When Pretty Good is Good Enough

When I was a new librarian, I thought the people above me in the organization had to be really good – certainly better than I was.  Indeed I expected perfection.  After all, they had risen beyond where I was.  You can imagine that I was certainly the one who got a reference letter that said, “She can be a trial for those she works for, but she does very good work.”  With experience, I learned that the people I worked for were human – just like myself and everyone else.  They had talents, flaws, strengths, and weaknesses.  They might have advanced based on ability, or being in the right place at the right time.  Or they may have done their previous jobs well, and were propelled to a higher level – above their competencies.  The Peter Principle is indeed alive and well in all walks of life. 

As I rose in the organization I found others further down in the organization sharing the same sentiments with me.  They found their supervisors flawed – not paying attention to staff members’ progress, not open to new ideas, not acknowledging good work, or even taking public credit for their employees’ achievements. 

I would share with them my similar reactions, letting them know I empathized with their plights.  I would also point out that directing the work of others is hard.  Few people have any training for supervision.  Being a superior reference librarian is an entire different set of skills from directing the work of a group of reference librarians.  And, speaking openly and supportively with people about details of their performance – good or bad – is hard; many will avoid it if they can. 

I’ve reported to more than a dozen people in my career.  Most were acceptable or even very good, but several were awful.  The awful included those who paid no attention to their subordinates, or who interacted inappropriately with their employees, or whose sole skill was keeping their jobs.  In no case was I in a position to do anything about the performance of a supervisor (except in the inappropriate behavior case).  So, learning to work for people with small or large flaws is necessary. 

However, your supervisor’s less-than stellar-work is not a reason for your work to be less than your best.  Good enough is not an acceptable goal for you.  Even if no one recognizes your good work, continue doing it for your own self-respect.  Doing your best and meeting your own standards has value.  You also may not be perfect, but if you are doing your best, that has to be good enough.

You may have to work without useful supervision, setting standards for yourself.    Even if no one recognizes your work, you build skills and prepare for more interesting and challenging positions.   If your boss has retired in situ (as I think of it), you may end up doing the tasks he or she dodges.  Library directors are always looking for people with untapped talents and energies.  In one library a colleague and I both worked for the same hapless supervisor and each of us did some parts of his job.  We chaired important library-wide task forces or wrote library-wide reports.  We got little credit for it, but when we rise to the next level, we already had practice and success in parts of our new position.   

In cases of impossible supervisors and no recourse in the library or the institution, you need to look for another job.  This could be working for someone else within the organization or at another institution.  If change is not possible, consider using your talents in other pursuits.  On those occasions, I have gotten more professionally involved, bought and renovated a rental property, and built a deck in the back yard. 

Working for someone wonderful is a gift – a rare occurrence.  So working for someone who is pretty good is a real treat.  Because awful is more common than we like to think.

Learning to Wait

It may seem strange to write about learning to wait in a blog intended to encourage action.  But knowing when to bide your time in the face of resistance or disinterest is useful. 

Early in my career having to wait was not common because then I was hired specifically to engender change.  But even in those welcoming environments, there were limits.  If change goes beyond your unit and touches on other less flexible areas you run into problems.  A good boss can and will run interference for you.  But not uncommonly you were hired to make change that your boss preferred not to do him or herself.  In that case, you are on your own. 

One can make alliances with other people at your level who also have absentee, not active, even cowardly bosses.  Those bosses may be willing to let you and your allies forge ahead, assuming that the blame for failure will fall on you.  It probably will (but with few repercussions, I’ve found).  But if you are successful, your bosses may take the credit.  It happens.  Just remember that when you are the boss, you should give credit to those below you who have done something delightful – and you should take the blame for things you encouraged them to do that failed.  Your staff will appreciate and respect you.

Over time I observed what I call the fool factor.  After several unsuccessful attempts at fixing one particular problem, one may give up.  But a new person who doesn’t know that the problem is intractable may take aim at the problem and actually fix it – the fool factor at work!  The fool factor is a good argument for bringing in new people to your organization.

In my early career, at lower levels in the organization, I could fix everything that needed fixing in a few short years.  Then I would take on extra responsibilities or move on.  As I rose up the ranks and had a larger span of responsibility and more layers of hierarchy, fixing things was more complex.  As an assistant director, I found that it took five years to effect lasting change and improvement.  Good personnel work is time-consuming and requires coaching, changing behavior, and when coaching doesn’t work making staff changes.  Getting people to do what they need to do rather than what they want to do is very hard work and requires patience and unremitting determination. 

By the time I was a director, I spent the first decade working through my original list of problem services, facilities, and staff (and of course that list morphed and grew in those years).  At the director level, forces outside the library control the occurrence and speed of some actions.  Working across the university, looking for opportunities to get buy-in from faculty, administrators, and deans, took much longer and much more skill.  And, some things that could not be accomplished on the first or second try became possible as deans and administrators turned over. 

Implementing electronic theses and dissertations, getting an open access policy adopted by the faculty senate, and creating a digital archive are examples of multi-year efforts finally achieved.  Testing the level of interest and commitment on each of these was an ongoing activity and we stood ready to forge ahead on each as soon as the climate was propitious.