April 19, 2018

Seeing Your Future Self: Do You See a Library Director? | Leading from the Library

Steven BellAt some career stage librarians may contemplate moving to an administrative leadership position with the goal of becoming a director or dean. Here are some things to consider as you dwell on your administrative leadership potential.

Deans and directors aren’t the only ones who lead in the library. If leadership is about the ability to influence others and get them engaged with an idea or vision, then leaders can emerge all around the library. However, the scope of your influence, particularly as the architect of a much broader vision for a library organization, will amplify in magnitude as a director. It is regarded as the optimal way to influence thinking at a larger scale, particularly if it requires support from stakeholders beyond the library. More than that, moving into library administration offers the opportunity to implement a personal and unique vision for how a library organization should operate and how it can impact community members.

We can look at the larger higher education enterprise as an example. Faculty may have specific ideas about how their department should run. Suggestions can be made, behaviors can be modeled, but, ultimately, becoming the chair of the department is an opportunity to influence things more broadly. Chairs become deans. Deans become provosts. Eventually, provosts may become college presidents.

Endless Learning

You may not have all that much in common with a college president, but at some point each president must decide, just like you, whether he or she is ready to move up to a higher level administrative position. When The Chronicle of Higher Education recently conducted interviews with several presidents, it revealed some insights into why they chose to take on the most demanding position in higher education.

Earl Potter, president at St. Cloud State University, MN, was motivated to become a president “to have more influence of the parts of the organization than I would as a dean.” He sought to “have the ability to create the conditions that allow you to achieve your objectives,” including building teams that helped the organization thrive. Reinforcing that none of us are equipped with all the skills needed to move up to that next level, in response to the question, “What do you need to learn?” he answered, “It’s endless.”

For Diana Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso, it was about achieving scale. When she moved from a chair to a dean, she realized that with increased administrative responsibility comes the opportunity to get people working together on larger projects with greater impact. She realized that only as a president could she scale her ideas across the entire institution. One thing she expected, and now finds one of the more exciting parts of her job, is the ceremonial duties. If you enjoy or believe you would excel at giving remarks to start events, presiding at awards ceremonies, or meeting with visiting dignitaries, then you may be ready to move to a dean or directorship.

Do You Have What it Takes?

That’s a question two deans asked in an essay about academic leadership in The Chronicle. In looking back at their careers as deans they shared advice on the life cycle of that position and that included thoughts on how you know whether you are ready to move into the role. Though they are not deans of libraries, I think what they had to say is somewhat applicable to library administration. How will you know when you are ready to become a library dean? I like their response: “If you wait until you are ready to be a dean, you will never become one.” While there may be an optimal time to make your move, such as the completion of an advanced degree or the opportunity for relocation, you eventually need to jump into the role.

As president Potter suggested, there’s no way to obtain all the necessary skills in advance. It will be a constant learning process. That’s where mentors, trusted confidants, and communities of practice become essential to library leaders. One signal that may help is feeling you’ve accomplished many of the goals that brought you to your current job. That may mean that it is time for a new challenge. If that’s accompanied by a feeling that the changes you want to make happen, the vision you have for what a library can be, have no chance to materialize where you are now, then you are probably in the right mental state to make the jump.

How Do You Know?

If multiple colleagues are telling you that you’d make a great library dean or director, chances are, you might be ready to prove them right. A call from an executive recruiter may embolden you, but don’t let it go to your head. At least one research study, by Hershfield and McGonigal, suggests it may help to think ahead and connect with your future self as a potential leader. They suggest strategies that may help to imagine or describe the future accomplishments you could achieve as an administrative leader. They also suggest to do less thinking about short-term quick wins and shift your perspective to longer-term versions of the future where your future self requires months and years to bring a unique library vision to fruition. Those situations where it often goes badly are those where becoming a dean or director was a matter of timing and convenience, such as when a provost impulsively asks a frontline librarian or middle manager to take over as dean or director. That leaves virtually no opportunity to shape such a long-term future vision.

Focus on the Intangibles

Certainly there are practical matters, such as the desire for better salaries, benefits, and retirement packages, that influence the decision-making process. Becoming a dean or director brings improvement in all those areas, but I did notice that not a single president made any reference to those tangible rewards in describing what influenced their decision to take the job. I doubt you will either and well should you avoid it. When your desk is the one where the buck stops, at the end of the day, what puts you in that seat has got to be about the intangibles and your desire to lead your staff in creating a better library for the community. If you are able to articulate your library vision concisely, and if it resonates with and influences staff, colleagues, and external partners—and you can find the right place—now may be your time. Don’t squander the opportunity.

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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  1. New grads need to know if they want a full-time job in libraries, they will have to take leadership positions. The days of traditional librarians are gone. There are part-time jobs galore. But if you want a career, you will have to be a department head or higher. You also need to be prepared to be underpaid for that leadership position. Just this week, I saw 3 advertisements for library directors, all paying less than $40,000 per year. I know none of us went into this field expecting to get rich, but we did hope to make enough to pay back our student loans. MLS students and new grads must concentrate on building their leadership skills and experience if they have any hope of a library career.