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The alarming five-year pin

Five-year pinNot long ago I had a back-and-forth with MPOW’s head of HR, who is a great HR head, by the way (and after my spring HR class my admiration for her role deepened–talk about a complex role people take for granted, like, you know, library work). She told me I would be receiving my five-year pin, and I kept insisting it was too early. But in the end I said ok, I will receive my five-year pin, because the day of the ceremony was exactly six months from my five-year anniversary, and also because she wasn’t taking “no” for an answer.

I was startled to get here. Many people have elaborate career plans such as “I’m going to be the dean of an ARL library” or “I’m going to be the interplanetary guru of electronic resources.” My modus operandi has been more along the lines of, “Hey, that looks good,” or “I’m new in town, do you have a job for me?” This baggy approach to personal career management has had spectacularly uneven results, but it did result in my present position, which is an undeniably good fit for me, even, or perhaps especially, on the craziest days.

Everything I said about managerial leadership two years ago still holds, but I continue to have very good lessons-learned, and not all of them learned the hard way. So in the spirit of the ubiquitous listicles on the web, I present my top ten:

* Campus relationships are key. Some years back I wrote a “guest response” piece for ACRL that took a position — likely in the minority — questioning the value of faculty status for librarians. I would soften that view today to say, after the manner of Pope Francis, if it works for your institution, who am I to judge? However, I do stick by the point lurking under my piece: faculty status is not a substitute for building and maintaining strong relations with all stakeholders on campus–not just the faculty, but key departments such as advising, tutoring, writing studios, orientation, admissions, campus ministry, and especially, campus services. My library may be hurting for a renovation, but it’s clean and, for its age, well-maintained.

* Sticking around has value. Those relationships don’t happen overnight, so another happy re-discovery is the joy of longevity. If you’ve been in the same library thirty years you and I may have different definitions for that term, but this job rivals only my job managing Librarians’ Internet Index (RIP) for longevity, assuming we allow for my military service being a series of smaller jobs within a larger eight-year job. People have arrived, served the university well, and departed, all on my watch, and I’ve seen a lot of change, as well as some things come full circle. And I’m still here, plugging away at the big things and the small things alike.

* Managerial leadership can be learned (parts of it, anyway). I have learned a lot on the job. Nevertheless, the doctoral program is helping me from many angles. There is the direct classroom experience of highly practical classes on human resources, strategic finance, managing in a political environment, fundraising, and so on. Then there is the scholarly aspect: research, reading, and writing (rinse, repeat). While  there is no substitute for integrity, common sense, optimism, and collegiality, learning how to write a case statement for fundraising is not a bad thing at all.

* The organization comes first. This rule manifests itself in many ways big and small. The boss gotta be the boss.  I prefer to ask “How?” or say “Not now, but let’s find a way to do this,” but sometimes “no” is the correct answer. If a key stakeholder relationship has been damaged, I need to repair it, even if I have to grovel (and trust me, I’ve groveled). If constructive feedback is warranted, I need to provide it (though constant positive feedback is crucial, too). Using Heifetz’ analogy, it’s up to me to clamber up to the balcony every now and then to see what’s happening on the dance floor, and then adjust as needed.

* Do what needs doing. Every institution has its own reality. In our case, I found myself writing an evacuation procedure, purchasing additional emergency response gear in case the lower level was not accessible, and leading the entire library, including student workers, in active-shooter training.  I also ensure we regularly update a small printout of everyone’s non-MPOW phone numbers and email so we can contact one another in emergencies. Was all of that “my” job? Yes, some of it was, but more importantly, it is my job to ensure we are prepared for emergencies, and human safety is non-negotiable.

Make sure you’ve fulfilled the bottom rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy. In addition to improving our emergency response, in the last two years I’ve done what I could to make staff more comfortable and productive. The staff area, carved from a former “processing room,” is aesthetically sad, with worn cubicle panels, ugly tile, and hideous cabinets, but I patiently championed adding overhead fans to the staff area, which has increased staff comfort, and this summer the head of library IT and I built a “seated cost” budget plan to help us ensure staff are adequately equipped for their roles, with scheduled upgrades we can plan and budget for each year. Little things — a full-size fridge, a Keurig, a hydration station for filling water bottles — make a difference.

* Do what you can, and keep trying. As I wrote in 2012, I need to be mercilessly optimistic. Management and leadership have a certain household-laundry quality, with perpetual problems and challenges that mean the last sock is never washed. There are some big things that may not happen on my watch. But I don’t stop developing proposals and plans for improving the library that I share with key stakeholders, and this readiness, plus a variety of creative relationships, have led to improvements to the library, beginning with a refresh of the computers in that aging lab, on to a new reading area, to the first refresh of the furniture on the main level in the library’s 56 years. We’ve also increased our workforce in five years, and for that I can be justly proud, because our services define us.

Have fun with the silly stuff. Several months ago, the library — specifically, another librarian and I — were pulled into an elaborate time-sink of a project to secure permissions for an anthology of prayers and poetry the university will be self-publishing. I am here to tell you that most copyright workshops stop short of the truly practical guidance for permissions: how to chase down, stalk, wheedle, negotiate, and beg your way to get permissions for material, or even how to go back in a time machine, to when you first got wind of such a project, to insist that submissions be accompanied by little things such as authors, titles, and publishers. But as much as I grumble that this isn’t what I planned to do this summer, the reality is that our efforts are greatly appreciated, our guru-ness in copyright is further solidified, and the end result will be good.

Get (and maintain) a life. I have a loving spouse, two amusing cats, and a variety of interests, and oh yeah, a doctoral program.  I have heard about directors that work from dawn into the wee hours seven days a week, but I don’t know that their libraries are run any better than mine. I definitely put in my dues; I’m always the director, 24×7, and some periods are busier than others. But I’m no good to the institution if I’m frazzled and depleted. This has  also made me very selective with my speaking and conference activities, in part because I don’t want to be an absent boss, and also because catch-up is hell. Every once in a while I dose myself with “vitamin colleague,” checking in with peer directors for a phone call, Skype, or lunch, because there is some stuff I just can’t share with anyone else.

* Be fully present. Above, I referred to things happening “on my watch.” I have observed some directors take a job with their eyes fixed on their future goal (see above, “wanna be an ARL director”). I have seen others turn into what we called in the Air Force ROADies (for Retired On Active Duty). The sweet spot for me is to get in early every day, be present as much as possible, and be actively engaged with my role as library leader.

It’s possible to renew your present-ness. Last fall was a tough time: the second semester of the doctoral program was grueling, and there were other things going on at work that zombified me. I felt, later on, that I had checked out, even if I still got things done. But that was then and this is now. Nearly every day I drive through the gates of the university with a sense of anticipation;  to quote Thelma in Thelma and Louise, “I don’t ever remember feeling this awake.” (And if you’re tempted to make the inevitable “driving off a cliff” comment, remember that Thelma and Louise were choosing a life framed by that level of being present.) I am captaining a ship sailing toward our library’s vision, with my eye on the horizon as well as the decks, and I can feel the engines pulling us toward our future. It feels good.

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