Every once in a while it’s good to evaluate your “tone” when speaking to colleagues. Are you being a leader or are you just being bossy? Think about situations in which you feel you had a successful interaction and remember all the things you did right and take note. Leadership is a skill, take the time to hone it!
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During difficult conversations with staff it is vital to make sure you have turned on your listening ears. Leaders acknowledge a direct report’s ideas or concerns even if they do not agree with the person. This is hard for me to remember, but when I flick on the listening ears I often discover a more receptive individual. Most of us just want to be heard and great leaders will make sure they are attentive, caring and understanding during what could be a tense situation. So check out your listening ears to make sure they are fully operational!
My 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.
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 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.
Jessica Jones (@bibliographics), Branch Manager of the Larry J. Ringer Library in College Station, Texas talked to us about the unexpected turns her library career path has taken – from academic cataloger to director, then a jump to public libraries. She also gave us the scoop on the difference between managing an academic library and a public library. We love Jessica’s management philosophy: “Hire good people, train them well, and then get out of their way.”
Tell me about your career path. What was planned and what was unexpected?
I came to graduate school with the goal of being a preservation librarian. I was just a few credit hours short of a double specialization, but graduated a semester early with the Library and Information Services concentration since I thought it was safer than Preservation Administration. This was during the recession, but I had public library experience already, having spent a year at the San Antonio Public Library (SAPL) prior to grad school, and I volunteered/interned with the Ann Arbor District Library. I hoped that if all else failed, I could go back to the SAPL to wait out the recession until preservation positions started opening up again.
I reached out to SAPL a few months before graduation, and they were in a hiring freeze. The job market in 2009 was . . . grim. I was offered a full time position with benefits in New Mexico two months after graduation, and I took it. I packed up and drove the 1500 miles out to Espanola, New Mexico to be a cataloger for Northern New Mexico College (Northern).
The cataloger position did not technically require my MSI, but as I started work there, I began to realize how much that position had needed someone with the degree. I worked very hard to improve the standards and consistency and thus won the trust of my superiors. When the Assistant Librarian left a few months after that, I seized the opportunity to assume a position that actually required my degree and added the responsibilities of access services, collection development, and teaching information literacy. About a year later, the Director retired, and I was nominated to be the Interim Director while still performing the duties of Assistant Librarian. At this point, the only things I was not doing were cataloging and ILL, and I was the only academic librarian in a county the size of Connecticut. I kept the place afloat, expanded our digital offerings, and shed the “Interim.”
Post-recession, as a director in my early 30s with supervisory, administrative, and budget experience that is easily translated into other areas of librarianship, my next job hunt was much easier. My husband was offered a position as a PhD student at Texas A&M University, and I had an offer in College Station shortly thereafter. I am currently the branch manager at a public library, and I supervise 18 people who are fantastic and have made me feel very welcome and appreciated.
What’s your leadership philosophy?
It is difficult to completely separate my leadership philosophy from my management philosophy, which is: Hire good people, train them well, and then get out of their way. As my library’s leader and manager, I consider myself an enabler. Librarians don’t go into this line of work because it’s lucrative, it’s because they care; so, as a leader, I try to help my employees feel like they the opportunity to do things they care about.
I realize that I have been very fortunate in my career trajectory; I worked very hard for my experience and titles, but I know others who have worked hard and just weren’t in places where those titles were up for grabs. I currently supervise 6 masters-holding librarians, and several of them have been in the field longer than me; as their leader, I advocate for them constantly so that they can pursue the projects they love. The best leaders I have known in my professional life have tried to do the same; let people aim high, and try to meet them there with the guidance, skills, and supplies they need to achieve the goal.
When moving from an academic to a public library, what adjustments did you have to make to your management style?
My academic library experience involved a lot less face time with patrons than my public library experience. You often have more tech-savvy patrons in an academic library, which means more email and chat reference requests. In this public library, most of the reference happens in-person. What this has meant to my management style is that it has gone from a more process-centric method to people-centric. If a librarian is spending 8 hours a day on a reference desk, I worry more about burnout than email efficiency, for example. You can answer emails at your own speed, but if someone is standing at the desk, they need you right now.
To manage a place where almost every situation is more acute means that I have to spend a lot more time thinking about my people and making sure they are taken care of. This is not to say that I am perfect at this; I miss things sometimes, and I try to remind my librarians and clerks that I rely on them to be self-aware and tell me what they need. In an ideal world, everyone’s needs would be perfectly communicated and met in a timely manner. That’s not always the case, and I can always do better; this is a lifelong learning process.
You mentioned your library is adding services that demonstrate value to the community. Can you talk a little bit about the changes and new services?
It isn’t news to anyone in this audience that libraries often face an uphill battle when it comes to expanding (or even maintaining) our budgets. Because the immediate association many people have with libraries is “books” – specifically, popular fiction – we are often seen as a luxury instead of a community investment. Changes, therefore, are often creative (the nice word for “on a shoestring”) until their value has already been demonstrated. We have several librarians here who are doing some really great and creative things in their programming that rely on their inherent interests and expertise, such as: English conversation circles, themed storytimes for the entire family, collaboration with outside groups like our local NaNoWriMo, and early literacy workshops for parents and educators. We are reaching out to all age groups at all levels of literacy in an effort to provide the kind of engagement that improves the lives of all of our patrons and promotes a sense of community ownership.
What’s the top thing you think librarians need to do in order to succeed?
There are a lot of things that I attribute to any personal successes I’ve achieved so far. Some things have come more naturally than others, but, for where I am now, these are the top takeaway lessons:
Project confidence and be direct. Be creative and offer a solution whenever you bring up a problem. Admit when you are wrong or when you don’t know something; this goes a long way toward proving trustworthiness, which leads to more responsibilities. Challenge yourself and acquire new skills and knowledge whenever you see the opportunity. Say “Thank you” and “Please” and show your appreciation for others’ hard work as often as you can.
What do you see in the future for public libraries?
Because we are publicly funded, predicting the future of public libraries is inherently tied to politics. The political climate right now feels very polar, and I do worry a little about the public library’s future in some communities. I feel fortunate to be in a college town that appreciates the value of education and lifelong learning, but not every library is so lucky. My branch here is a wonderful example of what you can do without a lot of money, but we do definitely think about what we could be doing with more of it: workshops, maker spaces, guest speakers and author visits, web development, enhanced automation, etc.
This is all to say that I think the future for public libraries will be dependent on the values of their respective communities. I think the future for librarians is a little more predictable; whatever new technologies are introduced, and whatever technologies we are given the funds to procure, we will continue to do our best to bridge the Digital Divide, provide our communities with opportunities to learn and entertain themselves, and serve as guides for a world of information that expands exponentially every year.