I am now six months into my New Zealand library experience and the thought that keeps coming back through my head time and time again is that I should reflect on and update my series of Management Style posts that I have made in the past. The more I am immersed in leadership and management in public libraries the more I learn. Through this I am better able to understand how I fit into this role and why priorities I want to focus on as a leader. When I am aware of who I am at a certain point in time I am better able to communicate with the people I work with. When we know each other we can understand each other better. When we understand each other we can improve our communication. Information and communication are so important when it comes to being alive.
My path with management and leadership started because I did not want to be a Youth Services Librarian anymore. Once Haley and I started our own family it became very clear to me that I was a being of finite energy and that my energy was best spent on my own kids. I did not have the drive that I believe is required for being a Youth Services Librarian. I made the decision to not stick around and do an average job when that job requires someone great and above average.
As I reflect on my previous two management gigs, I see that I was all over the place: in Chattanooga I was very unclear, open to everything, and trying to understand my place in all of this. I was not clear with anything and I really left a lot up in the air. Course correction happened when I arrived in Titusville, PA, but I went completely to the other side. I think I was too strict and rigid on all things. I didn’t let things happen as naturally as they should. I got better at communication and direction, but there was still room for improvement. You see that’s the thing that is hovering over all of this…improvement. Each step along the way offers the chance to improve. I will never be perfect nor will I ever be great. But I can learn and from that I can improve. That’s the simple message at the core of all of this.
THINGS I SAID THAT STILL MAKE SENSE
As I reflect upon where I am now and read where I’ve come from I start to realize that there was a lot inside of me that still rings true to this day.
A manager takes the first step and carves out the path for their staff to follow. A manager provides guidance and enthusiasm for the staff. A manager is a strong voice and supporter for their staff. I always refer back to a quote I learned in my ALA Emerging Leaders class for inspiration: “The leader’s job is not to provide energy but to release it from others.” –Frances Hesselbein
I still believe every word of this. One big part of my work is to set the tone for the staff. I do this by trying my best to focus on the positive and to say YES to as many things as I can. It is also a part of my job to advocate for my staff. Decisions that are made by those in leadership roles should always come after everyone asks themselves “how does this affect the staff?”. Public libraries are here for the community and to serve the people, but we cannot do that without our staff. We need to always think of our staff and their physical health, their mental health, and their safety. A lot of my thinking as a leader recently around reopening libraries came from that point of view. How does reopening look for our staff? It needs to work for them. We know that the community will come back to our spaces. But what needs to happen for our staff? What can we do to make our staff feel good during this time period?
A manager takes a step back and lets their staff shine. They listen to what the staff needs and does their best to communicate that vision to the rest of the library. Managers can make a job fun for their staff. I truly believe that when we’re having fun with our work some of our best ideas happen and in turn, those affect the community in a positive way. I tell my employees: have fun and see what happens.
So much of what I have written in the past 5 years has dealt with identity. I created the Justin The Librarian persona to share thoughts and ideas around libraries. It was a very solitary act: I wasn’t planning on creating a website that featured a lot of different voices. I was going to be the writer and drive the direction of the message. In a way, it was a very Youth Services Librarian way of thinking about things. Sometimes in Youth Services you’re the only person on your team so you really have to do everything by yourself. Becoming a manager and a leader requires you to shed a bit of yourself and give that bit of yourself to the team. It requires you to step out of the spotlight. The spotlight should be given to your staff. When you allow them to create and innovate by saying YES, you give them the chance to be in the spotlight.
The best library managers and leaders are not the ones that push you to work constantly or to always be thinking of the latest and greatest things. The best ones are the people that remind you to breathe and to take care of yourself. Need to use a sick day as a mental health day? Sure, you deserve this. Feeling overwhelmed by the project you’re in the middle of? OK, set it aside for some time and eventually get back to it. These are behaviors that good managers and leaders will model themselves and then through their actions other staff will pick up on it.
I don’t think our work lives should be at the core of who we are. I used to be obsessed with working in libraries. Very little positivity in my overall life came out of that. I think I did some damage to who I was at the core because of this thinking. It took me quite a few years to readjust and recover from this. A great manager and leader will not stress out their staff about work. They will not push the people they work with so hard that they experience anxiety and stress. They will recognize that it is one of our jobs as managers and leaders to ensure that our staff members are happy and healthy. One of the things that I love about New Zealand is that Health and Safety is so crucial to everything in this country. Everyone really wants to make sure that they’re doing everything they can to ensure the best Health and Safety standards are met. This is not just relating to physical health and safety, but to mental health and safety as well. In my conversations with New Zealanders over the past 7 months I’ve been constantly amazed at how much they care about and look after mental health and safety. This country cares for each other, and because of that I think the fabric that weaves together this nation of people is much stronger than anything I have ever experienced. But back to management and leadership: set the tone by recognizing that work is not everything and that we all need to take care of each other. Through that I believe a great team can be built.
A lot of my current role deals with strategic thinking. I think this is a good point to plug Matt Finch’s work around all types of strategic thinking (https://mechanicaldolphin.com/tag/strategic-thinking/). This was a hard part of my job to swallow. Coming from a blue collar background I was taught that work was a lot of doing in the moment. For me the shift to strategic thinking has been tough. I want to do, to go, and to move forward! But a lot of strategic thinking is centered around planning for something that may or may not happen. I never did this kind of work before, at least consciously. It was also quite a shock to realise just how much of my was around this. At this job there is more of a team in place that can focus on the day to day and immediate stuff. I had to actively work to remove myself from that sometimes while at the same time dipping my toes in it just enough so that I could be aware of what was happening. It’s all a very delicate balancing act.
I BELIEVE IN YOU/YOU ARE THE EXPERT
I want more than anything for my team members to know that I trust them, that I believe in them, and that I want to hear their ideas and opinions. As I said above, the spotlight is no longer for me to stand in. It is their time to stand in the spotlight and I want to help them get to that if that’s where they want to be. To do this I always do my best to be honest and open with my staff. I want them to know that Justin believes in them and that I see them as the expert in what they do. Just because I have a fancy title like “Team Leader” doesn’t mean I know how to give the best possible customer experience at my place of work. They are the experts in their role. I have something to learn from them.
We always come back to communication in everything that we do. This is a perfect place to end this post. Saying nothing is not an option when it comes to leadership and management. You have to say something. Sometimes you have to say something difficult. Other times you can say something that makes everyone smile. The message at the center of it all is this: you have to say something. Giving your staff clear communication about everything around them in their work lives is one of the best things a leader and manager can do. It’s not always one of the easiest things to do, but with practice it gets better. I also want my team members to talk to each other as much as possible. You can talk about work. You can talk about music. You can talk about anything that is acceptable in a work place. I want talking to be happening. When we talk to each other we learn about each other. When we connect with each other we grow. This is a beautiful thing and I want that to happen as much as possible in the place where I spent 40 hours per week.