What I learned from a Ted Talk

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Everyone raves about these videos, and I’ve seen a few of them.  I haven’t been drawn in though.  I don’t search them out and I don’t always watch those that are recommended.  I think they must remind me of infomercials; I feel like they are going to try to sell me something.  It is also difficult to watch video at work.  I need a chunk of time and headphones.

Sometimes we want to buy what people are selling us, though.  Like Real Change–there’s some good info and stories in there.  There’s still something off putting about having someone standing outside of a store trying to get me to buy a paper.  I have to force myself to think about it or else I will pass it by.

When I interviewed the AM a month or so ago, she recommended a Ted Talk to me and sent me the link in an email soon after.  I finally watched it today (I know!) and was very impressed.  It’s given by Itay Talgam, titled Lead like the great conductors.

The examples he used of different conductors in the act, were inspiring and the music from the pieces were beautiful.  His messages were simple and I took them to heart.  Treat your staff as partners, not instruments.  Allow staff to work together to accomplish goals–let them direct each other with you as a guide.  Show approval when they do something well.

This also reminds me of the interview I went on and on about early on about the value of dissent.  Itay does not mention dissent, but he does allude that you must let your charges have input and control over their work in order to have an outcome that makes you proud.  Dissent is a natural part of that process, identifying what you want to keep and what needs to go when developing an idea.  I hope to be a manager that fosters that kind of creativity.

That’s not my job…

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There are often mysteries surrounding the policies of places we frequent.  Why do some coffee bars take names to call out drinks and others let you fend for yourself?  Why can’t you edit comments and status updates on Facebook?  Why doesn’t the public library allow members of the community to weed the grounds?

These examples seem reasonable, and yet in each, there is likely a very well thought out reason why the establishment chose one over the other.  Perhaps the coffee bar that takes names has a lot of business and employees and taking names helps the employees keep things moving.  Facebook might fear that allowing comments and status updates to be edited might lead to miscommunication.  And actually, they have softened on this a little–if you immediately try to delete a comment or status update, it will give you the option to edit it instead.  The weeding question I know the answer to and it is twofold.  First, the gardeners are master gardeners and they are in the union.  If they don’t have time to finish their job, then another gardener should be hired.  Second, volunteers often pull up more than weeds.  However, there is always room for change.  In order to make patrons happy our library has compromised and created volunteer work parties to help with weeding that are supervised by the gardeners.  There are still problems with this solution, but it complies with our union rules.

When I read On managing: Southwest – The Unstodgy Airline (PDF), I was impressed with the innovative and inclusive ways that Southwest Airlines pursued good customer service.  My initial thought was “they must not have a union.”  As I continued reading, I realized that they do, but it must be a great working relationship.  What made me question this initially was that any employee could fill almost any role in a pinch.  The article stresses the importance of letting go–this includes letting go of the preconceived idea of what your job is, whether you are a “ramp agent” or a stewardess, and doing whatever is necessary to make sure things run smoothly for the customer.

A lot of times at the library, our job descriptions get in the way of this type of customer service.  Librarians can be elitists, and so can clerks.  I’ve seen librarians who will not process a library card application even though the queue is long at the clerk’s desk and I’ve heard clerks refer shelf checks to librarians even though they are busy with reference questions.  While one can make many arguments why one should not do the job of the other, it doesn’t create a good customer service experience and leaves the patron with a bad memory of the library.  A customer service orientated, innovative employee can assess a situation and make the best choice and they should have the freedom to do so.

If it is happening all the time, that is another story.  Then the institution needs to make a change and provide more of one or the other type of employee to meet demand.

The problem as I see it is that emphasis hasn’t been made to differentiate between the two situations with staff.  We get stuck in the rut of “following the rules” to such a letter that it becomes an excuse.  It is easy to get focused on our position and our job and not see the situation in front of us, and I know I have been guilty of this myself.  The realization that I have given less than excellent customer service because I am distracted or in a mood is disappointing.  It usually comes a few seconds after my interaction with the patron.  I’ve learned from these disappointments not to be so quick to pass a customer on to another staff member.  My goal is to be aware of this and to react to the situation the right way the first time.

Job Shadow: Assistant Managing Librarian

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I completed two more interviews and job shadowed an Assistant Managing Librarian (AML) at our Central Branch.  Then I lost my notebook.  Definitely something I have to work on if I’m going to be a responsible manager.

I do have my notes on the job shadowing though, so I’ll go ahead with that, then piece together what I can remember from the other two interviews in another post.

The Assistant Managing Librarian (AML) that I job shadowed used to be in the same work group as I, although she has several years of seniority.  In fact, when I started at the system five years ago–she was Teen Services Librarian at the second busiest branch in the system (the first being our large central branch).  In the time between then and now, she held several temporary and permanent branch manager positions, then applied and was chosen for her current Assistant Managing Librarian position of Teen and Children’s services at the Central Library.

I got to jump right into a meeting between the AML and our new Graphic Designer (GD) to talk about marketing our upcoming Reading Marathon (discussed in the previous post).  I thought I would just observe, but I ended up contributing, since I am involved in the reading marathon and had some valuable information about how we can market to parents and students at the middle schools.  The AML and the GD brainstormed various outlets for information, types of promotion and what kind of timeline we needed.  I had to remind myself that the GD was not trying to blow holes in our plans, just trying to help us make sure we’d covered all our bases.  I’d gone in thinking that we were just getting information from her about what she could do for us, but soon realized this was a marketing plan we were creating.  Both the AML and GD asked good clarifying questions and contributed valuable information, creating a plan that included a timeline and checks and balances.  I’ve since seen the first step of this come to fruition with the creation of a flyer we were able to send out to the teachers and librarians electronically before winter break.

After the meeting I observed as the AML checked in with her staff.  Mostly she stopped by desks and asked how things were going.  If she knew of something specific that might be affecting someone, she made sure to inquire about it–upcoming story times, school visits, programs or mobile deliveries.  Everyone seemed very comfortable telling her about their day, their concerns or their triumphs.  The AML told me that she tries to do this once a day with everyone.  She didn’t have to spend long–a couple of minutes with each person–but I could tell she learned a lot about the department’s current culture from her visits.

For the last bit of time I had with her, she showed me her follow-up list.  This wasn’t her task list, necessarily, but a list of things that might get away from her if she didn’t have them down in front of her.  Those little things (and sometimes big things) that go unfixed and get passed on from generation to generation of manager.  One of the things I have been impressed with at my system  is the ability to get things resolved.  The bathroom door lock was broken on my first day and the next day it was fixed.  In my previous life of grocery service, things would go unfixed for months or even years.  Here, as long as you let the right person know, it can be fixed within 24 hours most of the time.

Included in the AML’s list were the lights in the teen area that are out and are too high to replace.  She is looking for a way to either get them fixed or find an alternative, such as area lights on tables.  I fully expect that the next time I come to Central, there will be a solution.

She also has a task list that lives on the wall–a moving wall of post-its in different colors signifying different types of tasks for different areas.  She uses her calendar to keep track of meetings and obligations and flags emails in outlook for follow-up.

I asked her about her management philosophy and she said her vision is to strike a balance between passion and service.  She has had to initiate a lot of change since taking this position in January 2011.  Mobile services was integrated into the Central library in April and a major part of that was children’s mobile services.  It changed everyone’s schedule in the department and required staff to go on mobile runs who hadn’t had that responsibility in the past.  The AML says she tries to keep things positive, communicating with staff and attempting to make the changes work in as many staffs best interest as possible, or easing the burden of a less optimal schedule by giving something somewhere else.  She is thankful that she had the time to work things out slowly, to try out solutions and find the right fit.  She’s created smaller teams out of her bigger departments to accomplish or oversee tasks and allowed librarians to find leadership roles in those teams.

One of the things she misses about being part of the Teen Services is the feeling of being part of a cohesive group.  Teen librarians support each other in their creative goals as well as in their daily service efforts.  Management is isolated, despite being surrounded by coworkers.

Following her that day has inspired me to continue to pursue management.  There is a very small window in my system to move up from a librarian position, but I realize that I am not quite ready yet.  I am working with my mentor on a skill gap analysis to try to fill some of my experience holes.  I will start looking at positions posted on the job lists to see what they’re looking for, but I won’t be applying for anything outside of the area until my son graduates from high school at the end of the next school year.  Perhaps, in the mean time, a perfect storm will create a place for me here.

Coping with a full plate

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I’ve been chosen to take part in my system’s Programming Committee.  We haven’t had a very structured way to decide what programming is chosen to go forward.  In the past, it has been up to the manager of the branch or department to decide.  As you can imagine, some branches have all sorts of programming while others have very little, depending on the philosophy of the manager.  I have been lucky to be able to pursue many types of programs and have only been told no a couple of times.  Other teen services librarians have not had the same experience.  While all of our branches have different staffing levels based on their size and volume, and so different amounts of time they are able dedicate to programs, all programs should be weighed on the same criteria.  If we had some clearer guidelines to help with the process of approving programs, there would be fewer “hard feelings” and more productivity and innovation.

I’m very excited to be a part of the process.  A couple of reasons why I applied to participate and why (I think) I was chosen: I am head of computer instruction for my region and I have a teen advisory group.  They specified a spot for a teen services librarian (as well as adult and children’s), as well as a librarian involved in instruction, so I fit two bills.  The TAG addition is just icing, but one I feel is important as the teen advisors plan programming and it would be nice if we knew just how that would be affected or taken into account with this new programming plan.

I’m also helping with my region’s reading marathon.  I don’t think that’s going to take a lot of work from me, other than contacting schools and coordinating food and supplies on the day.  Reading marathons are a lot of work, but we have some help from our central branch teen librarians and that will take a lot of the load off.  Plus, we’ve done this before so a lot of the guess work is done.

When I first found out that I would be taking on both of these new projects, I was a little worried.  I’m close to full capacity with instruction, collection maintenance, teen advisory group, mentor program, training and other duties.  I mostly oversee another person creating our instruction schedule now, but there are still new classes to be designed and hiccups that happen and need my attention.

When I looked at the whole situation though, I know that the reading marathon will be done at the end of January and I wisely put off the start of TAG until February.  In order to be as pragmatic as possible I’ve taken the time to write down my responsibilities.  Some things, like my monthly report, will get a reminder in my Outlook so that I won’t forget.  I also have a lot of support from my manager and promises of uninterrupted off desk time at other branches to keep distractions at bay.  This is totally doable and will be a great addition to my resume.  Plus I really enjoy this kind of collaborative effort.

What do you do when you find yourself with new responsibilities and a pretty full plate?

Informational Interview: Regional Manager

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During the same change that bumped the Assistant Manager from my last post from librarian, the branch manager position was eliminated in favor of a regional manager system.  Part of the process allowed Branch Managers to apply to be a Regional Manager (which will mostly be referred to as RM for the rest of this post), but there were less than half of those positions available as there were Branch Managers to fill them.

I was not surprised that my previous Branch Manager was chosen to be one of them.  He is one of those managers that inspires and motivates.  He’s organized, communicates well and creates a team out of a gaggle of individuals.  One of the things my library system does very well is hire talent as well as skill.

I interviewed him on a rainy day at one of his slower branches. We met in his office, which was a strange alcove in the basement of a Carnegie library, open to the rest of the work room on that floor.  Mostly we were alone, but other staff would flit through on occasion.

I asked him the same questions I asked the AM, but of course the answers were very different.  He was promoted and got a raise, but also a lot more responsibility.  He felt some remorse to be moving again, as he hasn’t been in one place for much more than a year since coming from another system 4 years ago.  He’s read that it takes at least two years to really get settled in somewhere and feel like you are making progress.  Coming up on my two-year mark at this branch, I agree.

When he got his posting, he was relieved that he was appointed to a region where he had managed a branch, to at least have a point of reference.  Even so, he’d only had experience at that one branch, so had 3 more to get to know.  He felt that his success depended on what region he was assigned though, so that was one stress removed.

One surprise he’s experienced is how isolated he’s become.  Branch Managers worked closely together and most of what they did was pretty transparent.  RM’s don’t see each other often, and while they do have some of the same deliverables, there is no “right way” to accomplish them and a lot that differs from region to region.  RM’s do meet, but they have a lot of system wide business to discuss during that time so there isn’t a lot of talk about day-to-day activities.

He described how the picture gets bigger the higher up in the organization you go.  A majority of front line staff don’t have a big picture of what the library is.  Librarians have a better idea of theory, but tend to have a narrower view.  As you continue up the food chain, the view gets wider.  There are pros and cons to this–too wide and you lose sight of the little things, but a wider view can allow for greater insight as to what the public needs in their city library system, what their “wants” really mean.

As for management style, he focuses outward.  Customer service is really important to him.  He sees his staff as part of a team that makes good customer service happen.  When a member of staff is resistant, he admits that helping them is the hardest part of his job.  He feels that ultimately you can’t change someone’s mind, they have to do it themselves.  Sort of the “you can lead a horse to water” theory.  It frustrates him when he has to have ongoing discussions with a staff member that doesn’t have the same high customer service goals.

One of the strongest draws to management for this RM is the control he gets to have over his work environment.  He takes pride in how is branches look and how they function.  He likes to create a team and find ways to get them to work together.  He enjoys motivating individuals to be the best they can be and to internalize library goals and values.

I really enjoyed being one of the members of his team when he was my branch manager.  I miss having more direct interaction with a manager; there’s a real loss in not being able to benefit from their experience.  If I’m lucky, I see my RM once a week, usually it’s once every two, and that’s not unusual in this model.  They are trying to visit 4-5 branches in a reasonable amount of time.  They have a lot on their plate and not a lot of time to spend with individual staff members.  I am amazed with how much they are able to accomplish.

There’s only one avenue for someone in my position, Librarian, to get into an RM position in our system.  There are two intermediary managing librarian positions at Central and many librarians who would like to fill that roll.  On top of that, they aren’t likely to be vacated any time soon.  This leaves management minded librarians feeling that the only option is to leave the system.

Informational Interview: Assistant Manager

I conducted two of my informational interviews this week.  One was with an Assistant Manager, which I will mostly refer to as an AM for the rest of this post.  An AM is in charge of clerical functions of a branch, including the staff and building.  One AM per region schedules for the whole region. The other AM’s are responsible for schedule changes once a schedule has been posted (if programs are added, or someone needs time off for a doctor appointment.)

The AM I spoke with is a woman who recently went from being a librarian to being a scheduling assistant manager when our budget cuts last year led to reorganization and layoffs.  It wasn’t a strictly voluntary move–it was more of a “you take this position, or you are laid off” kind of move.  As you can imagine, there were some uncomfortable feelings around it for her, and some irritation from those staff who had worked hard to get into assistant manager positions.

I chose to interview her because of her unique ascent (descent?) into her role and because she is a single parent (as am I) and I was wondering what it was like for her to balance work and home life.  I have also admired how calmly and confidently she transitioned into the position.

In the interview she did share that it had been a blow to her self-esteem to lose her librarian title and the work that went with it.  Being an AM has a lot of responsibility, but very little of it has to do with higher functions of a library.  She has been able to bring some of those loftier goals into her job though, and I know that is something I appreciate.  Having a scheduler who understands why it is important for me to be able to get out into the community is refreshing.  I wish there was another way to do so than have a librarian work outside of their classification.

Besides being a conscientious scheduler, she also encourages her staff to think outside of their boxes.  One staff member is not technologically savvy and tends to avoid email and intranet because he isn’t comfortable.  She has set aside time for him each week to spend on the intranet and encouraged him to explore our internal website and not to worry about what might happen if he clicks on something.  Over time he has become more comfortable and I think her approach has allowed that to happen.  A less proactive manager would just let the staff member fumble along, not knowing what was going on outside of his work bubble.

One of the things that she loves about her job is motivating staff and helping them develop their skills.  When asked what her management style was, she said “silly mom”, which I found refreshing.  She’s the fun type that rewards good behavior and puts a playfulness into her discipline.  That’s not to say she doesn’t know when to be serious, but she can remove herself and not take situations personally.  She knows the rules and enforces them, even embraces them as something that makes it easier to do her job.  I have always admired someone who is consistent and fair.

Balancing work and home was difficult at first, as we are open until 8pm and most staff have to work 2 nights a week.  It was also a transition from part-time to full-time, which meant more money, but also more hours away from home.  Luckily she and her son tend to get up early and they have found a way to spend a couple of hours together in the morning before school starts–since school is right across the street from home, it’s an easy transition.  She also says that she makes sure to take time for herself, doing yoga and taking walks.  She makes a sharp distinction between home and work time and tries her best not to let one crowd into the other.  That last technique is something I need to revisit.

When I began this journey, I thought about pursuing a position like hers.  It’s the best opportunity to get lower level management experience since our reorganization eliminated branch managers.  While there are many good things about the position, I’m not sure I could give up my heart–my librarianhood–in order to learn how to schedule multiple branches and be directly in charge of a number of staff.  I admire that she’s made this position her own, but also know that she would get back into a librarian position at the first possible opportunity.

A bit more

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My mentor asked me how I connected the chapter was from Managing Children’s Services in the Public Library and Meredith’s post titled Be the Change You Want to See.

What I was hoping to show in my last post was the difference between the management style espoused in the Managing Children’s Services book and how I want to communicate with my staff should I ever be in a management position.  I often find Meredith’s posts to be insightful in that direction–I want to be self evaluating and open-minded.  She encourages me to see people as people, and I think the chapter encouraged me to see employees as assets to be manipulated.
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The next step in the mentoring workplan is to set up some interviews and job shadowing.  As I do these, I will post my reactions while making sure to protect the privacy of the people I interview and shadow.  In addition to finding out what they do all day, I hope to gain insight on how they balance work and home life, what their managment philosophies are and whether that is reflected in their actions, and how the types of management in our system differ.

My system recently had a reorganization that reached most levels of staff.  Management changed significantly; we no longer have branch managers, we have regional managers who supervise 4 to 5 branches, and at our Central branch, which includes administrative services, there was a lot of shifting that is harder to explain.  I will be interviewing and/or shadowing managers at our Central library, in the South Region and in the North Region (which is where I work).  Look for more on that in November.

In the mean time, I will continue read and comment on articles recommended by my mentor and talk about training provided by the city and the library system.

Top down or eyes open?

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I read several articles and chapters last month.  Some were interesting, some were common sense things that most librarians are already doing every day, but one of the chapters really had me shaking my head.  There was good information there, but I found myself thinking a lot about top down management style.

The chapter was from Managing Children’s Services in the Public Library.  I wish that I could link to a full text version so you can read it, but I think the quotes will speak for themselves.  I’d love to hear what you think about these topics.

“In supervising librarians, one goal is to help them develop the skills necessary to take positions as department heads in other branches or libraries.” (31)

“Support staff members need to know some of the background and reasons for library policies.  Their major need for information, however, is to help them do their daily jobs, not participate in administration.” (32)

Both of these quotes made me say “what?”  I know librarians who only want to be librarians.  They might only want to be a children’s librarian, even.  There’s nothing wrong with allowing a librarian to become the best librarian they can be without pushing them towards management.

I also know clerical staff who love working at the library and plan to continue to do so as long as possible. They are good at it, there are management positions they can move into if they are interested.  There are definitely some for whom working in the library is merely a stop on their way to the future, but who’s to say what information they need, and what they don’t?

“Group decisions are most appropriate when the entire group must accept the decision and the time limit for making it is fairly long. … Allowing each staff member to suggest ways for coping with inconvenience will minimalize general resentment.  The manager will not appear to be the person who handed down decisions that cause inconvenience.” (35)

The first part of this statement I agree with, but the last sentence?  I wrote the word “ouch” in the margin.  Avoiding blame as an important management strategy?  It might work for a while, but eventually your employees are going to start looking at you in a new light.

All of this led me to think about a recent post by Meredith Farkas called Be the Change You Want to See.  The post isn’t necessarily about managing, although I think it is sound advice for anyone who is or is interested in being a manager.  The main theme in Meredith’s post is that you can’t base your own actions in your career on those around you.  If someone else is slacking, it only wastes your energy to be mad at them for doing so.  If someone else is an amazing dynamo, you will most likely just wear yourself out trying to compete.  And don’t stop doing amazing things because your co-workers glare at you for being a overachiever.

How do I think this applies to managers?  It tells them not to judge their employees too harshly or quickly.  It reminds them to sit back a bit and make sure they can see all the parts of a person: the “slacker” who only works 24 hours a week and does what he/she can in that time, the “overachiever” that is escaping something outside of work and throwing all their energy into projects, and all the grey areas in between.  There are a lot of things to consider when looking at what a coworker or person you supervise is accomplishing.  This is something that I’m working on now–not jumping to conclusions.

A Common Thread: The Value of Dissent

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All of the chapters and articles I’ve been reading over the last month have had good advice to managers new and experienced.  Don’t take things personally.  Listen to your employees. Keep track of what works and what doesn’t so that a mistake is not repeated.

Then a coworker posted a link to an article in the New York Times which tied most of these readings together, but not in a way I expected.  A less obvious thread emerged when I was presented with this new way of looking at things.  Dissent can be a good thing.  Dissent is not inherently negative.  We need dissent to see new ideas and ways of doing things. To stop those conversations is to become a stagnant organization.

A lightbulb flipped on for me while reading the New York Times interview with David Sacks. It led me to skim through my readings and yes, there it was: “By being open to new ideas you will be more likely to see possible changes that will bring positive results.” “A supervisor is more of a coach than a director and more facilitator than commander.” “The manager who is concerned about people and productivity will seek to create an environment that encourages people to do their best.” (Fundamentals of Library Supervision; Gieseke, McNeil) “‘If you want your people to care about what you think, first make it clear that you care about what they think.'” (Stop Holding Yourself Back; Morris, Ely, Frei) “‘That wouldn’t work’ …not only kills [a] suggestion, but also reduces the chance of getting other ideas in the future.  Any idea brought forward should receive courteous attention.” (Managing Children’s Services; Fasick, Holt)

These quotes sound too positive to be dissent, a word which tends to have a negative connotation in today’s workplace.  While the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions mostly further that connotation, the second definition is to “think differently, disagree, differ from (in opinion) from, +with, (a person)” and that is what Sacks meant when he said “I think you’ve got to create a culture in which dissent is valued.”  If everyone thinks the same, if everyone agrees, then you only have one person innovating; the person at the top of the pyramid.  While that person might have the most brilliant ideas in the world, they certainly have not thought of everything and could miss a crucial element that won’t allow their brilliant ideas to come to fruition, all because everyone below is used to blindly agreeing.

When I look at the managers I admire, I see that they are those who embrace this philosophy.  It is not always easy to listen to everyone’s opinions and sometimes it feels like an unnecessary use of time.  However, the step of listening to employees should be a part of the planning process, especially when a decision will be made that will affect the everyday tasks or the basic philosophy of those workers.  Creating time for this in the decision-making process will save workplace moral, creating less friction that can affect productivity.

Some Background

I entered the mentor program at work a few months back.  My goal is to explore my career options within public libraries.  Some part of me feels it necessary to pursue a path to management, but another part loves teen services and being a librarian at the public level.

As the months go on, I will be reading professional articles, taking trainings, conducting informational interviews and job shadowing. I will be using this blog as a place to disseminate information from articles assigned by my mentor and to talk about my experiences.

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