Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Letter to a New Branch Manager, by Tara Kressler

When I first began Management (I capitalize it because that’s how important I thought myself and the position), I was basically thrown in the fire.  I think I turned out ok, but looking back, what I really wished was that someone would have sat me down and gave me a talking-to.  I was passionate, eager, and indignant, and while I cherish those qualities in a new manager, there are some things that I wished I’d known.
  1. Don’t change anything.   I KNOW! Crazy, right?  I mean, that’s what new managers DO.  They get in there and they make CHANGE.  But no, just listen:  I am telling you this because it is ALL ABOUT STRATEGY.   And I’m yelling because I feel very strongly about this.  Don’t tell anybody about this strategy, keep it to yourself.  Tell yourself you won’t act on any change (unless mandated by your administration) for one month.  In that month, you will learn.  Take in all the things and observe all the ways and understand all the whys.  Listen to the staff and just experience the job.  After that month, you should have enough knowledge and experience to make an informed decision to disrupt their lives in such a way that they will respect you and your decision. It’s important because the first time is the precedent for all future decisions.
  2. Know your place.  I thought myself a Fancy Pants for being in charge.  “Finally,” I thought, “I don’t need to be told what to do and I get to run the show and I will be respected and loved and admired for my position.”  That was SO not the case.  What I learned was that I was still told what to do (yep, I had a higher level boss, but a boss just the same) and that I indeed DID need to be told what to do because there are AGENDAS and PLANS to convey.  I was the middle (wo)man.  And, actually, I was no longer just working for the patrons; now I was also working for my staff and their expectations.  What I needed and got was a good humbling.  My job isn’t about being in charge.  It is about cultivating the staff, supporting them and their professional development and most of all, handling the needs of my patrons.  I was more accountable than ever!  I couldn’t just melt into the backroom at the end of my desk shift, I had to handle it.   I needed to know my place.  I continue to serve, just on a different level.  I serve my patrons still, but also my staff and my community.
  3. Know your role.  You’ve heard it, it’s true—you will have a lot of hats to wear in this job.  No sense complaining.  The true expertise of management is knowing which hat to wear and when to wear it.  Some days it’s the Clean-Up-the-Barf-in-the-Kids-Room Hat or the Sidewalk-Is-Icy-You-Need-To-Throw-Down-Salt Hat or the Patron-Is-Looking-At-Porn-Again Hat.  But the toughest hats to decide between are the Fixer Hat and the Listener Hat.  I’m going to suggest wearing the Listener Hat most often, because most times that is what your staff wants.  They want to be heard and understood.  They want suggestions and guidance.  They want encouragement and positive reinforcement.  Hardly ever - and I’m serious about this - hardly ever do they want you to put on the Fixer Hat and actually fix whatever it is.  And sometimes, even if they want you to fix it, they are adults and they should fix it themselves.  You just have to listen and know your role.  On a side note, know your stuff.  No one likes a bluffer, they want a resource.  So read policy, understand the guidelines and brush up on that stuff often.
  4. You are going to have to be the asshole.  Here’s something that’s going to hurt.  You ready?  You are not their friend.  I know it kinda stings.  And it’s hard to accept as well, especially if you’ve worked with a library family as a non-manager.  A friendship will work with someone you manage only if you are a good manager and they are an even better worker.  Then it doesn’t really feel like management.  But that’s rare.  Otherwise, be ready to be the asshole.  You must be one. You were hired to be one.  It’s up to you to make sure people do their jobs. Hold your staff accountable.  Nobody else wants to tell HER (you know the one) she’s late to her shift all the time, and it’s annoying because they’ve got other things to do.  And nobody wants to tell HIM that they are tired of covering for him and that his attitude really stinks.  You have to.  Because just as what you do and how you do it defines what kind of manager you are, so does lack of action.  Just as Oprah says…Once you know, you can’t pretend you don’t know.  And if someone tells you and you don’t act on it?  Don’t expect them to respect you or do anything that you ask of them. 
  5. Make it fun.  Before you begin to tell me that you already do this, keep in mind that you control the fun.  Your staff will only do the things that they think you will like in order to have fun with you, and then they will do what they can get away with when you aren’t around.  How to avoid this and not be the party pooper?  Form a social committee and don’t be on it.  Tell them yes to everything unless it violates policy directly.  And then participate and be cool with it.  Almost all the fun I’ve had working with my group has not been my idea.  And I’m so glad because we have done some crazy fun stuff.  Whether it is theme days where we dress up, or bringing in food and even having random dance parties, do it all.  Taking an active interest in what they like and getting out of my comfort zone has helped earn respect.  And oh yeah, I had crazy fun. 

Tara Kressler is the branch manager at the Symmes Township Library, part of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.  She has managed 3 branches in this system over 10 years.  She is described by her staff as the most capable person who is a yeller that never raises her voice and can do a mean Running Man during a Poison song while processing delivery. (That’s good, right?!) Tara recently converted to yoga, snacking, and Downton Abbey and thinks her two kids are the coolest people in the world.  You can follow her on twitter @taralibrara.


  1. I really think this is an excellent post - and not just for librarians, but anyone coming into a management position for the first time. Every point is well made and so, SO true!

  2. Such a pertinent post to me! I just started as a library director last week, and all of this is so, so true.

  3. Thank you for this. Very timely for my foray into branch management!

  4. Terrific post. Thanks a million!