December 16, 2017

What Not to Do: Tips for New Library Leaders | Leading from the Library

Steven BellA new role leading in any capacity, but particularly as a library director, can be stressful. New leaders usually get lots of tips on what to do. A good honeymoon period strategy can also benefit from a few what-not-to-do tips.

If you are a new leader or planning to move into a leadership role soon, I applaud you. If you seek the opportunity to work with a staff team and community members to bring your library vision to fruition, I wish you well in your future endeavors. Even with considerable library experience, and possibly some prior management or supervisory responsibility, taking over as the director of a library or the head of a large unit is a big step. It can be humbling and a bit intimidating. If this your situation, some anxiety is perfectly normal. All new leaders want to be successful. They want to demonstrate to both superiors and subordinates that the right hiring decision was made. It can all be a bit overwhelming, no matter the size of the operation. What support can leadership literature offer to new leaders? Will joining a leadership development program help? As a new or aspiring leader, now is the time to start learning.

Don’t Stress. Get Help.

The tough challenge for a new leader is figuring out what to do, what order to do it in, and how to get it done. Do you make staff concerns a priority? Do you get right to that issue that community members are bringing to your attention or whatever your superior has at the top of their library to-do list? Perhaps it’s none of the above and you follow your gut instinct. Starting out with a campus listening tour can certainly provide perspective, but it also takes time. New leaders are often anxious to score some early wins. Priority setting, resource allocation, and all the decisions around those matters can lead to a state of head-spinning stasis. Step back. Take a deep breath. Granted, new leaders will make mistakes, but that’s how we all learn. As a new library director, I attended a leadership development program after four months on the job. While I came away with some useful strategies, meeting and speaking with other new library directors had a bigger impact. I learned that most of my peers had similar issues, concerns, and stressors. I came away feeling more confident that I could do this job.

Avoid These Mistakes

It certainly helps to learn what to do to get it right. New leaders also benefit from learning basic mistakes they need to avoid, but they hear about the latter less than needed. For example, what’s one thing new leaders do that tends to annoy their staff and colleagues? “Here’s what we did at [insert prior institution].”  Yes, we know you did great things at your last library job. That’s why we hired you. Let’s now move on to this institution. That’s just one thing new leaders need to avoid, according to Jeffrey L. Buller in his article “Five Newbie Mistakes Made by Academic Leaders.” Just forget where you previously worked and what you did there, says Buller. All people care about is how successful you will be in this new position. Buller’s four other new leader’s mistakes are:

  • Not giving up your old job: Especially important for someone moving from a department head to a library director. There is temptation for leaders to tell subordinates how to do the job they previously held or concentrate too much effort on their area of expertise. Just focus on making the whole organization better and let people do their jobs. A department head or staff member who is truly incompetent, where the prior leader decided to kick the can down the road, will require a different strategy.
  • Launching new initiatives before their time: New leaders are anxious to make their mark and new programs or highly visible changes do that. Sometimes it works but too often it’s a solution attached to no specific problem. Even worse, it takes energy away from other important work and leaves staff feeling that the new boss is more interested in his or her own agenda than what’s right for the organization and those it serves.
  • Filling positions with ex-employees or friends: Though less likely to happen in libraries, when they do have hiring opportunities new leaders are advised to avoid bringing in friends and old cronies. Of course, there are situations when a known entity is the best choice, but make it a real search and be thoughtful about how adding former colleagues might affect how existing staff perceive your intentions.
  • Promising “beautiful” accomplishments too early: We all now see what happens when a new leader promises to fix multiple problems quickly and easily and then fails to accomplish even one of them. It’s embarrassing, lowers morale, and increases hiring regret. New leaders need to be cautious about overextending their capacity in the early months. It’s much better to under-promise and over-deliver.

After the Honeymoon

These five what-not-to-do recommendations for the newbie leader, would, I think, work well in the first few months. New leaders typically have a honeymoon phase when they get extra leeway to make some mistakes, but retain the administration’s support for change. There is endless advice and research for what new leaders can do to get off to a good start. Meet with stakeholders. Align with institutional strategies. Engage with the culture. Establish and build trust. Shape and articulate a vision. All good things to know for a successful first year—but also the things aspiring and new leaders hear in leadership courses, workshops, and development programs. I like the idea of hearing more from experienced leaders sharing their tips for what not to do in the early days. Then again, while that might allow a new leader to keep from falling into certain traps, it may eliminate some of those valuable lessons we learn from our mistakes and failures. If new library leaders remember just one thing from this column…repeat after me: what happened where I used to work stays there.

Are you a fairly new library leader with a good what-not-to-do tip to offer? Please share it with others in a comment below.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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Comments

  1. Bob Holley says:

    I would add one more mistake to avoid. Be careful of getting to close to any one person or group during the honeymoon period. Take time to evaluate your staff, including fellow administrators, by focusing on what they do rather than what they say. I agree with the cliche that “actions speak louder than words.” As a corollary, seek out divergent viewpoints and consider the mutliple facets of any issue or proposed action. I’m not against having a trusted advisor or two among your staff, a person whose opinion you can trust; but don’t choose these advisors too quickly.

    • StevenB says:

      Thank you for sharing this suggestion Bob. On one hand you want to meet people at your new institution and do a lot of listening, but on the other hand a new leader will need to learn for themselves what the situation is – rather than making assumptions based on what others are telling them. That’s a good one.

  2. JIm Rettig says:

    I had a wonderful accidental (literally) opportunity come my way in the first month of my second directorship. The hurricane was an inconvenience and the school had to shut down a day or two; the same month an earthquake closed the campus. Engineers assessed damage and we resumed operation the next morning. I met with several staff and we planned an all-hands effort to reshelve the several thousand books that the tremor had knocked to the floor. It was a great opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with my new colleagues. One of them, in an oblique comment about my predecessors, said “I didn’t know library directors shelve books!” I responded that every librarian knows how to do that. When a senior administrator came in the afternoon to see the effect of the quake, there was nothing for him to see–we had taken care of everything. So, early on look for an opportunity (short of a natural disaster) to demonstrate that you are one of the staff, even if you have a title that some might interpret otherwise. When I retired this May some staff recalled that day and what a positive impression my participation in the reshelving made. (I also leaned that day how much the collection needed some serious weeding.)

    • Hi Jim. Thanks for sharing this great story about how new leaders can build trust with their colleagues. If I had to put this into the frame of “what not to do” i think it would be:

      When as a new leader you think you are above any front-line, hands-on tasks. Good leaders are always willing to do any job they ask their staff members to do and don’t hesitate to jump in and help in a difficult situation.

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