Libraries, like many professions, often promote their own professionals into managerial positions without a great deal of thought into the new skillset that is management. There can be substantial benefits to hiring from within, including understanding the local community, having a deep appreciation for the staff dynamics and organizational design, and having experience with the work that direct reports do on a day-to-day basis. However, many library schools neglect teaching management skills or theory, and it can be hard for librarians to gain management skills within the library profession without intentional mentorship or coursework outside of the field of libraries. We end up with many managers who may be excellent at the work that they used to do but feel adrift and overwhelmed by the reality of being in a managerial position.
If you, like many of your librarian colleagues, have found yourself in management and need some pointers to help you succeed in this position, I have a few tips I’d like to share with you. My own journey into management was sudden and unexpected, as the academic position that I took quickly became a de facto management position, followed soon thereafter by an official management position. I was lucky that I’d considered this trajectory as a possibility for the future and was already interested in how to manage well, but the reality of becoming a manager was still challenging and I appreciate all the guidance that I’ve received. Despite the challenging transition, I also deeply enjoyed finding how I could grow in the field and advocate for the type of workplace I value. It has afforded me the opportunity to improve not only my organization but also myself.
Management is a skill.
Before stepping into management, it is easy to think that managers don’t do a lot, or that anyone can easily step into their tasks. But management is a skill that can and must be honed, developed, and studied just like other positions in librarianship. If you feel adrift with the new duties and expectations, that’s normal and does not mean that you can’t gain experience and facility with management.
Read books, keep up on blogs, take a class, and find a mentor. Because management is a skill, you need to learn it. Reading about management, learning about how to handle specific situations, and having conversations about management are excellent ways to become a better manager. There will always be odd and challenging situations that you didn’t anticipate, but understanding the underpinnings of management will help you keep your eye on the goal and prepare you to apply what you’ve learned in the workplace.
There are many different subjects within “management”, and many different types of resources to consult depending on your own personal interests, strengths, and workplace dilemmas. These need not come from the library perspective unless you’re looking for information that directly talks about libraries, so consider broad perspectives. Here are some ideas:
Join the leadership division of your library association, such as ALA CORE, to take advantage of their professional development opportunities and networking with peers.
Attend webinars on topics related to management, organization design, organization culture, human resources, creating an inclusive workplace, project management, etc.
Your workplace relationships need to change.
Whether you’ve stepped into a managerial role at your existing workplace or started with a new library, the relationship between manager and employees is different than a relationship between coworkers. This can be challenging to navigate, especially when there are existing relationships that now need to navigate a new dynamic. You will need to take some time to practice being approachable and collaborative without being overly familiar and inadvertently taking advantage of the new power difference. Be explicit with yourself (and with your former coworkers if you’re now in a managerial position over them) about what boundaries you need to erect to ensure your workplace relationships are defined by mutual respect rather than friendship. Consider the types of outside-work relationships you’re willing to have with employees and colleagues, the conversations you’re comfortable engaging in at work, the personal questions you ask or answer, and how you talk about the organization and the people within it.
Get comfortable with an information imbalance.
One of the harder things to grasp when becoming a manager is that you will have different information than your employees do. They will often have a better grasp of the patron-facing challenges, and you would be wise to take their information seriously. But there are also times when staff will identify important problems in the workplace, but then recommend solutions that don’t work for reasons that they aren’t aware of or privy to.
When this happens, don’t dismiss the problem entirely, but engage your own creative process to find a solution that works more broadly. Sometimes this will mean working closely with your employees, and sometimes it will require a more authoritative approach. Your task is to identify when you can take their insights and improve the organization and its services (whether that is with their proposed solution or your own), and when the status quo is the best option for the current time.
Employee information should flow up, not out.
This means that sensitive information about employees should not be spread among their colleagues, but upward through the hierarchy on a need-to-know basis. It may be very important to share about an employee’s performance challenges with your own manager or director, but their peers should be kept out of the conversation. Respecting their privacy is an important step to building trust and helps them know that you act responsibly when challenges arise.
Be present, but protect your own work times.
Your presence in the workplace is essential to building rapport and providing an example of the expectations you hold for others. Managers who appear out-of-touch or lock themselves away from their employees struggle to glean essential information and form collaborative relationships. At the same time, your ability to get your own tasks done has never been more important, as your employees count on you to be reliable. Block off time to be physically present and open to conversation, but also block off time to close your office door and have uninterrupted work time. Let your staff know what you’re trying to do with this balance so there is transparency, and provide a good example of being collegial while also accomplishing your tasks.
Take advantage of optional meetings to identify unknown unknowns.
One of the most frustrating parts of management for me has been working in good faith and then finding out that there was important information that I didn’t have. This can be particularly true in large public and educational environments with a warren of regulations and bureaucracy. While it’s easy to skip optional meetings, I’ve found that these are often the times that I discover things that I didn’t know I didn’t know. In-person groups and casual get-togethers are important tools for being proactive and gathering essential information. If you are aware of a gap in your knowledge, you can ask the right question. But when you don’t know there’s a gap, informal and optional meetings are great tools for your success.
Have reasons. Be reasonable.
Because of the information imbalance that’s inherent to management, it’s important to make sure that you have and express clear reasons for most of your decisions. If you’re deciding to limit or expand the types of programs you offer, be able to clearly articulate why you’re making the change. If you need to decline a staff member’s vacation request, you need a clear and articulated operational reason why that time doesn’t work. There will be times when you can’t share everything (i.e. confidential personnel matters), but that means that when you can share, it’s important to do so. This will demonstrate transparency and help your staff know that they can trust you to make decisions based on sound logic and fair practices.
Have the hard conversations.
While you are proactively building a culture of mutual respect in your library, you will need to have hard conversations with staff who are not performing in the way that you need. This is often very hard for new managers because it’s a new type of conversation that requires practice. Avoidance of these hard conversations can undercut all of your positive efforts, so it’s essential to address issues when they come up. Remember that most conversations don’t need to be confrontational; instead, come at these conversations with genuine curiosity and intentional investment in the library and your staff.
Confrontational conversations often lead to dead ends where staff feel disrespected, and the problem doesn’t get solved from the perspective of either party. Coming in hot will make people feel that you don’t trust them and that you’re not seeing them as a whole person whose work is only a small part of their daily lives. Try some of these conversation starters instead:
I noticed you’ve come in late a few times in the last week. May I ask if anything’s going on?
A patron mentioned that they had a challenging interaction with you yesterday. Could you share with me what happened?
I’m concerned about what I heard happened in the break room yesterday. Could you tell me about it?
Note that these are all fairly open ended, serve as a soft entry to the conversation, and invite them to share their perspective. Your response to their answers might need to be much more decisive, but you may also find that there has been a simple miscommunication or that your employee needs a different kind of support than you envisioned. This first stage is always about information gathering, but then allow the new or confirmed information to guide your next steps.
As a word of caution, while their answers may touch on personal issues and situations, these are not the places to press for further details or offer advice and personal assistance. Lending an empathetic ear for a short time may be quite valuable to them in feeling supported, but keep in mind that you’re representing their workplace rather than serving as a friend. Instead, consider what accommodations may be applicable and valuable to them, refer to Employee Assistance Programs or leave policies, and focus your efforts on making the workplace supportive and humane rather than shouldering that responsibility as an individual.
Ultimately, the shift to management is likely to be uncomfortable while you get to know your new role in the library. The size and type of library will affect how different your day-to-day is once you’re in management, but a period of adjustment is inevitable. Trust that there will be a lot to learn, so be open to learning, and seek out colleagues in management to create a supportive community. Hopefully, while you may have suddenly found yourself in management, with some time and effort, you’ll also discover who you can be.
Ann Dyer is the Director of the Health Sciences Library at Washington State University, having started there as the liaison librarian to the WSU College of Nursing and then as the Interim Director. She’s worked in academic libraries in Massachusetts, Maine, and Washington. She is also certified as a Maritime Port Manager.
Excellent advice; wish I’d had it when I started. Having worked in “multicultural” situations most of the time, I’d add the need to broaden one’s own cultural perspectives and apply the resulting learning as appropriate. Most importantly, learn how to apologize for mistakes in ways that repair your vital relationships.
Great insights, Jonathan! It’s definitely all about trust building and building relationships, and cultural differences make that both more important and more complicated. Thank you for your comment!