. It takes little effort on my part to manage the staff, since both Julie and Christine are very motivated and dedicated to ALCTS. That makes my life much easier.

President and Board. Although I work with any member and certainly members who serve on committees, etc., my primary reporting is to the President and the Board of Directors. Working with a Board is not something I had any experience in doing when I came to my position. It was quite a learning experience. The Board is there to set policy and strategic direction, which I and the staff are to carry out. The relationship has to be one of mutual respect and trust which ends up being a constant effort on my part to be communicative and forthcoming since our Board changes over half its members every year. Besides the Board, it is my job to respond to the overall leadership when they need advice and questions answered. That to me is why I am here and why I try to respond quickly. Depending on time of year and what is going on, responding can take a good deal of my time. But again, that is why I am here.

ALA. I already mentioned my role within ALA, to be the ALCTS advocate, but it is also being aware of the larger organization and working to forward ALA as well as ALCTS. So serving on committees, task forces, etc. are part of the job. As you do, I go to a lot of meetings.

Helping members. I mentioned this briefly above. This goes beyond helping the leaders. ALCTS gets inquiries regularly through its various media outlets such as the alcts@ala.org address, Connect, etc. Many of these I answer myself, since I think it important for members to realize that there is a person on the other end of the address who can do something about what they need. Of course, Julie and Christine get their share of my forwards.

Duties as Assigned. Like other executive directors who do not have large staffs, I have to do other “non-executive director like” jobs around our little enclave. For instance, I handle the awards, the appointment process, a lot of news releases, setting up discussion lists, rosters, and more. It may seem odd that I do this but it gives me more contact opportunities with members that I would not otherwise have.

So I guess I will stop there for now. Being an executive director is not something I went to library school to learn and did not see in my career path (such as it was). I also had no inkling that I would ever get a chance to work for ALA. The job is both highly rewarding and highly frustrating. My boss, Mary Ghikas, always says that division executive directors need to be able to deal with ambiguity. That may be an understatement. And then there is working in a membership organization. You all make it worthwhile.

And next time you see Carlen Ruschoff….

Contact Charles Wilt (cwilt@ala.org).