If you are like me, your Myers-Briggs Type Indicator starts with a capital I, not an E, so networking with others does not come naturally. We have to work at it. But building connections with decision-makers, colleagues, and staff are essential to leading, supporting and defending our organizations, and to cementing libraries as vital to community livability.
Before a crisis hits, we need to build relationships, establish connections and credibility, and provide library supporters with the tools they need to be library leaders. You don’t want to meet your county commissioners or city councilors for the first time at a public hearing to fend off budget cuts! They can’t really know your library or its needs unless you tell them, so start early. Maybe you are lucky enough to have a councilor who is also a dedicated library cheerleader. But maybe the other board members only hear complaints about the library from the cranky lady in the grocery line or the neighbor who thinks libraries should be run by volunteers. Do you want these people controlling the conversation? No.
As a leader, you need to develop a trust relationship with your decision-makers by maintaining regular communication. Here are some of the things I do: forward articles about library services with emails explaining their significance and how library services support larger community-wide goals, share particularly poignant patron comments, present information about key programs at board meetings, leave copies of library newsletters and summer reading promotions on their desks, invite them to participate in library activities and photo ops (it’s hard not to be a supporter when you are the poster child), provide personal orientations for new board members, offer information to help support decision-making about non-library issues, always be available to answer questions, and make a point to recognize their successes.
If there is a problem, you should be the first to alert them and to provide adequate information, so they can respond to questions appropriately. If you have already established a relationship, they understand the library’s mission and needs, and they can confidently be library leaders, too. This might be the biggest step in becoming a leader—being able to step back and let others take the lead.
Establishing connections with colleagues is equally important. A lament I hear from public library directors is that when funding becomes tight, the other departments in their jurisdictions begin fighting, and the library is often cast as a non-essential service (i.e. cut library funding, not public safety programs). It should never come to that. As a leader you need to develop supportive relationships with fellow department heads, offer programs that support mutual goals, and consult them for ideas. If you build an environment in which libraries are considered as essential to livable communities as safe streets and green parks, it creates a world in which you all thrive together. Here’s an example from Washington County. We have a long-standing relationship with the Sheriff’s Office to mutually support the Jail Library. The Jail has a strong Education Department and prides itself on the number of inmates who earn GEDs during their jail sentences. We fund the Jail Library’s materials budget and provide guidance for the part-time staff. Both the Sheriff’s Office and the library system have a stake in the success of the shared program, and the Sheriff readily tells others about the value of libraries in helping inmates turn their lives around.
Leaders also must maintain relationships with staff and volunteers. On a daily basis, the folks at the front desk are more likely to field questions about library policy than the director. They need the information and tools necessary to confidently convey policies. They need to not only understand the what, but the why. Good leaders provide the guidance and training necessary to help staff become confident advocates and provide a framework of support to back them up.
Building connections can be described as an exercise for leadership—step forward, step back, reach up, reach down, reach out. Repeat. Stretch your leadership skills.
Eva Calcagno is Director of Washington County Cooperative Library Services, Hillsboro, OR. She will be a speaker at Lead the Change on April 16th in Portland, OR.