As I have shared in previous columns, I’ve been working in libraries for over twenty years. I think I can safely say that I’ve witnessed and been involved with numerous changes in our profession. When I was “green” and newly graduated with my MLS, I truly wasn’t able to fathom the library of the future. As a new professional in the mid-1990s, I read numerous articles prophesying about libraries without walls and book-less buildings, but I was too inexperienced to fully comprehend the continual impact of technological evolutions on our services and resources. The years passed, and I grew more seasoned. I continued to take advantage of opportunities to become a more informed and engaged librarian, and thus became more comfortable with changes and their impact on my role in the library.
Fast forward to 2001. I was definitely becoming much more proficient in navigating change as a professional, but I was somewhat sheltered with regard to orchestrating change while serving in a leadership role. When I was appointed as head of a large public services unit a number of years ago, I quickly learned that change is challenging in many ways. Not only did I need to become adept at understanding and accepting the change as well as its impact on my work, I had to excel at selling the change to those reporting to me. Frequently, the change impacted my employees even more directly than me. After all, these folks were on the front lines, carrying out the tasks every day. A change in their workflow due to a newfangled technology was sometimes frustrating to them. So, my goal was to help them recognize how such a change was necessary and inevitable, and to find ways to come to peace with new processes. This is definitely not always a pleasant aspect of a supervisor’s role and was certainly hard for me.
After a couple of years struggling with my sales role for inevitable change, I found myself frequently dreading anything new. It wasn’t that I disliked being a manager, or that the folks in my unit were resisting alterations to their work. It was that I hated telling folks any news that might be unpleasant for them. I cared about my employees and wanted them to feel effective and productive. Changes were coming faster and faster, thus it seemed that work flows were always in a state of flux. “I just wish we could have a process in place for a while before we have another upgrade to our ILS,” one of my folks told me after the third ILS upgrade in a year. “It seems that these updates always change things just a bit, and then I have to retrain all of my student employees and staff on the new process. Here we go again.”
I understood her perspective, and I empathized with her. But, I told her, the change was happening, and we had to do our best to deal with it and make the best of it. And I promised her that I would continue to work with her and her student employees to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Fast forward again--now to 2010. At this point in my career, I was seasoned at orchestrating changes as a leader. I had become adept at selling change (and sometimes unpleasant change) to those reporting to me, and I managed an even larger, more diverse department at a bigger institution’s library. Now, however, I found that I was totally unprepared for dealing with change when facing budget shortfalls. Budget cuts at my institution resulted in a loss of several key positions at the library during that year. I found myself having to sell a whole new concept of change to already overworked personnel--adding more to their already busy workloads because we were unable to fill vacated positions.
The necessity of these types of changes required a lot more than gaining employee buy-in to something new in their work flow. I had to thoroughly and carefully come to an understanding of my employees' day to day activities, responsibilities, and work flow. I had to become knowledgeable of their skills and interests (sometimes unearthing hidden gems within them). I had to have a robust overview of needs not only within my department, but in other library departments as well. Then, I had to take all three of these very crucial issues and start brainstorming. It became sort of like a chess game, with one move impacting a number of other upcoming moves.
As a manager, I aim to treat everyone with respect. I encourage everyone to be open and share whatever they wish to share with me, and when they do, I listen carefully. I demonstrate support and follow through on my word. These simple rules of thumb help me lead as effectively as I can. That said, while leading employees through challenging changes my goal is two-fold: a) resolve needs/discrepancies/deficiencies in workflow by assigning resources appropriately, and b) match employee talents and interests with said workflow needs. What starts out at as a challenge actually becomes very rewarding. By now, I actually enjoy leading changes, no matter how tough the climate is financially or technologically. I have discovered that there are multiple and often compounding positive outcomes as a result:
- The process engages me more fully with the everyday activities in all of the units under my supervision. I always become much more immersed in important details of workflow and responsibilities than I would have been simply serving as an administrator over a department.
- The process engages me even more personally with my employees; I learn a great deal more about their skills, their interests, and their ideas to make the library the strongest it can be.
- I become much more knowledgeable about other areas in the library because all of our workflows interconnect.
- I am able to help an employee learn new responsibilities and tasks. Sometimes these new roles evolve into significant changes in their professional careers, such as obtaining a degree, a second degree, or an exciting new job.
- Many employees and units in the library benefit from the changes. Tasks that went uncompleted are now being completed. Processes that previously were frustrating or challenging become more efficient.
- And, perhaps most importantly, library users are served efficiently and effectively, which is the sole reason for our purpose.
That kind of “win/win” make being a manager all the more rewarding. And that’s a simple truth I can live with for the next twenty years of my career!