Socrates in the Library Manager’s Office

How does a library leader manage him/herself when someone else is the library manager? That was the first part of the question posed to me by a colleague yesterday. How does the leader, in such a position, maintain that internal flame of creativity? How does such a leader lead in practical terms?

My own go-to resource, when faced with a matter that requires a political frame in which to examine how best to synthesize a way forward where paths appear to divide, is Socrates.  (If you know all matters of library management are political, then you can probably manage–not knowing this already, however, is no preclusion to your blossoming as a leader–albeit, a leader who best learn that all library management matters do, indeed, have a vein of politics threaded through.  Thus the big[ger] bucks). Socrates, unlike a manager, did not direct, supervise or set performance standards. Socrates asked questions, and not just random questions but questions that demand reflection, imagination and a willingness to experience some level of personal ambiguity or discomfort on the part of the person who works to find the best response to each such question.

The nonmanager leader in the library needs to learn how to frame such questions. The best questions a leader poses bring the management forward; they don’t push a personal agenda, coerce, or belittle management as it is. The best questions focus management attention on how to synthesize the leader’s new, perhaps strange (to the nonleader) vision with political reality.

And what do managers who are fairly certain that their forte is administrative rather than visionary have to offer such leaders to forestall their disaffection with outgrowing the library that needs their guiding light? Cetainly the top of the possible heap of responses to that one is a willingness for ambiguity and mild intellectual discomfort (conditions from which no one dies and unfortunately too many recover with no after effects).

Managers and leaders rarely stumble unconsciously into a healthy symbiotic relationship. It takes conscious–and conscientious–work on the parts of both to synthesize how to manage and move a library forward.

Worried About Being Labeled a Negative Nelly?

“How does one correct imperfections without noting them, when noting them means being tagged as negative? “ was the question I recently discussed with one of my librarian contacts.  It’s a question that comes up a lot in my work these days with managers and their teams.  I realize that I have answers to that question that may help so  I thought I’d share.  I hope that one or more of them may help you if you find yourself worried about being labeled a Negative Nelly:

  • Response A:  keep noting the problems cause it’s important and others may not see things from your vantage point.
  • Response B – If you’re sick of getting seen as negative, change tactics and see if there is a way to help people see the issue that doesn’t make them defensive so they can hear you.  It’s more work but in the long run, it pays off.   Try “I have a concern about…”  “I’d like to share my thoughts about…”  “When would be a good time to talk to  you about…?”  “I have another perspective…”  or trying stating the reason why you think something is a problem that’s related to the libraries mission or how your solution better matches the mission.
  • Response C – one person’s imperfections are another person’s solution.  Be open to the possibility that they might be right.
  • Response D – Some of us care deeply about things and tend to want to fix things that aren’t in our sphere of influence.  Whether we are “right” or “wrong” it may be that the Serenity Prayer is your best choice.  Particularly the part that says, “give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed”.

After thinking about all of these answers, I realize I use another tactic sometimes, which is a combination of the serenity prayer and what I teach in my stress management/change resilience workshop.  We humans tend to think that things are either going to stay the same (think about something that isn’t changing that you’re frustrated about) or that once something changes it will be like that forever (think of something that’s changed recently that you don’t like.)  Neither are true.  So you can always try saying something to yourself like “Apparently, this isn’t the right time given our current resources and structures, but eventually, there will be an opportunity to address the issue”  😉

Leaders Need to Understand the Risk and Trust Relationship

In my talks with directors and library managers, I often hear “we want more accountability” or “how can we get staff to make more decisions on their own, they always come to us for answers”.  It’s like a riddle that everyone asks but few people answer.

If people are afraid to make decisions or are afraid to be held accountable, then there’s a good chance that somewhere in their past, they were chastised, judged or blamed for what they perceived as taking a risk. The risk could have been as simple as making an exception for a customer or offering an idea at a meeting or changing a book display or sign without permission.  It only has to happen once for some to decide that “sticking their neck out” is too much of a risk. They no longer trust that it’s safe to take a risk.  If you’re the leader or manager, it wasn’t necessarily you who perpetrated the crime.  Or maybe it was you but you didn’t know it 😉  Regardless, there is something that can be done.

If you want people to take chances, you need to lower the perception of risk.  You have to make them feel safe by finding ways, or better yet, have them find a way, to take a risk that you can support no matter what the outcome.  You then need to follow up with positive feedback about their actions and the outcome.  If the outcome isn’t what you wanted or hoped for, you need to applaud the risk-taking and look together at what was learned from the experience so you create a positive experience of risk-taking.

That’s how you’ll teach them to trust that it’s safe to take risks.  It may feel slow and time-consuming at first but the benefits will pay off hugely over time.

Why Nations Fail

My mother, who knows about the work I do in libraries around culture change to produce vibrant organizations, sent me an article from the New York Times Magazine online called “Why Some Countries Go Bust” ( The article reviews a new book by Turkish M.I.T. professor Daron Acemoglu and his collaborator James Robinson called “Why Nations Fail,” What seems obvious to me is that the principles they present apply not only to nations but to organizations, as well. As the author of the NY Times article says,

 “Their great contribution has been a series of clever historical studies that persuasively argue that the cheesiest of slogans is actually correct: the true value of a nation is its people. If national institutions give even their poorest and least educated citizens some shot at improving their own lives — through property rights, a reliable judicial system or access to markets — those citizens will do what it takes to make themselves and their country richer.”

 I say “hooray” for these guys. Yes, the true value of an organization is its people. As cheesy as it may sound as a solution, improving communication skills throughout the organization and involving all staff in determining the library’s future just may be the answer to keeping libraries relevant. Since we’re not likely to get a large influx of money soon, why not consider a solution that’s right in our own backyard?  For starters, how about a staff day run as “open space” or using the world cafe method or as a facilitated meeting .  Those would all be a step in the right direction and can be done with almost any number of participants.  If all staff get empowered to contribute to making themselves and their communities “richer,” who knows what can happen!

Customer Service is a Team Sport

When somebody says “customer service” what comes to mind?

Is it a smiling person using open gestures and asking how they can help?  That’s where most people’s minds go.  What’s missing is all the things that happen behind the scenes.  Customer service starts long before and far away from the public service desk and involves almost everyone on staff.

If a customer is looking for a book, the collection development people are a critical part of the team.  Assuming the book has been selected, you then have the speed with which the book is processed or delivered.  That means catalogers, technical services and delivery staff are on the team.  And then there is the ILS. The people that keep your ILS and website up and running are on the team too not to mention the webpage designers. Shelvers are critical to ensuring people find material on the shelf, and then of course we have the all important circulation folks and librarians who deliver direct public service.

To continue the hunt for the rest of the team members, we also need to look at the facilities people and those who designed the spaces.  They’ve had a big hand in the customer experience.  Are the sightlines good?  Do patrons know where to get help?  Is the library clean and well lit?  Are there clear and welcoming signs inside and outside the library?

If you want to improve customer service, you have to realize it’s a team sport and the team is bigger than you think.  For improvements to customer service, consider having a facilitated cross functional meeting about customer service including all members of the team: circulation, librarians, collection development, programming, technical services, IT, management, and shelvers.  There are huge benefits to having everyone hear the same thing at the same time.

One benefit is everyone starts to understand their part in the big picture and how their decisions directly affect their fellow staff members and customers.   You’ll get the additional benefit of a diversity of ideas flowing which may lead to finding that some of what is being done is unnecessary (wouldn’t that be nice?).  And last, staff will see that they play on more than one team: the workgroup team and the customer service team.  They need to understand that their main loyalty is to the customer and the community, not to their workgroup. It may take more than one meeting, but even one will be a step in the right direction.

Now back to the customer service image of the smiling person using open gestures.  You will get a lot of bang for your buck with a front line staff that has fully engaged interactions with customers.  The more these folks can be present, listen, make eye contact, use a welcoming tone of voice, and acknowledge each customer, the better your customer service scores will be.  Just don’t forget that the overall customer experience involves a much larger group of people who may not yet recognize their part on the team.