Category Archives: Administration/Leadership

Use for postings that discuss the administrative aspects of academic librarianship, including managing and leading in the field.

Taking Risks: Punt Or Go For It

Be a risk taker. Create change. Take chances. Be bold. We come across these inspirational messages again and again when we go out to conferences, read librarian blogs or the latest library manifestos. We are urged to grasp the reins of innovation and seize the spirit of entrepreneurialism. A good deal of what I read in this vein, in and beyond the library literature, is worthwhile. So why isn’t risk-taking happening more often in our academic libraries. The problem is that taking risks is easier said than done, and when it comes down to it most of us will avoid doing so at all costs. A recent sports incident provides an answer, and that answer, put simply, is that if you take risks and fail it can be a painful experience.

The good news is that when most of us do take risks and fail the exposure is limited. We may suffer some embarrassment or anguish, but we can also survive it. With some luck we have a supervisor or colleagues that are supportive, and they’ll see the failure as a learning experience. Risk taking and subsequent failure, when taken on a public stage, can lead to devastating humiliation and far ranging second guessing and hindsight. We recently had a good example of this from the world of sports. On November 18, 2009 the New England Patriots played the rival Indianapolis Colts. With a slim lead and just over two minutes to play, the Patriot’s Coach Belichick took a huge risk on fourth down with two yards to go for a new set of downs – on his own 29 yard line.

If the call succeeded the Patriots could run out the clock and cruise to victory. If the call failed the Colts would get the ball with great scoring position and more than enough time to score. What happened? The Patriots failed to get the first down, and the Colts got the ball and scored the winning touchdown. Belichick was widely criticized for his call and the Monday morning coaches said he should have played it safe and punted. But did he really make the wrong call?

While some analysts argued that given Belichick’s past risk-taking record in similar situations (mostly successful) and the odds of punting and still losing, perhaps he was right to take the risk of “going for it”. Isn’t that what we seem to hear more often. We should be willing to take a risk and go for it. I suspect that most of us are punters. Rather than go for it we opt for the safe move. Part of the problem is knowing when to take a risk. Part of our decision-making process is based on how a risk is framed. If we frame it as a gain or win we are more likely to take the risk whereas if we frame it as a loss we are more risk adverse (this is greatly simplifying the studies of Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory). Another way to think about risk is the waterline perspective.

The origin of the waterline approach is credited to Peter Drucker, but I learned of it from Jim Collins as I watched a video interview (watch the first 2-3 minutes) about his latest book, How the Mighty Fall. It’s a simple idea. Picture your library as a ship on the water. Ask if your risk is above or below the waterline. If it is above and you fail, chances are you can make a decent repair and save the ship. If it’s below and you fail, that blows a whole in the ship and a repair might be possible but it’s far less likely to happen. What about Belichick’s risk? Was it above or below? I guess it depends on how you frame it. For the game, it was below the waterline. For the season, maybe not. Some analysts have said taking risks like that is part of that team’s culture and character. To not take the risk may have altered the very fabric of the team. A big picture perspective would suggest that it was above the waterline in the scope of the entire season, and that would suggest it was worth taking the risk.

What we can learn from this episode is that taking risks is important and necessary, but that the perspective can make a difference in how we judge the outcome. It is wise to frame the risk situation correctly, and consult with colleagues on whether it appears to be above or below the waterline. The next time you and your colleagues have a punt or go for it decision to make, be cautious but don’t necessarily opt immediately for the punt. It’s possible to go for it and fail, and yet survive to see another day – quite possibly having learned something important from the experience.

It Helps To Have Presence

There are many different ways to be a leader in your library or on your campus, and you can lead from any position in the library. Being willing to step up and take responsibility as the idea champion for a project is one way to establish yourself as a library leader. Spotting new trends, connecting the dots and putting it all together to develop an innovative service is another way to express leadership. Seeing things on your campus that need to be accomplished and taking the first step toward getting things done will help establish the library as a campus leader. But no matter what you do or how you do it, it helps to establish presence. But what does it mean to have presence, and how would you go about developing it? Do some people have a natural presence or is it a quality you can learn and acquire?

So how do you know when you’ve achieved this intangible thing we call presence? Chances are you may not know the answer to this question until you encounter your crucible. In the book Crucibles of Leadership, Robert J. Thomas profiles many leaders who were tested by way of experiencing a personal crucible. A crucible is the vessel in which alchemists attempted to turn base metals into gold. Thomas writes:

We can think of a crucible as a transformative experience from which a person extracts his or her gold: a new or altered sense of identity…Crucibles are not life stages…like moving from adolescence to adulthood…Crucibles are more like trials or tests that corner individuals and force them to answer questions about who they are and what is really important to them.

There are dozens of state, regional and national library leadership programs, and they cover many issues that emerging and experienced leaders must know. But I suspect that few offer authentic practice for developing a presence. In Thomas’ book most leaders describe a crisis or catastrophic experience that defined their crucible. Such events cannot easily be manufactured in a seminar setting. Often it is a test of fire that one must prepare for and emerge from successfully. Then you will know you have experienced your crucible.

But a simple test of presence for any leader, is being called upon to speak spontaneously about your library or a library-related issue, such as scholarly communications. For example, at a campus meeting the college president calls upon you, as the representative of the library, to share your vision for a 21st century library, to share your perspective on a recent news item about the changing academic library, or to explain how the library best serves as the heart of campus. Great leaders can speak extemporaneously with great presence so that they inspire others – or at least reassure their colleagues that someone has a command of the situation. How do you prepare for that? Developing presence is a challenge.

According to John Baldoni, presence is not the same as having charisma. In a recent post at his blog he writes:

I define leadership presence as earned authority. You may have a title, but you need to earn the respect and trust of your coworkers. Presence is rooted in fundamental competence, and for anyone who aspires to lead, presence is essential. Developing this is a long process that goes far beyond speaking in public. Some people confuse presence with charisma, but the two are not the same. The former is developed over time; the latter is what you are born with and is a matter of looks, charm, personality, and appeal.

But what guidance does Baldoni provide for those who want to develop and build their leadership presence, particularly when put on the spot to speak publicly – a formidable crucible for many:

Remain calm. Why? Because you are in control! Your stomach may be churning and your palms may be sweaty, but you must realize the microphone is in your hands. This is a little secret that I share with people I coach: people have to listen to you. Whether you croon or wax eloquent, the audience is at your mercy. You are the master of your destiny, or at least the next five minutes. When you keep that thought in mind, you will realize that yes, you can do this. You can speak in front of an audience and you will be okay.

Simple – right? If you seek to establish your presence, a good place to start may be improving your ability to speak like a leader. There are plenty of resources to help with that, such as blogs or organizations like Toastmasters. But even taking time for authentic practice is beneficial; try delivering a short talk on a topic well known to you but do it in front of a mirror. Of course it helps to be well versed on the issues of the day, and to spend time thinking about and crafting your personal vision so that you can quickly articulate it when called upon to do so. Two ideas that may help: (1) be prepared to deliver sound bites and (2) stay on your message.

I learned the first at a prior position when we were required to undergo media training. What is media training? That’s learning how to show grace under pressure when a reporter sticks a microphone in your face and asks for a response to a challenging question (think 60 Minutes confrontations). That rarely happens to a library leader during a crisis, but you never know when a journalist may call you and ask for an on-the-spot opinion about an issue. You need to be ready and long, drawn out explanations won’t cut it. You need to deliver the goods in a concise and coherent way. Sound bite has an unpleasant and superficial tone, but if you want to be quoted correctly and come off sounding like you know your business, it does work. So think in advance and prepare sound bites that you can deliver under pressure and on demand.

The second comes from a workshop I attended at which the main speaker was the author of a book about developing communication skills for leaders. This technique comes straight out of politics, and it’s used to answer difficult questions for which you are not quite prepared. How well this works for you depends, again, on advance preparation. Staying on message means having a consistent message you want to communicate no matter what the question is. If your goal is to consistently communicate the contribution the library makes to student success or faculty research, then put together a short and easy to remember message that you can recite on demand – and ad lib to as needed. If an administrator or faculty member asks you a tough question about why we still need libraries or what you thought about the Chronicle article on lousy online catalogs, you can bob and weave your way past the first 10 or 15 seconds of response, have your transitional phrasing ready and then get on message. Here’s an example:

I did read that article and I have to agree that academic libraries can do a better job of [INSERT ISSUE/TOPIC] and in our professional association conversations we debate this issue frequently [UP TO THIS POINT YOU’VE REALLY SAID NOTHING OF GREAT SUBSTANCE – NOW GET TO YOUR MESSAGE] but what’s really important is that our library stays focused on doing everything it can to help our students achieve academic success [AT THIS POINT YOU ARE OVER ANY INITIAL NERVOUSNESS ABOUT HOW TO ANSWER THE QUESTION – NOW YOU CRUISE TO THE FINISH LINE] and that’s why we are seriously examining a number of new technology solutions that address the problem discussed in that article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me about this challenge our library faces.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Of course it’s easy to write this stuff out when you have plenty of time to think about it – which is where you should probably start. Then when you get asked these questions in committee meetings and at the faculty senate where you’ll have little time to think about it – you’ll be ready to step up and show you’ve got presence.

LACUNY Institute Explores The Next Generation Of Library Leadership

Editor’s Note: Here we share a report from the 2009 LACUNY Institute authored by guest poster Sarah Laleman Ward, Outreach Librarian at Hunter College Libraries. We greatly appreciate Sarah’s contribution to ACRLog in which she shares with our readers the highlights from the Institute.

The 2009 LACUNY Institute was held October 23, 2009 in New York. The Institute theme was “Library Leadership: The Next Generation”, and the program included a keynote speaker, two panel discussions, and a poster session. The overarching themes I took away from the institute were those of collaboration, communication, mentoring, and flexibility.

Stanley Wilder delivered the keynote address, entitled: “Demographic change in a turbulent era: technologists and the humble subject liaison.” Wilder is no stranger to the topic of demographic change in libraries, having recently posted on this blog about the prophesied but as yet unfulfilled librarian shortage. Wilder’s most salient points were those related to collaboration, flexibility and willingness to adapt. He referenced Jim Neal’s 2006 Library Journal article, saying that with the increasingly technological needs of libraries, so-called “feral professionals,” who may have different backgrounds and training than traditional or “domesticated” librarians and are less likely to hold an MLS degree, are entering the profession at a higher rate. These new professionals are not necessarily young, but they bring a different set of values and skills to librarianship, and will continue to grow in numbers and influence. Wilder encouraged librarians to view this as an opportunity to stop apologizing and start leveraging ourselves. What he calls the “Holy Grail” for academic libraries is the fact that we are already closely aligned with the core academic mission of our institutions. Wilder suggested we collaborate more with other campus units, such as instructional technologists and computing staff, inviting them to work with us to form a broader network engaged with the institutions core academic mission. His final point was that ultimately, we should not have to choose between librarians and technologists, because both are necessary for the future of libraries.

These themes carried throughout the panel discussions, which were both moderated by Marie Radford. The first panel, “The Graying of the Profession: Intergenerational Collaboration and Succession Planning” was ostensibly composed of two “Gen-X” librarians (Jenna Freedman and Erik Sean Estep) and one “Boomer” (Shelly Warwick). The second panel “Issues in Next Generation Librarianship” included panelists Erin Dorney (a “Millennial”), Emily Drabinski, and Jason Kucsma (both “Gen-X”). I reluctantly use these designations because everyone seemed understandably uncomfortable with generational labels. However, since the panelists were clearly chosen to represent differing generational viewpoints I thought it was appropriate to mention. Several of the panelists agreed that generational labels are artificial and that the real issue is communicating with people as individuals: genuine interpersonal communication can trump the generational divide. Both panels discussed the necessity of mentoring; not just “mentoring down” (veterans to newbies), but “mentoring up” as well. Radford mentioned that often, the trouble comes not from the aging of the older generation but from the marginalization of the younger. The first panel agreed that what they would like to see in newer professionals is a focus on service. The second panel focused on collaboration and flexibility as well as the “next gen” influence on 21st century libraries resulting in organizations with flatter, more team-based structures and cross-institutional collaboration. The newer generation’s willingness to move around and change jobs may be perceived as disloyalty by managers and this way of thinking needs to change, since turnover is vital to keeping organizations alive. Staying in one place for one’s entire career was mentioned as an older (or, “Boomer”) ideal, and that newer professionals will stay in places that respect them and their work. All the panelists emphasized the importance of remaining flexible, adapting, changing and trying new things while respecting professional core values.

My complete notes from the Institute are posted online here, and there is more information about all of the speakers on the 2009 LACUNY Institute website.

The Involved Academic Library Administrator

Becoming an academic library administrator brings many changes to one’s career. It typically means leaving behind old job responsibilities while adopting a new set of challenges. For many of us who’ve moved into administration from a public services position that typically means giving up the reference desk and classroom for planning, budgeting and other management and leadership responsibilities. But what if you really enjoy working at the reference desk or helping educate students to become better researchers? That is often why we were drawn to academic librarianship in the first place. Does moving into an administrative position mean the end of those opportunities? Not always. It is, as they say, situational.

If you choose to become the director at a college or small university library, particularly one with a small professional staff, it’s quite likely that you will not only have the opportunity to continue performing in public services, but it will most probably be required. Any significant outreach effort involving active liaison duties, embedded librarianship, a proactive library instruction program and other efforts to extend beyond the walls of the library can be hard on a small staff. The library director can’t afford to sit behind a desk in their corner office – and why would he or she want to? More meetings and administrative tasks means less time for public service, but the college library director that wants to continue being involved should have ample opportunities.

The other common administrative track is the assistant director or associate university librarian in a larger university setting. In this situation, it’s more likely the library has a well-staffed reference and instruction department capable of meeting the demand. Though the situation might not necessitate administrator involvement, I’d advocate for library administrators to seek out a weekly shift on the reference desk and to take on a few instruction sessions each semester. Here’s why. First, if it’s something you really enjoy, having the opportunity to participate on the front line will make the job that much more satisfying. Second, if public services are part of your portfolio, serving the public will make you a better informed and more effective administrator. How can you make good decisions that impact the staff and user community if you are out of touch with the delivery of public service? Third, keeping connected to the work of reference librarians and instructors enables you to better understand the day-to-day challenges that front-line professionals face. When they express frustrations about a clumsy printer setup or an inadequate training room, you are much better prepared to understand the situation and act decisively on it if you have experienced it firsthand. Nothing frustrates a front-line librarian more than an administrator who pooh-poohs a dilemma without really understanding its complexities. Being involved has its advantages, but be careful not to micromanage the situation or use your administrative power to gain leverage over others. That can be equally frustrating or downright annoying. Fourth, if reference and instruction activity really picks up, it may actually overwhelm the staff. An involved academic library administrator can help meet the demand or fill in for front-line librarians who are stretched thin.

I’m not sure where my career is headed next, but whatever administrative position I might hold in the future I will most likely want to continue to retain some involvement in direct public service. I’ve found that a regular shift at the reference desk and a few instruction sessions each semester, in addition to allowing me an opportunity to keep practicing what I really enjoy, does enable me to keep my reference and instruction skills somewhat sharp. Fortunately, I’ve not found myself in a situation where the front-line staff prefers the administrator to stay off the front line and in their office. That’s another situation all together, and one that a good library administrator should be able to decipher and manage.

As I’ve said before, one of the best reasons to become a library administrator is to have the golden opportunity to bring your personal vision of what an academic library can be to an institution, and to work with a dedicated and passionate staff to bring that vision to fruition. Doing so will mean making sacrifices, like giving up daily interaction with library users at public service desks or leaving behind all those instruction sessions. Well, for some that might not be a sacrifice but rather a much appreciated change. After twenty years of 40 to 50 instruction sessions a semester, an administrative position might seem like a nice break. But I think a good academic library administrator is an involved, engaged and participative library administrator.

Run Your Library Like A Circus

Maybe you think your academic library is already being run like a circus, especially the kind with crazy clowns running around spritzing everyone with seltzer bottles and lots of uncontrolled chaos on the side. If that’s the case, good luck. I’m going to bring a different circus to your attention in this post – the Cirque du Soleil. The Cirque du Soleil is as much about art and beauty as it is pure entertainment with some gifted individuals putting on an incredible show. But there are also some leadership lessons we can all learn from the world’s truly unique circus. I found these ideas worth sharing in an interview that world renowned designer David Rockwell conducted with Lyn Heward, creative director at Cirque du Soleil, for the magazine Contract.

The Show is the Star: You’ll never see a list of the individual performers on a Cirque du Soleil program. The performers have decided it is all about teamwork and collaboration. You’ve got to have incredibly talented individuals, but unless everyone agrees that the show is the star it all falls apart. Unless you’re a team player you don’t last long at this circus.

The Team Needs Visionary Leadership: The circus has players from all over the world; many different cultural backgrounds. There are also many supporting personnel, like set designers and prop makers, who must fit in the mix. What brings and holds all the differences together at the circus is a visionary director. The director conceives the overall show and shapes it by understanding who each person is and how each likes to work. A good director needs to be inspirational, but must be better at getting the artists to inspire each other.

Create the Right Environment: When you bring together creative people you need to give them a stimulating place to work. The environment should almost be playground like. An innovative circus grows out of a playful, spirited environment.

Staff Development Encourages Change: No one wants a stale circus; it has to constantly evolve and change. That depends on artists constantly pushing themselves to re-think their acts. At this circus the artists are sent to workshops. They listen to the audience feedback. They are encouraged to go out and try new things, and visit and study other shows and circus acts.

Feedback Improves the Circus: A circus can be a bit more unpredictable than a library but both are subject to unforeseen events and challenges, and both depend on technology that requires rapid adaptation. At Cirque du Soleil the team regularly meets to receive feedback from the director. Together they talk about the uncertainties and risks, and how, as a team, the circus must make sure the show always goes on.

The Circus is an Evolutionary Process: Every new season of the circus is invented from the ground up so there is enormous risk involved, but the entire operation is seen as one continuum. New shows evolve from the old ones so risk is mitigated. The circus spreads out risk over time, and when they do invent it always begins with solid research.

Let the Performers Lead the Way to the Future
: What keeps the circus exciting is the pressure to constantly diversify itself. Cirque isn’t static and it constantly thinks beyond the constraints of the traditional “big top” thinking about what a circus should be. What moves it into the future is encouraging and challenging the artists to take risks and develop new acts. As they say at Cirque “risk-taking is the sum total of the risk taken by the individuals on the team.”

So if your library seems to sometimes function more like a circus than a library, well, maybe that’s a good thing. But if you are going to emulate a circus as your organizational model, you may as well make it the Cirque do Soleil. After all, as Rockwell reminds the reader, many of us, at one time or another, wanted to grow up and run away with the circus.