Siobhan Reardon | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Siobhan Reardon

Background:  

The Free Library of Philadelphia is the largest library system in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and one of the 15 biggest in the nation. The system's stated goal is to "build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning."

The Mistake: 

My mistake is more of a teachable moment, and it goes back to my days with the Brooklyn Public Library. I had been the chief financial officer there for about six years, and then had been promoted to chief operations officer. Which meant, of course, that I needed to hire a new CFO — and in the end, I was able to hire an extremely competent one.

The problem became that I wouldn't let go of that position and its responsibilities. I had been promoted, I brought in this great person behind me, and yet I just couldn't let go — because, obviously, that area was what I was most comfortable with. But I needed to let go and get involved in other things, because I was the COO, not the CFO, and I had other responsibilities.

I was letting things fall through the cracks and those other things were suffering — human resources and fundraising, for instance. And I remember that, one day, my CFO finally came to me and said, "Could you please let this go?"

You have to let go, especially when you have people who can deliver for you.

The Lesson:

It was a real push-pull moment. We were getting ready to go meet with our board, and I kept getting involved [in what the CFO was working on], asking him, "Where's this? And where's this?" But he had a different way to doing it. So he just walked in and said, "I need to talk to you."

He's really quite frank, and that was part of the tension, but I realized that while I wanted things done my way, he really just wanted to bring a fresh new approach to things. It was a good hour-and-a-half-long conversation and it was actually a little bit tense. I was saying, "People are used to seeing things this way," and he was responding, "No, they need to see something [different]."

I have come a long way since then, and I actually keep referring back to that moment and that conversation. It's a reminder that you can't fall into that trap. You have to let go, especially when you have people who can deliver for you. In the end, it was an amazing conversation, and one that you really appreciate when you see that your staff are feeling strongly enough about something and they are confident enough to push back.

That's actually another piece that stands out for me — to this day, I encourage my staff to please not agree with me on everything. I don't know everything, so please, don't "yes" me to death.

Follow Siobhan Riordan on Twitter at @FLPDirector.

Pictured: Siobhan Riordan. | Photo by Jon Roemer.