Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Unexpected Manager: 8 Lessons Learned from Being Made a Library Manager Right Out of Library School, by Peter Shirts

Gif of person spinning 6 different plates at the top of wooden poles.

[Editor's Note: This post is good reading for anybody in charge of something, not just for those just out of their graduate programs who are unexpectedly put in charge of something.]

After finishing library school, I accepted the first job offer I received as an academic subject liaison. I soon found out, however, that a major part of the job was not quite clear in the official position description—after a short, 9-month training period as co-manager, I would become the sole manager of an academic branch library with 8.5 full-time positions and around 20 part-time student workers. All of the full-time staff were older than I was, and some had been working at that location for over 20 years. While I would not wish a similar situation on other recent graduates, I gained valuable experience. Should you find yourself as an unexpected manager, here are 8 key lessons I learned:

1. Spend time listening. When learning about your new organization, listen more than talk. Acknowledge staff members’ feelings, strengths of the current way of doing things, changes desired by staff, and feedback about your new management.

2. Remember that change takes time. Ingrained procedures are not always a bad thing, but sometimes it is important to revisit why a procedure or policy was adopted and assess whether the conditions that led to its adoption are still the same. Try to frame discussions in terms such as “let’s think about this another way” or “I’ve heard it is done differently elsewhere…what do you think?” instead of “now we’re going to do it my way.” When change is needed, make sure all the stakeholders are consulted and find ways to honor the past while forging ahead.

3. Learn to translate others’ productivity for supervisees and supervisors. Because each member of your team has a different function and area of expertise, communicating work accomplishments to each other can be difficult. Most people want to do their job well, but conflicts between staff can arise when one person’s idea of “well” is different from their coworkers' or your ideas. Because of this, you may need to explain a staff member’s output to their coworkers. If an employee really is not working up to par, translate what the employee is doing (or not doing) to your supervisor, and allow the underperforming staff member to supply their own perspective. You are not exempt from reporting, so find ways to communicate the work you are doing to your staff, also. For instance, I both produced and requested monthly reports. Finally, praise your staff in public and private for what they do well.

4. Run meetings efficiently. People want to feel that their opinions and concerns are heard, but they do not want their time wasted. Here are some strategies I used:
  • Make an agenda, invite new agenda items well before the meeting, and during the meeting keep to the agenda as much as possible.
  • Have someone (besides you) take notes and archive these notes in a shared drive
  • Follow up on unfinished items from past meetings.
  • Keep announcements brief and make as many as you can via email outside of the meeting.
  • Keep the tone light and fun (by making on-topic but not demeaning jokes or acknowledging a situation’s humor), while still keeping the meeting brief.
  • Make sure everyone understands what decisions have been made.
  • Avoid doing creative things, such as writing or workflow analysis, in a meeting.
  • Instead, use the meeting to gather opinions on writing or workflows that have been drafted already outside of the meeting.
  • Everyone enjoys an early dismissal or even a cancelled meeting—but do not overuse these options.

5. Make connections with your staff. Keep relationships professional, but also find out what makes your staff tick. Sometimes you can use staff members’ hobbies or interests to enhance the library’s offerings or collections. Relying on staff members’ unique expertise helps them feel needed, too.

6. Keep good notes. When juggling management of many people doing many different tasks, it is easy to forget what happened even a few days ago. Keep a paper trail of meetings, conversations, and decisions. For instance, when you make an assignment orally, confirm the assignment in an email. You never know when you will need to review decisions again or remind someone of an assignment.

7. Be smart about delegating. My staff had a lot of experience doing their jobs, and I tried not to stop them from using that experience. Most of the time, they could perform their jobs skillfully without my intervention, so I kept out of their way. If someone had expertise in a certain area, I would assign tasks in that area to them instead of tackling them myself. However, when the staff looked for me for leadership, I prioritized learning about and dealing with the relevant issues.
8. Set boundaries for yourself. In almost any professional library position, there is more work than one person can possibly complete; this can be an even more acute problem for a first-time manager. Instead of working yourself to burnout, stick to a reasonable work schedule with only occasional extended hours. Include a dedicated lunch break in your schedule.

Peter Shirts is a little less stressed than he used to be, now working as the Music Librarian at Emory University. He shares occasional musical thoughts at and on Twitter @SignifyingSound.

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