Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Connecticut Library Leadership Institute

I wish I had more time to write about last Friday’s Connecticut Library Leadership Institute (, but I really am under the gun as summer draws to a close. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to spend too much more time before putting something up. Still, I think the Institute was too important NOT to blog about.

Let me start discussing the Leadership Institute by telling you something we learned at the workshop that was at once compelling and frightening. The Gates Foundation has been studying what will make or break libraries in the coming years. It turns out that the greatest problem libraries face in moving forward is a lack of leadership, not simply a lack of technology. This makes sense to me. I’ve seen it on the ground. There are many new technologies we could take advantage of to advance the mission of the library, but all too often, a lack of courage, a lack of will to do what many library staff members consider to be something different -- it is that lack that can spell the end of libraries. Leadership is the one factor that can make the difference.

The Leadership Institute was sponsored by the Connecticut Library Association and Connecticut Library Consortium. It featured a number of successful leaders. The majority of the speakers were from the field of librarianship. They included:
· John Blyberg, Assistant Director for Innovation and User Experience at the Darien Library in Connecticut
· Thomas W. Galante, Chief Executive Officer and Library Director of The Queens Borough Public Library
· Walter Harrison, President of The University of Hartford
· R. David Lankes, Director of the Information Institute of Syracuse, and an Associate Professor in Syracuse University's School of Information Studies
· Lisa Lazarek, labor attorney with Kainen, Escalera, & McHale P.C. in Hartford
· Bernard A. Margolis, New York State Librarian
· Annette Rogers, Assistant Dean, the Barney School of Business
· Joseph Swetcky, Finance Director, town of Farmington
· Sharon Weiner, W. Wayne Booker Endowed Chair of Information Literacy at Purdue University

I think an important point that was reiterated throughout the workshop was that - although you can train someone to manage other people, you can’t necessarily train them to lead. Bernard Margolis, formerly director of the Boston Public Library and now the New York State Librarian, told us that if we’ve ever been asked for advice (or, interestingly, if we’ve ever taken advice) we are leaders. Leadership, the panelists explained, requires vision, a willingness to innovate, courage, a willingness to “fail” and learn from those failures, optimism about the future, and openness to change, among other important attributes.

As I listened to the speakers, one thing became very clear to me. All of these wonderful leaders were excellent communicators. They talked about the need to be transparent and clearly explain things, but they also reflected on the political realities that helped them to make judgments about how much, when, and to whom information should be communicated. I’m all for full 100% transparency myself, but I also understand that there are times when giving some people too much information (something I’m very guilty of in the realm of technology… ) only creates anxiety and chaos. Throughout the day-long workshop, these leaders tended to communicate using anecdotes. Being able to tell a compelling story, it seems to me, is clearly an important part of leadership.

To me, the best leaders have all of those characteristics of vision and innovativeness, but in their way of dealing with others, they also demonstrate empathy and “emotional intelligence”. It is emotional intelligence that allows leaders to communicate in ways that work best for a given audience at a given time. It is emotional intelligence that informs the direction of a leader’s vision. They are tuning into the needs of the public they serve. It is emotionally intelligent to engage in a management style that creates an environment of innovation by, for example, using John Blyberg’s philosophy of: (a) taking 100% of the blame and (b) giving 100% of the credit to his staff.

I enjoyed the give and take of the workshop. We listened to the panel discuss leadership and its qualities at first, then broke up into groups to discuss various topics with individual panelists. The panelists were thoughtful and provocative as they got us to open up about our thoughts on leadership in general and the role of technology in libraries and its impact on leadership. I was also very impressed by the ideas and discussions opened up by my peers and colleagues. Others’ perspectives on an issue are so helpful! As an example, I’d been talking about why I considered my boss/leader to be technologically savvy . I found his willingness to listen to my account of the technologies that I am so intimately involved in, and to ask the hard questions, to extrapolate, and to subject web projects and problems to critical thinking. This led the panelist – Queens Library Director Thomas Galante – to point out something that I’d missed about those interactions – that they were also examples of good management because my boss was using these discussions as a means of getting me to more clearly articulate the issues and steps involved in deploying such technologies. I hadn’t thought about this aspect of our discussions and it made me even more grateful to have a boss who could help me to understand my own job better!

At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to attend the Institute. It felt a bit presumptuous. I’m no longer in the role of managing people – was only engaged in that endeavor for a short period of time, in fact. I was never formally trained in managing other people and did not feel resoundingly successful in doing so. The department operated fine and I completed several big projects, but there was a constant discord that I felt hovering in the background, making work an unpleasant effort. The primary reason (that I can take responsibility for) for that discord was that I was not keyed into a number of important realities, most of them being political. I believed in the power of the correctness of the tasks I was engaged in. I also believed that things were as they appeared to be on the surface.

I learned so many things from that experience. I learned, for example, that politics – like it or not – trump the logic of technology and forward momentum. You have to at least be sensitive to and aware of local politics. Once you understand the lay of the land, the cultural norms, and so forth (you’d think the latter issue would have been an obvious consideration for me since my undergrad was cultural anthropology), you can move forward. Try to use your analysis of the local politics and culture to inform your attempts to move forward. That doesn’t mean you kowtow to the – “well, that’s how we’ve always done it” cult that is usually present and always vocal. But you have to understand their position before you find ways to do the things that will incite their protests. Prepare for the arguments as you imagine they will make them and provide counterpoints. Most of all, be unafraid, but also be compassionate towards those who are afraid.

All of these points bring us to the most interesting bit of discussion about change management, something that we all need in these times. Bernard Margolis pointed out that there is a small percentage of people for whom constant change is a place of comfort. For everyone else, it is a period of upheaval and stress in which you move from the known normal to the new normal. He explained that our job is to get everyone through the unpredictable period of change into the new system and to make the new system routine/”normalized”. To move forward, you have to first make the current normal uncomfortable – to make it really clear that change is needed and that staying in the current normal situation is a recipe for disaster. Additionally, you have to offer the stakeholders a clear, concrete, easily understood vision of the new normal. You have to make the “new normal” easy for them to picture. Then you have to give them information about the steps that must be taken to get to the “new normal”.

Overall, I’d recommend this workshop for many of my fellow Connecticut librarians in coming years. Whether you manage a department, unit, team, or project, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll need leadership skills to see it through. In the Leadership Institute you will get practical advice, but more importantly, you’ll get inspiration to tackle the tough work ahead of you.

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