This post is a summary of my presentation at the ALA Annual Conference entitled “So You Want to be a Director: Fleas, Death Threats, Budget Cuts, and Prison Wardens.” Good title, right? (Thanks Nicolette!) Several people asked me to write up my thoughts article-style, so here ya go. One ginormous caveat: I am figuring out this whole Director thing as I go along, but that was rather the point of this presentation and this post.
When I first became Acting Director, I had visions of rainbows and pixie dust. Wow, I was finally in charge! This was my home library (I’d lived here for many years but always worked elsewhere). I could make things happen! I could effect change within my hometown! I could guide the direction of an institution and make it one of those kick butt libraries that energizes the community and inspires other libraries!
Then reality hit me like a cement truck.
During my first year, these are some of the challenges I faced. Trial by fire took on a whole new meaning for me:
Also keep in mind that this whole time I was in the middle of a divorce. My brain was not in the happiest of places.
I was left questioning my decision to take the job, questioning my decision to become even an Assistant Director, and doing a lot of self-examination in between solitary hikes and weekends of intentional social isolation.
I came up with “10 Things I Wish I’d Known as a New Director” as a way of trying to help people thinking of becoming an administrator realize A) what they’re getting into and B) not to feel as alone or isolated as I did.
1. Fear is Normal
I was terrified as an Acting Director. By the time the actual Director appointment rolled around, a lot of that fear had dissipated. I went into this without enough time with the previous Director for training, without enough time to bone up on management issues and city policy, and (quite honestly) with no career drive to ever be a Director. But I tried it anyway. I reached out to a small network of library administrators whose opinions I trusted, seeking advice as a newbie and help with specific issues when necessary. Everyone was super helpful, especially in letting me know that each of them had gone through a period of fear as well. Being new at something is usually scary, especially when you have naysayers attacking you from all sides before you’ve even begun the job. The trick, as with any fear, is to acknowledge the feeling, make a plan to move forward, and act on it. Everything else takes care of itself.
2. No Money = No Love
I walked into a negative budget situation, as I discovered many new Directors do. I had to say no to pretty much every request and was cutting materials, substitute staffing, and other budget lines from day one. Need a way to make yourself hated very quickly? That’d do it. I didn’t have a choice, but I wish I’d realized ahead of time that there was no winning in this situation. I had hoped that all of our staff would understand that this wasn’t me being mean or stingy for the sake of it, but trying to fix a very real budget problem that had landed in my lap. Most did understand, as did most of our stakeholders and support groups. The few who did not, however, were quite vocal about how I wasn’t as “nice” as the last director, didn’t let people get what they wanted, and was an awful person. I had hoped for universal understanding but settled for almost universal begrudging acceptance. Also, do not become a Director if you need to be loved. You will be hated by someone for something pretty much every day. It’s the nature of being in charge.
3. There is No Magic Pill
I had hoped that I would find one magical thing I could do for the public to make them happy. Likewise, I wanted that one magical thing to win all the staff over. There is no magic pill. A thousand things have to be done to appeal to the thousand different priorities and interests of our diverse populations, including staff.
4. Avoid Burnout
I made the mistake of trying to do both the Assistant Director job and the Director job for the first year or so. Big mistake. Working 80 hour weeks burned me out quickly. I did get a lot done and kept the ship floating, but at a great personal cost. My health suffered as did my sanity and my ability to remain mentally dedicated to the job. I saw myself fast approaching true burnout where I’d need to take an extended leave of absence, and so gradually dialed back my working hours to a more sane 50 or so. I know it’s tempting to just keep going when you’re trying to fix a broken situation. But I work better in the hours I work now and my mental and physical health are surely improved.
5. Get Ready for the Angst
I’d been a manager for several years before becoming a Director but I truly did not appreciate how much of this job is listening to negativity and being reactive to one negative situation after another. Personnel issues, complaints from staff and public, things breaking, someone disagreeing with pretty much every decision you make, being the one to ban the really awful patrons, go to court, withstand personal attacks, and the list goes on. When you’re Director you have a big old target painted on your back. Be ready for the fire and brimstone to rain down. I wasn’t, and the shock of the “Holy Ceiling Cat, isn’t there anything positive right now?” feeling was a lot to handle. I’ve gradually learned not to internalize as much, though I still do internalize a lot. As more happens I do find myself becoming desensitized to the smaller issues and feeling free to say to my staff “You know what? You can handle that. You’ll do great.” (instead of jumping in to fix every last problem brought to me). There are still sleepless nights and panicked moments, but far fewer.
6. People are More Important than To Do Lists
I was so focused on getting things done (balance the budget, write a strategic plan, keep the peace between support groups, go to all my meetings, write all my reports) that I focused less on the people factor at the library. I focused less on individual patrons, on individual staff, and that was a mistake. I am trying to step back and focus on the people in the library more (after all, what is a library but its people!) and finding it challenging with the workload still doubled up as it is. But, hey, at least I’m trying.
7. Morale is Fussy
Just as I was focused on getting things done, I was also overly focused on trying to control my own reactions to things. I didn’t want to paint a rose-colored picture of our budget situation. I wanted to be as direct and transparent with staff as I could be, which I did. But the side effect of that was a whole lot of not-so-great news showering down on all of the staff members…which meant that they ended up internalizing a lot of the same grief I was. I can see pros and cons to sharing information with staff, but I think I may have over-shared. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing I did. I was so concerned about being a good transparent manager and not making the mistake of the silo-ed, closed-off administrators I’ve worked for in the past, that I forgot to pay attention to the morale of the staff at large. And unfortunately a whole lot of morale-damaging stuff was happening in quick succession. Morale is a hard one. There’s no magical solution, but with some constant attendance and a few key boosters, it can be kept healthy at least. This is another area I’m working on, particularly now that we’ve been able to have a stable budget year looking forward to 2013/2014, and are starting to be able to make some of the major changes staff have waited decades for.
8. Ask for What You Need
Our library was in such a mental state of scarcity that people had ceased to ask for what they needed. When I became Director, I started asking. We needed stepped up police patrols. Check. We needed freedom to re-allocate end-of-year remaining funds to replace non-ergonomic staff desks and chairs from the 1950s. Check. We needed to stop charging for DVD check-outs like we were stuck in the 90s. Check. We needed new carpeting to replace the nasty, torn stuff in the library that’s the same age as I am. Check. I personally needed support and advice from the other department directors. Check. So far, there’s only one thing I’ve asked for from our parent organization and partner departments that I haven’t gotten (and I’m working on that thing too). Lesson? Ask! (and bring visual aids – they help)
9. Timid Librarians Are Not Allowed
I’ve been called a lot of things as a Library Director. The nice ones include scrappy, feisty, go-getter-y, and my favorite: “She don’t take no crap from nobody.” I’m glad that I entered this fray with an assertive personality. If I’d been timid, I think I would have been eaten alive, spit out, and ended up with a nervous breakdown or abandoning libraries altogether. You simply cannot and should not be a library administrator if you are timid. You truly will not be able to do your job well if you’re afraid of conflict, avoid confrontations, can’t deal with raised voices or criticism, and want to be friends with everyone. It won’t work. Either you or the institution will break and no offense, but I’d rather it was you, because your institution is more important than any single individual.
10. Do It Your Way
Something I was massively worried about when becoming a Director was having to conform. I am not good at conforming. In fact, when asked to do so I usually do the opposite and become more non-conformist. I didn’t want to have to schmooze with people, to lie and smile, to go to events I would hate like the Plague, or to dress and speak like the majority. I made a conscious decision not to do so from the get-go and in my final interview with our City Manager told her point blank that I would continue being me and doing things my way, and that my “being me” would probably get me into trouble at some point in the future, but that I couldn’t pretend for 10 hours a day to be someone else. She still hired me (bless you for your openness, Nancy). So I do my thing the way I do it. Yes, I meet with council members and the mayor. But I’m me at those meetings. Yes, I go to Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, but I also go to the Community Media Center events, GLBTQ fundraisers, and nerdy local meet-ups. You know, stuff that’s a natural fit for me and my strengths. I don’t schmooze and lie, but I do smile. Because when I’m talking about why libraries matter, I automatically smile. I love libraries and it shows. I dress the way I dress, listen to electronica full blast at my desk, dole out espresso shots to tired employees, and send out irreverent and sometimes funny items in our missives to City Council and our Board of Trustees. Basically, I’m just me. I don’t have to put on a mask. I can be me and still do this job well. And so can you.
For those of you who are new-ish directors, what lessons have you learned? What things do you wish you’d known before you started? Keep the conversation going!!!