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Sunday, September 19, 2021

‘My goal is to rebuild trust’: Indianapolis Public Library interim CEO begins work

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In most cases, the role of an interim CEO is to maintain the status quo until a permanent CEO can be installed. When workers aren’t happy with the status quo, however, the position involves a bit of rebuilding.

Enter John Helling. Helling, interim CEO of Indianapolis Public Library (IndyPL), said he’s making a concerted effort to work with staff throughout the library system to build relationships between administration, staff and the community.

“People want to feel engaged with their library,” Helling said. “That goes for staff and patrons. If people don’t trust their library, they won’t use their library and then we can’t do our work and achieve our mission. My goal is to rebuild trust.”

Helling was named interim CEO at the August board of trustees meeting and began work Sept. 1. Former CEO Jackie Nytes announced her resignation Aug. 20 following allegations of racism. In an email to library staff, Nytes described Helling, who previously worked as IndyPL’s chief public services officer for over five years, as experienced and a “good listener.”

“I am grateful for John’s willingness to assume this role at this time and have total confidence in his ability to provide the leadership that is needed,” Nytes wrote. “Please join me in giving John your total support.”

Helling has worked in libraries for 15 years, including a short stint at the New York Public Library and Bloomfield Library, a small library in southern Indiana. In nearly two decades in libraries, Helling has learned the key to successful leadership is about “building relationships, building trust and building engagement.”
In his first few days as interim, Helling held “office hours” at various branches, giving staff members the opportunity to speak with him about their concerns.

Librarian and Library Workers Union member Stephen Lane said the union is concerned that Helling may become the permanent CEO, which he said would result in “more of the same.” Previously, some union members said the next CEO ought to be a person of color, not just someone who has been through diversity, equity and inclusion training.

Board member Hope Tribble said she hopes the search for a new CEO will begin in the coming weeks.

Despite his concerns, Lane said he and other union members met with Helling before he took over as interim.

“It’s great that leadership is listening better than before,” Lane said. “[Helling] told us he’s doing things behind the scenes to support staff, but we need leadership to be more transparent with how they’re protecting and supporting us.”

Helling said he’s empathetic and supportive of workers who don’t feel heard because he’s been there. Helling remembers being surprised when he received a call from the regional manager on his last day at New York Public Library. Helling didn’t think library leaders knew who he was. That experience taught Helling the importance of connecting with each employee.

Helling, like many other library workers and administrators, are quick to point out racism and diversity issues aren’t unique to IndyPL, but to library systems as a whole.

“Just because this isn’t specific to Indianapolis doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take ownership,” Helling said. “Public libraries can always be more engaged with staff and the community … to make sure they feel engaged and valued. That’s something I took away from the New York Public Library, to always try harder to engage people on an individual, human being level.”

Helling’s main goals for his time as interim CEO are to rebuild relationships with staff and community members and to set up the next CEO for success. To community members who expressed concern about allegations of racism, Helling said library administration is listening.

“We don’t learn anything if we don’t listen first,” Helling said. “It’s about what the community wants, and we’re listening to the community now more than ever and we’re interested in what they have to say.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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