Leading Change as a Library Administrator

min read

Key Takeaways

  • What should a leader do when moving to a new administrative position in a field where she hasn't held that role before?
  • Fellow alumni of the Leading Change Institute served up a wide variety of advice on establishing goals, setting priorities, and becoming productive immediately.
  • If you aren't making mistakes, then you aren't trying enough new things.

I recently started my first job in library administration after serving in leadership positions both before and after beginning my library career a decade ago. This meant I had confidence in my skills, but no experience putting all my knowledge to use in this specific way. It's perhaps unnecessary to say that the prospect was (and still is) exciting but overwhelming. Rather than panic (never really an option), I turned to the group that was a big part of the reason I'd taken this step — my fellow Leading Change Institute (formerly Frye Leadership Institute) alums.

In an e-mail to the group's listserv, I asked:

I'll be starting my new job, as the library director at Wesley College, this Friday. So I'm asking this group for advice. More specifically, what's the one piece of advice you wish you'd gotten prior to starting your first administrative position... other than reading The First 90 Days, that is, since I'm already about 1/2 way through that book.
Thanks in advance.

The variety of answers I got in return was so incredibly helpful, and so diverse, that I was asked to share the advice with a broader audience. The resulting article is what you see here. I've broken things down into categories, so you can browse to the section that will help you most. Alternatively, you can just read it through from beginning to end — an approach that will definitely be worth your time.

Getting to Know Your Community

"I'd figure out who your academic peers are. In my case they are school deans. At a college it probably is department chairs. Then I'd spend an hour with each of them in their offices talking about what the library can do for their department or about anything they want to tell you. Your cred with the academic leaders on campus will be central to what you can get done and the support you'll get. I'd also talk to all of the staff one-on-one."

"The best advice I received from my former director before I took on my first director/dean role was to seek out my peers (other deans or directors) on campus and engage them as allies, mentors, and friends…. It can be lonely at the top and tricky to rely on confidantes and friends among your staff. I have also found it easy and helpful to seek out faculty and listen to what they are up to. They like to talk about their work and they appreciate the interest. They can be really strong allies when you're trying to develop new services, get funding, or make changes."

"If you have not been a director before, one of the largest changes will be your relationship with the wider campus and your role in representing/selling campus interests to the library. … Get on friendly terms with the key people in the Physical Plant, Security, Development, Alumni Affairs, and, if you host events in the library, Food Services. Second, figure out the campus governance committee structure and attend any open meetings of the key committees on a regular basis. … These are nice, practical targets."

"Do make sure you take advantage of the 'sneaker' network and physically visit staff in their workspaces. Also, see if someone is willing to 'onboard' you and introduce you to the influencers and stakeholders in the broader academic and local community. Refrain from telling your new colleagues and staff the way you did it where you came from before!"

"In browsing through all the great advice you've received here, the one piece that I think is missing is: don't forget to talk to the students who rely on your library to succeed. I recommend doing this both formally, say through a student advisory committee, and informally, by simply strolling through the facility and chatting with the students who are using it. And if you notice that students aren't using it, find out why. I've never met a student who was reticent about telling me what was not working."

"About two weeks after I arrived at [my current institution], we had a fire in one of the steam tunnels that took out electricity, network and phone services to 1/4 of the campus for a week. (The week before finals, which added an additional set of pressures.) Silver lining...it was a terrific opportunity to learn. I had a quick and comprehensive view of weaknesses in technology performance, communications, planning, human dynamics, campus relationships, you name it.

"Not that I would recommend manufacturing a crisis, but if I were starting a new position I would look for opportunities to objectively observe and learn to complement the listening and relationship building that's been discussed here. For example, I took one of our online courses as a student, and it was fascinating to experience IT from a student perspective. Others may have ideas as well for how to get a 360 perspective."

Getting to Know, and Dealing With, Your Staff

"Lead in a manner that makes people want to work for you. Develop an emotional connection and challenge your team to do more than they think possible."

"Also, ask people about their hopes and dreams for the future, and what they think works really well now."

"Learn people's names early on."

"The best advice I've been given, which I readily share whenever I can, is to listen. Meet with the employees individually and in groups, and hear what they have to say. Learn the culture of the institution. Don't try to jump to solutions, just listen and learn. There will be a time to take action, but the social capital you build by these initial conversations can be invaluable down the road."

"Can't improve on the positive advice others have given so I'll focus on the dark side: dealing with problem or underperforming staff. Having dealt with a fair number of issues over three decades, here's some things I've learned (sometimes painfully):

  1. Always be clear and direct with your expectations of the employee's performance. Don't dance around things; if they're not doing the job, let them know and provide guidance for what they need to correct. The goal should always start with how the employee can salvage the situation and become a productive member of the staff.
  2. While you should point them in the right direction, you should not have to give them step-by-step directions on fixing things. The goal should be for them to acknowledge the deficiencies and develop ways to correct those, with your guidance. This also sends the message that they are responsible for their performance.
  3. If it becomes an issue of disciplinary action or potential termination, involve HR as soon as possible.
    1. Follow their rules for this process, as any deviation becomes fodder for grievances/legal complaints.
    2. Always have an HR representative in any discussion with the employee. This does two things: a) it eliminates the he said/she said aspect as the HR rep is an objective witness and b) if it reaches the point of termination, HR is already on board having been involved from the beginning.
    3. HR can help keep the focus on overall performance as opposed to the employee nitpicking individual examples of deficiencies.
  4. Never reference individuals as supporting evidence ('Mary tells me…'). While it may be necessary to indicate that other staff have come to you with issues, keep the focus on your view of the situation and the expectations for the employee.
  5. Document, document, document. Keep a record of the issues and any discussions you have with the employee. This doesn't have to be a verbatim transcript, but it should accurately summarize the discussion.
  6. Always be as accurate and truthful as possible. Your documentation will likely be the key element in any grievance, EEOC filing, or lawsuit, so simply document the facts. Don't over-explain, but do list the salient points honestly.
  7. Do not discuss the specifics of any personnel issue in e-mail. It is too easy to accidentally communicate the wrong thing or communicate to the wrong people. Face-to-face or phone conversations with the employee and with HR should create clarity.
  8. If it reaches the point of termination, it should not come as a surprise to the employee. They will have been given every opportunity to turn it around and it should be made clear to them throughout the process that failure to correct deficiencies could lead to termination. The majority of the conversation in a termination meeting should focus on the process of termination, not a re-hashing of all the previous discussion.
  9. Prepare for the termination meeting. Have the process ready to go for deprovisioning access, when/how to collect ID badges-keys-room access cards, what the process is for collecting benefits on termination, etc. HR and the IT Security teams can help with the planning and execution of this.
  10. While it is never easy to fire someone, never forget that the person hardest hit is the employee. It will likely be the blackest day of their career to date and they aren't interested in hearing how hard it is on you or stories of people who say getting fired is one of the best things that happened to them. All they care about at that moment is that they no longer have a paycheck. So stick to the logistics of the termination process and keep it short and sweet.

Sorry to throw this bucket of cold water on an exciting advancement, but these are the realities we all deal with. Luckily, the rewards of leadership far outnumber the few times we have to bear what my first CIO called, 'the burden of management.'"

"Be very careful of what you put into e-mails to your staff or others. Think carefully and put things on hold if something upsets you. Wait until the next day to respond. Create a trail of positive and supportive communications — especially with the people who push your buttons. Celebrate the successes of your staff and colleagues publicly and often. Bragging about your staff and their successes can create and foster an environment where it becomes the norm to support colleagues and co-workers. (And you might find that you get some positive feedback occasionally, too.)"

Achieving Change

"If the big things you need to do are going to take time and/or be hard (likely, or probably not worth doing), take action ASAP to score small wins. Celebrate the wins."

"I've always found value in looking for parallels from completely outside the profession. This Roger Cohen interview with Amoz Oz might be a good place to start. The emphasis in the piece is on the role of surprise in achieving change."

General Leadership Advice

"Your role as a senior leader is to do the following: (1) provide vision, (2) create a sense of urgency, (3) develop a sense of ownership, (4) generate excitement, (5) recognize and reward those that 'get it', (6) remove obstacles for your teams. Remember, you're in the role to be a leader, not an expert."

"Never forget that there is a difference between leading and managing. One manages things, but one leads people. When assuming a new administrative position, there are often a myriad of management activities that must be tended to. Don't forget to fence time and energy to make those initial leadership forays into your new world. I'm a personal adherent to the concept of 'Leadership by Walking Around' and highly recommend it as a useful tool."

"This isn't quite in the category of The First 90 Days, but I've found Robert Sutton's books on leadership and management to be very helpful.

"He's faculty at Stanford Business School and the author of two popular books, Good Boss/Bad Boss and The No Asshole Rule (I actually kept the latter either on the top of my desk or on the conference table in my office for much of the first year at one job).

"If you want to get a quick taste, here's a post from his blog, which also has embedded links to other posts which elaborate on the major points."

"If you're new to the organization, invest significant time in making (and then keeping!) friends across the organization."

"Here is a graphic you may want to print and put in your office. You may also want to pass it on to your direct reports. 3 Simple Signs of a True Leader:

  • True leaders don't try to be right — they are clear and patient.
  • True leaders don't want to have the last word — they are humble.
  • True leaders empower other people to own their ideas — they also forgive."

"You might take a look at [this] piece, ["In Transition: The Special Nature of Leadership Change"] …on transitioning to an administrative position."

"Are you aware of the ACRL college libraries' section new directors mentor program? I think the formal name is College Library Directors Mentor Program. In case you aren't, they take a cohort from smaller colleges each year, match you with a mentor, put you on a really useful listserv where you can ask ANYTHING and it won't go anywhere, and sponsor an in-person meeting at Midwinter.

"The listserv is comprised of mentors and mentees past, so it's a diverse group with rich experience."

General Communication Advice

"Be careful about talking more than listening. Refrain from saying things in private that you wouldn't want to hear repeated in public. When you do talk, do your best to be consistent and clear about what you expect, what you plan to accomplish, and be specific about how people can help. Make sure your 'big ideas' (aka vision) can be broken down into something everyone understands and can use as a compass to guide day-to-day action."

"A former supervisor warned me years ago to write e-mails in such a way that you would be comfortable if they appeared on the front page of the local newspaper the next day."

"Think twice, speak once. It can take you six months to undo what's said in 6 minutes. And if you're really opinionated like me...sometimes 6 years."

"Listening and learning are always good advice, but I would also recommend that you open some sort of 'mass' communication channel with your staff, even if it is to share your whereabouts and what you're learning about. The reason for this is that for each group or individual you meet, for time constraint reasons, there are a bunch of others you're not meeting. Eventually, you would get to all the groups, but in the meantime your organization might feel adrift if no communication comes out from you. In essence, try to establish your presence to all. Obviously, this is not a problem in a small operation where you can get to know everyone relatively quickly."

"A really important thing to understand when in an administrative role, I believe, is that your words now carry far more weight than they did when you were not an administrator. It's normal for those of us with many ideas to sit in meetings or groups and spin thoughts out as experiments or conversation starters. It's still OK to do that as an administrator, but people will parse and analyze those words far more closely and often consider them policy or strategic statements, even if not intended as such, and even if they know you well and trust you.

"I'm quite cautious, in particular, with any statements that get at personnel changes or shifts. I may think, for example, that my library has way too many people staffing declining services (reference, ILL, etc.) while starving areas that need staff (digitization, for example), but I rarely, if ever, say anything about these issues outside the leadership boardroom. Even if I say it in positive terms, e.g., we need to give staff new, exciting, and important work to do (as opposed to the drudgery they hate), what they will hear is 'we're going to lay off the people doing that stuff and find us some new people.' I'm shocked, often, at how many administrators say such things in front of their staff (or at a conference/talk on the record), and then wonder why morale is in the tank.

"That's just one example. It's been a hard lesson for me at times. I believe in free expression and Socratic discourse. Alas, leadership means tucking those impulses away at times and focusing instead on what others need. You seem like a good and kindhearted person, so this shouldn't be a hard thing for you to do."

My Directorship Story So Far

I'm still working my way through implementing this wonderful advice. I've read some of the articles, purchased one of the books, and printed items to put on the enormous corkboard I have on the wall next to my desk. But the truth is that, even with all this advice, there is so much to do and learn and see at my new job that it's hard to know where to start. Much like the person who gave me advice based on how s/he had had a literal trial by fire, I've not had a peaceful transition. One of my staff was injured and needed surgery, which will necessitate six weeks' recovery; there have been widespread power and Internet and e-mail outages; and the college has started to institute a major curriculum change. These events are all on top of the normal, day-to-day crises, like the library running out of printer paper, students losing their jump drives, and the HVAC pumping out heat when it's warm outside.

Even so, I have made progress, though some days it feels like two steps forward and then one and a half steps back. I've learned more than I thought I could and still feel a bit intimidated by all I have yet to do. I'm not sure I'm qualified to add my own advice based on my limited time in this position, but I'm going to anyway because it might help reinforce some of the wisdom shared with me:

  • Definitely pick up a copy of the book that prompted me to reach out to the LCI group. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins is not just full of sound advice, it's also eminently readable.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. Even the most experienced leaders will encounter situations that have them out of their depth. If you do nothing else besides bouncing ideas off the people you contact, it will make the difficulties seem more tenable.
  • Forgive yourself for — but don't forget — the mistakes you make (and yes, you will make mistakes no matter how careful you are). It's a bit of a cliché, but I really believe that if you aren't making mistakes, then you aren't trying enough new things. One of my favorite items, which I put up on the corkboard in my office, is a nicely formatted version of Joi Ito's "Nine Principles of Innovation." The most important principle from that list is this: "Resilience instead of strength, which means you want to yield and allow failure and you bounce back instead of trying to resist failure."

At this point I'm sure you're wondering what my directorship story looks like so far. So far, so good!


This article wouldn't exist without the advice I got back from my initial query, so I want to thank everyone who responded:

  • Lanny Arvan, former CIO and Associate Dean for eLearning, College of Business, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Kevin Ashford-Rowe, Professor and Director, Learning and Teaching Centre, Australian Catholic University
  • Dale Askey, Associate University Librarian, Library and Learning Technologies, McMaster University
  • Linda Bills, Library Director, Allegheny College
  • Keith Boswell, Director of Information Technology and Engineering Computer Services, College of Engineering, North Carolina State University
  • Dr. Braddlee, Dean of Libraries, Academic Technology and Online Learning, Mercy College
  • Lois Brooks, Vice Provost for Information Services/CIO, Oregon State University
  • Barbara I. Dewey, Dean of University Libraries and Scholarly Communications, Penn State University
  • Megan Fitch, CIO, Beloit College
  • Al Gonzalez, Assistant Director of Integrated Web Services, Cornell University
  • Carol Hixson, Dean of Library, Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, University of South Florida St. Petersburg
  • Michael Kubit, Director of Run, Information Technology Services, Case Western Reserve University
  • Dewitt Latimer, CIO, Montana State University
  • David W. Lewis, Dean of the Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis University Library and IU Assistant Vice President for Digital Scholarly Communication
  • Susan E. Metros, Associate Vice Provost and Associate CIO for Technology-Enhanced Learning, University of Southern California
  • Lisa E. Moeckel, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Librarian Personnel Administrator, Syracuse University Library
  • Susan L. Perry, College Librarian and Director of Library, Information and Technology Services, Mount Holyoke College
  • Sal Rosario, Manager, Technology Consulting Services, Office of Information Technology, Princeton University
  • Vincent J. Sheehan, CIO and Associate Dean for Information Technology, Indiana University School of Medicine and Indiana University School of Dentistry
  • Gene Spencer, Gene Spencer Consulting