I’ve been wanting to write about managing people for a long time. This post has been marinating in my head for years and a few things managed to knock it out of me.
The first was this post from Wayne Bivens-Tatum that talks about how much his institution (and specific people within) enabled his recent successes. He wrote:
I know that however externally successful you are, and no matter how great you might actually be, you’re dependent on opportunities you didn’t necessarily create and a whole network of people who enable you to do what you do. Even real rock stars need great sound engineers.
I loved this post because it acknowledges how much of a role one’s institution (as well as others in one’s network) plays in the great and/or innovative things people do both at work and within the larger profession. I don’t know that I’d have done the same things and had the same successes if my first job hadn’t been at Norwich. Would I have written a book a few months into my first professional job? Would I have created Five Weeks to a Social Library? Would I have taught for San Jose State? Had my Director not been supportive of these things, I might still have done them (stubborn person that I am), but I can certainly imagine self-preservation leading the way. If I knew they’d have damaged my career, I almost certainly wouldn’t have taken them on. So many of us who have achieved success were able to do that because of our places of work. Sure, some people do amazing things in spite of being in horrible work situations, but one has to wonder how many potential “movers and shakers” (for lack of a better term) have been stifled due to a bad work environment. In thinking about how we are enabled by our places of work, I can’t help but think of how many people could be doing super-awesome things if not for their places of work.
Another thing that sparked this was a conversation I was having with a colleague of mine who had worked at one of the smaller ARLs a while back. She told me that her former University Librarian said that she saw their library as a farm team for the bigger ARLs. She saw her role as being to help develop fantastic leaders for working at some of the most prestigious research libraries in the world. I found this a lovely way of thinking about the role of a manager. Yes, obviously people need to do their jobs and the goals of the library must be taken into account, but to see a major part of your role as helping develop the skills and talents of your faculty/staff so they can achieve career success is a truly beautiful thing. To me, thinking in that way is the definition of a good manager. A good manager helps enable the success of her staff, helps to smooth over barriers, helps them to improve and develop, and helps them be satisfied (or even happy) in their role. I have always believed as a manager that I worked for the people who report to me and that if they were not successful, it was on me to help them become successful.
As many of you who’ve read my blog for a while know, librarianship was not my first career. Before becoming a librarian, I was a psychotherapist working with children and their families. Changing careers was a painful decision. I felt like a bad person leaving social work; like a sell-out. And I thought my colleagues would think the same of me. I still remember when, at a major local conference, I announced to colleagues that I was leaving the profession. Instead of being accused of being a sell-out, people said that they were envious of me; that they’d do the same if they didn’t have families, debt, etc. They applauded me for taking the risk. For so many of us, working in mental health was eating us alive. Dealing with the stress of our work, the violent clients, the heartbreaking cases, and the constant threat of losing state funding was unbearable. People I worked with ended up either divorcing themselves emotionally from their work and doing very little for their clients or caring so much that their work became their life. I was going down the latter road, spending all my time worrying about my clients, waking up in the middle of the night thinking about some of the most painful cases, and doing paperwork on weekends since I spent at least 50 hours a week driving all over the county visiting clients and their families. I barely slept, I lost weight, and all I wanted to do was find a way to adopt 50% of the kids on my caseload.
What always amazes me, in hindsight, is that the organizations I worked for didn’t seem to focus on keeping their own therapists and case workers healthy and happy. There was no talk about work-life balance, self-care, cutting down one’s caseload, dealing with emotionally-taxing situations, etc. The closest thing to self-care we got was a self-defense workshop where we learned different ways to subdue an attacker. At my social work internship, where I provided therapy to adults, the case worker down the hall from me was stabbed in our building and yet little was done. We didn’t talk about the issue and no steps were taken to better protect us. I don’t remember ever feeling like I could come to my supervisor in my first full-time job and say that my caseload was too crazy. Our staff meetings were frequently about who was achieving the highest number of billable hours. It felt like Glengarry Glen Ross (just without the money).
My views on management come from my experiences as a therapist and as an employee of mental health organizations. They also come from my former boss at Norwich, Ellen Hall, who was an exemplar of what a manager and leader should be. I feel so lucky to have worked for Ellen (our now-retired Library Director) and learned from her. She was so willing to share with me the reasoning behind her decisions and how she approached management issues and, for that, I will be forever grateful. Ellen always said that if her employees went on to great jobs at other places, she had done her job. She wanted to see me become a manager, and eventually a director, and helped me gain the knowledge and experience I needed to move forward with my career. She was a tireless advocate for the library and her librarians. She understood that happy employees = productive and passionate employees and always tried to help us achieve great things. She made me believe I was capable of so much more than I believed myself and always encouraged risk-taking, experimentation and growth. While things weren’t 100% perfect, much of what I’ve described in talks as an ideal organizational culture for innovation comes from Norwich. In fact, I gave a talk about the Kreitzberg Library at Norwich and Organization 2.0 for ALA TechSource (my talk is about halfway into the video).
I’ve tried to bring a little “Ellen Hall” to my own work as a manager. When I got to Portland State, one of the people I supervised started the same week as me in a brand-new reference and instruction librarian position She’d previously worked at PSU in non-professional roles, but this was her first faculty position. Kim Willson-St. Clair’s (who asked me to use her name when I asked if I could write about her) new job was amazingly broad and one of those faculty positions that really wasn’t responsible for a specific area other than helping with the teaching and projects that other people were in charge. Perhaps if Kim was one of those people who just wants to do her work and go home, who sees librarianship as “just a job”, it would have been an ok fit (though I personally hate the idea of faculty positions that don’t give a person anything to hang their hat on). Kim is one of those people who puts 100% into everything she does. While she’d taught in the distant past, she threw herself into studying pedagogical theories, observing colleagues teaching, and learning, learning, learning how to be a terrific instructor. She was so committed to honing her craft; it was inspiring.
I told her early on that I was committed to ensuring that her position was coherent and not just a mishmash of things people didn’t want to or have time to do. One of the things she was given (by another faculty member who had to take on additional responsibilities for a year) were classes in the Intensive English Language Program (IELP). The program is for international students at the graduate and undergraduate level who need to work on their English language skills before moving on to degree programs at Portland State or other institutions. The students have to do plenty of research, since it is designed to prepare them for academic work in the United States. Although this was envisioned as a one-year temporary assignment, Kim attacked it like it was her life’s work. She studied everything she could about teaching international students and how international students approach the library. She learned all she could about the IELP program in an effort to create a coherent program of library instruction. In seeing this, I realized it was something she could really hang her hat on. I talked to administration and advocated for her position description to be changed so that part of her job would be liaising with international student programs, which would include IELP as well as others. Fortunately, I was successful and it’s been a permanent part of her job for over a year. Since then, her outreach to these students has been nothing short of inspiring and I’m so proud of what she has done for international students at PSU.
This is what a manager should do. Plain and simple. And I’m not trying to toot my own horn here; I’ve made myriad mistakes as a manager over the past five years and have felt like an absolute beginner every step of the way. Sometimes I feel like I’m too much of a softy and other times I think I should have stuck up more for an employee in a bad situation. But I have always been driven by the conviction that my role is to help my direct reports be happy and successful in their work. And if they’re not happy or successful, I need to find ways to help them change that. I work for them. And every employee I’ve had has needed different things, has communicated differently, and has been driven by different goals. I, as a manager, had to adapt my style to their needs to help them be successful. And, at the same time, I had to balance the need to support them with the need to further the goals of the library. Finding that balance is critical and being too much on one side or the other is either bad for patrons or bad for staff.
A friend recently mentioned to me that she’d never want to be a middle manager and doesn’t see the value of managing people unless you were really in-charge of the big decisions (“the boss”). I know being a middle manager has a bad rep, and I totally agree that it can suck rocks at times, but it can also be a great place to be if you like helping others. I like being low down enough that I can be an active part of some of the great work the library is doing, but high up enough that I can also be a support to those working under me. It must be the social worker in me who enjoys being a facilitator of good things happening. Or maybe I’m a masochist?
I think there’s sometimes a tendency in libraries to think of people who work in the library as the collection of skills they bring to the table without thinking enough about what is needed in the library to make the librarian with those skills successful. The Library Loon has written about this issue as well. A library that needs to build a culture of assessment needs a lot more than just people with assessment know-how and data analysis skills (though they are certainly important). They also need to support the people with those skills and to put into place structures that help the culture change around the topic of assessment. Library managers need to see their employees as more than a collection of skills. We need to see them as whole people; people with short-term goals, future ambitions, and things that make coming to work enjoyable. Libraries need to not only provide employees with a paycheck and a place to go during the day; they need to give them work that speaks to their passions and furthers their professional goals. Doing this isn’t just good for the employee; it’s good for the library. Work won’t always be fun, but when you feel like the organization is committed to you, you’re much more likely to be committed to it.
Organizations play a huge role in the success and failure of their employees. They can bring out the best or the worst in their employees depending on how they treat their employees. They can help make a “mover and shaker” or make sure someone will never be one. What traits do you think good managers bring to the table? How can organizations help their employees be successful and be committed to the organization? What did the best manager you’d had do?
Image credit: “I’m Watching by Alejandro Hernandez., on Flickr