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Rediscovered Management Lessons

This is a smattering of lessons I keep rediscovering in management, which I felt like summarizing as I tick into a new calendar year. A lot of it is obvious, very little of it is new to me (and some of it has been said here before) — but management seems to consist of relearning the same things repeatedly, each time in new ways.

Hire in haste, repent at leisure. As I noted in my American Libraries article on branding, hiring is enough of a chimera anyway; rushing the process will just make things worse.

Every once in a while I find myself the lone defender on an issue. Sometimes I check in with myself and decide that I’m wrong. But other times I remember two examples of a lone holdout. The first is a case study of Donna Dubinsky, who at Apple championed a change in distribution methods. The second is a friend of mine who successfully led a complex political/technical challenge. He remarked recently that at times he was the only person who believed in his direction. But he was clearly right, in retrospect. (Note: sometimes I will be the lone holdout, and I will be wrong. So it goes.)

Eat sensibly and get regular exercise.

“You only get one chance to make a first impression.” The sensemaking that happens when a patron walks into a lobby, the first interaction with service points–these are crucial. I’ve been a member of the UCSF fitness center for several years, and I was startled to discover a poster on the lower level listing the “management team” — I didn’t recognize any of them. But the cool factor is that the level of customer service at the center’s front desk is so exceptionally, consistently high no matter when I visit or how busy it is, and the lobby is so intentionally welcoming, that I sense I know them anyway.

Management often feels like navigating by flashlight. I’m groping just a few feet ahead of myself, trying not to fall into holes, listening for sounds. A slow and methodical footfall helps.

Ultimately you rise and fall by the quality and quantity of your human capital. A small team of really great people can do amazing things.

Every team has limits on what is doable, and it’s a good thing to learn how to delicately communicate that. Nobody outside the library is sitting around asking, “Does the library have enough people to do what needs to get done?”

Message management is key. Much in library work can be delegated… but keep a firm grip on external communications, from signage to interaction with other agencies to who gets to pull the trigger on campus-wide messages.

Speaking of communication, it’s always a work in progress–but a very worthy cause.

You are the metronome. You set the pace.

Much as I disagree with Woody Allen’s life choices, I fully agree with him that “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” This is one of several management jobs in my career where showing up at work and being a presence has been crucial to success. If you think I don’t go to as many conferences as in some previous positions, you’re right.

That said, I’m going to begin working from home at least one day per month (I’ve been saying this for three years, so take it with a grain of salt) because the mindset for being an active presence is not the mindset conducive to editing grant narratives or finishing NCES statistics. Yes, I do take work home (though not obsessively), but even better is having a dedicated, hard-to-interrupt work day dedicated to the task–a nice mixture of urgency (I won’t get another day like this soon!) and luxury (home in my jammies, counting the stats!).

I also make sure I get to just enough conferences, and visit just enough peer directors, to get some Vitamin Colleague.  Your staff can’t be that for you. They need you refreshed, balanced, and with your sense of humor intact–and there are things you shouldn’t share with them, no matter how tempting.

Take care of your boss. Meet deadlines small and large without prompting; don’t force your boss, or his or her staff,  to be your administrative assistant. Be open to ideas. Come prepared to meetings. Cut your boss some slack–he or she puts up with your imperfections, after all.  Remember to thank and praise your boss from time to time–you will never be privy to some of the hardest things they have done. (Yes, I have had bosses it would have been hard to do this for, but I still wish, in retrospect, I had tried harder.)

Show respect for the other departments you work with. I pride myself on a 100% on-time submission of my monthly credit card bill because it is one less thing for the finance department to worry about. If I think I’m going to be late, I tell them in advance. If I am having invoice issues with a vendor, I settle them as promptly as possible. Again, this isn’t about them being likable–though they are a likable bunch–but because it’s the right thing to do, morally and politically.

It’s worth wangling the library into the key discussions on campus — online learning, student success, etc. There is always a library tie-in, even if it’s not self-evident at first. The catch is to remember that the library can’t solve all problems.

One of the most delicate dances is the use of your facility by other agencies. There are no easy answers. It’s a case of balancing finite space with a distinct purpose with the political capital of resource-sharing. But a space once shared can rarely be reclaimed.

Build and maintain a strategic map. You need good relationships everywhere on campus–and not just with the people you feel at ease with.

Student workers do not set library policy. From time to time they will complain that one or more library users Did Something Bad and therefore some new library-wide draconian rule must immediately go into effect, optimally reinforced with a plethora of scolding signs printed on bright orange paper in all-caps Bold Comic Sans — yes, I speak from experience — but see above, message management.

Checklists are your friend. Campus Safety loves that we use opening and closing checklists–and so do I. Despite clear evidence that checklists save lives and improve processes, we may be their only friend, but that too is ok. (Policy and procedure are your friends, too.)

This is easily the fifth job in my life where I’ve implemented a key locker and insisted on key management. As with checklists, life is better when your keys are organized. Plus I find it too weird to work in a LIBRARY that can’t organize keys. (Bully for you if you have access cards, but we ain’t there yet.)

Consistent service is key.  It is tempting to give a different level of service to the patron with the winningest charm. But ethically and strategically, we should provide the same level of service to all users. That doesn’t mean ignoring problem patrons or never being flexible, but for your typical patrons, there should never be a gulf of service between the patrons who are chummy and those who are simply there to get the job done.

In a similar vein, some of your best workers may not be one of the Cool Kids. I remember a conversation several years back about why so-and-so in another library was promoted to Head of Reference over another, sparklier employee. I’m guessing that from the director’s perspective, So-and-So was a reliable worker who showed up, did the job, got the administrivia done, knew how to keep a ship sailing, and (quoting Dr. Johnson) had a bottom of good sense, particularly in dampening the inevitable Library Melodrama.

There is a natural tendency in libraries to lean toward fees and service limits as governors on behavior and methods for mitigating demand on human capital or other resources. But I recall asking a peer library why they charged for a specific service, and their response was they didn’t know why and therefore they were eliminating the fee. Other times a limit can be packaged more attractively — such as asking a user which of the umpty-ump books she has suddenly requested she would like first rather than “no, you can’t request that many books at once.”

Periodically review your successes as a team. Remember the “olden days” and celebrate where you are and where you are going.

Additionally, review your organizational worldview, and if need be recalibrate. I am almost finished reading Tribal Leadership, and one of the “click” moments I had was realizing that though I was good at lifting up our own successes, I was starting to fall into the trap of being too critical of other departments–that nasty Us vs. Them habit that paves the way for siege mentality, pitypottism, and other unprofessional and counterproductive syndromes. Ick! Bad juju!  I will allow myself the luxury of that level of criticism when I am absolutely sure my personal leadership has achieved absolute perfection (in other words, it will never happen).

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4 Comments

  1. Bob Acton wrote:

    Very nice summary of lessons learned.

    Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Michael Golrick wrote:

    And sometimes when you are the only one, you will be right, and sometimes when you are wrong, you are part of the group/majority. As you so rightly observe “So it goes.”

    Politicians need to learn that “Every team has limits on what is doable” and that there is an end to being able to do more with less. I have felt burned out by the constant demand to do more with less, and good managers work to keep that under control for their staff (i.e. human capital).

    Thanks for the great reminders from someone who was once “at the top” and is now back in the middle.

    Monday, January 7, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Dale wrote:

    This was fun to read, and really speaks to my experience as well. It’s so easy to fall into the “I’m a leader so I must always be brilliant and visionary” trap, and these adages are the way out of that mindset. My number one annual reminder is “talk less, listen more,” which underlies many of the points you make here.

    Monday, January 7, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  4. Shelley wrote:

    “Show respect” is a great model. On a college campus, the library is not the librarians’ property: it is the heart of the institution, belonging to all faculty, all respectful users.

    Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

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