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Planning for Surprises

Eva —  May 29, 2015 — Leave a comment

surprise_delightMy job as the leader of my library is to do my best to prepare my staff–to give them the information and tools they need, to make sure they have the training, and then to let them go and trust them. There is no way that I can plan for every possible surprise, so what I try to do is build a strong team with a solid foundation to withstand the more extreme ones.

In the time I’ve been library director, we’ve updated and created policies and procedures to give all library staff a common foundation. I don’t want to legislate every possible action for every possible scenario to get to every desired outcome. Sometimes we have to, but by and large I tell my employees to trust their gut instincts based on their knowledge of and experiences at the library. We’re all on the same team, and as long as what they decide is ethical and legal and they can detail their rationale, the management team will support their decision to waive a fine, to make an exception, to do whatever is necessary to resolve a situation.

I thought that they (mostly) get my philosophy, and this winter I had the opportunity to confirm it when we had a fire sprinkler head freeze and break. My staff pulled together quickly, dropping whatever they were doing to deal with the situation.

I sent a message to my staff the following day telling them how proud I was of how quickly and efficiently they took care of things. All hands from across the library grabbed buckets and trash cans and push brooms and dustpans and the shop vac. These were folks in high heels, in skirts, in dress pants, and wearing ties helping our Building Supervisor scoop up and take away water. Others blocked the area off as best they could. Others held down the fort at the public service desks and kept the library operating. Others called the disaster recovery company. And it was effortless–“What can I do? How can I help?” There was no ego, no dissension, no second-guessing, no pulling of rank to get out of the nastier work. It was just one big library team saving the library!

This kind of teamwork across the organization does not happen overnight; it takes years of team building and trust. We don’t have a policy or procedure written down for exactly what to do when a sprinkler head bursts; even if we wrote down exactly what happened this time, it would never happen exactly that same way ever again. My staff were tested by a surprise situation that we had never planned for, and they performed exquisitely, doing whatever it took to make things right–and the kicker is that I wasn’t even here that day. I could not be more proud of them.


Eva —  April 14, 2015 — 1 Comment

The Curse of Competence affects us all.

Each of us, I’m sure, can think of at least one person–yourself, someone you live with, work with, or know who is the “go-to” for problems major and minor.

curse of competenceHow do you know if you have the Curse of Competence?

  • When a great idea comes up and everyone instinctively turns to you, expecting you to volunteer. And then you do.
  • When you see someone or some group struggling and you help, which means you end up doing most, if not all, of their work.
  • When you are part of a group and slowly realize that you’ve taken on all of the major tasks and milestones, because otherwise they might not get done.
  • When your boss gives you project after report after presentation without seeming to realize that none of them are actually your job or even your department, but you do them because you want to be a team player.
  • When you are the Dear Abby of the library and everyone asks you for your advice and guidance.
  • When your boss puts you on long-established teams with the directive to get it done; to clean it up; to light a fire under them; or otherwise produce the deliverable that the team hasn’t produced.
  • When you find yourself taking back work you’ve assigned to a person or a group because “It’s just easier for me to do it” rather than explain, train, or go through multiple back-and-forth drafts.

While it’s awesome to be needed and reliable and depended upon, the curse of being competent is the toll that it can take on you. Being responsible without having any authority is exhausting. Batting clean-up is a heavy burden. Operating in crisis mode all the time is stressful. And in those times when you have a moment to actually lift your head up and take breath, you’ll find yourself wondering what your job actually is–because it’s not all of these other jobs, that’s for sure.

Mitigating the curse of competence can be done; it takes time and persistence in the short-term, but it has a long-term payoff.

First, really think about whether your help is what’s being asked for. Are you jumping in to save people and projects because you want the glory? Are you sure they want you to take over? Check yourself; ask a trusted colleague for feedback. Look at the faces that other people are making while you’re doling out advice and taking on their work and make sure that’s what they really want. Are you unintentionally bulldozing or overwhelming people? Think about whether others are really “doing it wrong” or if they’re just “doing it differently.” One of my most difficult management transitions was accepting that there are billions of ways to accomplish something, and to allow my staff to use their own methods as long as they operate within our policies and parameters.

If you determine that you do have the curse of competence, talk to your boss about priorities. Take your long list and ask for a meeting where you go through and determine which priorities are essential to your job and performance. Talk about what can be reassigned to others–priorities that rightly belong to another person or another department. Talk, too, about what’s not a priority and can fall off the list all together. Note: This is not about you, the competent person, saying that you are incompetent. This is about you as a fully-formed adult acknowledging that there are only so many hours in a day and asking your boss to help you and the library by focusing on mutually agreed-upon priorities. And then when your boss comes to you with the next big project or idea, say, “That sounds great. I will have to stop doing this project or that project in order to accomplish this new project. Which priority should we bump?”

Next, talk to your colleagues about your priorities. Make sure your fellow managers understand that you and your boss agree that you must focus on these priorities, and ask them to help you by not referring their people or projects to you or your department unless it’s one of the identified priorities. And then when your colleague asks you to lend a hand with their project or department, have the conversation with them about how that fits in with your established priorities. If it doesn’t, that’s that. If it does, you can then talk about whether you are the person who should take this on or if someone else needs the opportunity or has the skills.

Third, talk to your staff. Make sure that they understand and are comfortable with their own autonomy. Train them to work through problems on their own before coming to you–in many cases, they are perfectly capable of working out a solution or resolving a situation within established guidelines without you. Demonstrate and reinforce your confidence in them, and their confidence will grow, too. When I was a frontline manager, one thing I always tried to do in one-on-one meetings was ask my employees what they’d like to be involved in at the library. Sometimes I could make it happen, sometimes I couldn’t, but asking the question led to good conversations about their job and career growth, and where their personal interests intersect with that. Even if I didn’t have anything for them to work on right then, I’d tuck their interests in the back of my mind and be on the lookout for ways to engage them with a project (which I then didn’t have to do myself!).

The hardest part is to learn to let go. Take baby steps. Start by giving a small project to someone with a deadline and the desired outcome (“Take this data, review it, and present me with two to four recommendations for how we can do better by the end of the month”) and encourage them to come to you with questions. And then let them do it their way. Make the time to train and cross-train your staff. When one of them comes to you with a problem, talk them through it–what does our policy say? Has a similar situation come up with you before and how did you handle it then? What does your gut tell you is the right answer?–and guide them through the process of getting to the answer themselves. This takes time and effort in the moment, but in the long run they’ll be empowered and confident, and you will be less stressed.

Lastly, recognize that the curse of competence is always there. It ebbs and flows but never really goes away. I continue to struggle with it every day, and so will you. But we can learn to manage it better.

Like most public libraries who are coming out of the recession, we’ve begun hiring again. Several public libraries in my region invite other library directors in to help conduct interviews, so in addition to doing a lot of interviewing at my library, I’ve also taken part in some civil service exam interviews for my neighboring libraries. Library directors talk–as you know–and one conversation I’ve had several times is about internal candidate interviews.

The interview is the audition, the time for that candidate to dazzle us. Being an internal candidate gives you an edge over external candidates, but you still have to demonstrate that you are the right fit for that particular job, and the way you demonstrate that is by giving an excellent interview. To borrow the attitude of Debbie Allen in Fame, my take is “You want this promotion? You want this permanent position? Well, right here is where you start earning it–with a great interview.”

My library is small enough that I know who you are and have an awareness of what your work is like, but large enough that our interactions are usually limited to a smile, a nod, and perhaps small talk at the Staff Day coffee station. The interview allows me to get to know internal candidates better and get a personal sense of how often they raise their heads above the day-to-day and look around to get the big picture of where our library is headed. So it disappoints me when an internal candidate violates the best practices of a good interview.

A weak handshake, poor eye contact, lackluster or pat responses, too-casual dress, not knowing our strategic plan, and the inability to answer questions taken straight from the About Us section of our website are mistakes that interviewees should avoid. When an internal candidate commits any of these no-nos, I think it’s worse than when it happens with an external candidate because internal candidates should know better. I cringe when internal candidates take themselves out of the running by giving answers such as “I am interested in the position because I need more hours/I need benefits,” “I actually can’t name any of the library’s strategic plan goals,” “I don’t have an answer to that question,” or the kiss of death: Wandering sentences stringing together random thoughts that don’t actually answer the question we asked.

Internal candidates should be slam-dunk hires. They have had the advantage of our training, professional development, and mentoring. You know their work habits, their attitudes, how they serve the public, and how they interact with other staff. The candidates know how the library operates, know what the work atmosphere is like, have demonstrated on a daily basis their commitment to the work, and are familiar with the expectations and personalities.

Don’t get me wrong; many fantastic staff are also fantastic interviewees who have the right balance of passion without being psychotic, demonstrate their knowledge of the library without being nitpicky or arrogant, and are diplomatic in their responses without lying to themselves or to us. I’m being earnest when I say that I don’t understand why some internal candidates don’t seem appropriately prepared for the interview, and I’d like to hear from you, library leaders, about what your expectations are of internal candidates. Do I expect too much?

Photo of hand holding a question mark shape

I think I’m getting your question :-) CC BY-NC-SA Marina Noordegraaf

It makes some sense that I grew up to become a librarian; I was a curious kid. Any grown up who spent any time with me when I was young would tell you that. I remember taking a plantation home tour in Florida once and asking about all of the furnishings, table settings, and other details. The guide gladly answered every single one, and it wasn’t until near the end of the tour, when I saw over his shoulder how two people on our tour shared a glance and an eye roll, that I realized that others found my curiosity annoying.

I’ve learned over time to temper that curiosity in the short-term (I look stuff up myself or ask about it after a meeting or gathering so as not to waste everyone else’s time). I still catch exasperated sighs and glances when I go overboard, though. I can’t help it! I like digging past the pat answers and, especially at work, really understanding why my coworkers think the way they do, do the things they do, propose the things they propose.

Which is why I am glad to have found A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Book cover for Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger. The book is full of explanations and examples of how masterful questions can lead to innovative ideas and results. With the constant change we see in our libraries, it is impossible for me as a library director to have all the answers, so I rely on my managers and staff to be the experts with whom I can consult (as you know from Stylin‘, I tend to be a consultative leader).

Berger talks a lot about how leaders today need to ask questions to not just understand, but to inspire their employees in ever-changing environments; their key leadership skill is sensemaking, “the ability to make sense of what’s going on in a changing and complex environment.” Great leaders must ask Why, What If, and How, and get past any ego about being an expert–the time it takes to become an expert could be too late. So, hiring the right experts to advise you is important. Also important is asking your employees questions to help drill down their thinking, to get past the trite answer or the pat answer or the answer they think you want to hear and get to their real opinions and recommendations.

I am only partway through this book but I am finding all kinds of validation and inspiration in it. It is helping me understand myself and my evolution as a leader–many of my questions have evolved from my childhood “I want to know!” questions into management “I want to help you figure this out” questions when I am coaching my employees through a problem. Inquiries like “Why do you think that is?” “What would you suggest?” and “How would doing that make the situation different?” help employees grow and learn, rather than me just telling them what to do about an issue.

Many of the example leaders in the book are comfortable with not knowing things, with living in the gray areas, with having most (but not all) of the pieces in place at launch. Part of my leadership journey is getting comfortable with uncertainty, and so this is definitely “right book, right time” for me.

Mentoring – You can do it!

Eva —  January 28, 2015 — Leave a comment

Just before the new year, I attended an event where I saw someone I used to work with a long time ago, pre-librarianship. We both happen to be librarians now, but in different specialties. We spent some time after chatting and catching up, and she asked me if I would consider mentoring her formally.

This took me aback. In my head I listed the reasons why I should say no:

  1. I’m not that familiar with her area of librarianship.
  2. I have not kept up with her professional development or involvement in the profession.
  3. She doesn’t work for me.

And then I listed the reasons why I should say yes:

  1. I might actually be better at mentoring her in general management and giving her advice on specific situations because we are in two different library worlds with minimal overlap–I have no horse in her race.
  2. I can give her alternate perspectives and learn from her, too. This would be a great way for us to reconnect after all this time and perhaps find new commonalities beyond our shared past.
  3. I’ve never formally mentored anyone who was not my direct report. In those situations, I know exactly what I’m talking about. Here, I’ll have to pay close attention and ask lots of questions to understand the dynamics, which would be a nice stretch for me as well as benefiting her.

I was momentarily hung up on the idea that I had nothing to teach her, but I realized that this was unnecessarily limiting of me. She gets to determine when she wants to meet with me and she gets to drive the conversations–if I’m not helping her, or if she no longer needs me to help her, she can thank me for my time and end the formal mentoring. So, I said yes–I outlined my concerns, but I still said yes. She is going to contact me soon to set up a coffee or a lunch.

Have you ever had a formal mentoring relationship outside of your specialty or your organization? I’d be glad for any tips and advice.