Risking Getting Fired

In an article I wrote in the 1990’s, I referred to coming close to being fired three times in my career.  I have been asked more than once about those close calls.  So here goes.

One:  The first close call occurred in my first job after college.  I was one of a cadre of technology management trainees hired by a large corporation.  We worked in a facility that operated 24/7, 365 days a year.  In our training, we rotated through the day shift, the evening shift, and the night shift, changing schedules every two weeks.  We were to learn about all the work before we became managers.  The evening and night staffing was lean.  On those shifts we trainees got to do real work, learning fast.  On the day shift, however, the computer room was crawling with staff – twice as many as worked other hours.  Managers walked in and out, the occasional vice president showed up.   The person who oversaw our training sat at her desk in the office area.

I loved the off-hours shifts.  But working days meant standing around watching others work – boring! A month or so into our training, I was called into my manager’s office and told that I had violated the company sick leave policy.  This was the first I had heard about any such policy.  Indeed, my manager may not have known about the policy before the personnel department brought my record to her attention.  She certainly had not conveyed to me and fellow trainees what the policy was.  I had called in sick (for the day shift) more times than was acceptable.  I was guilty.  If I woke in the morning with a bit of a headache or perhaps a slight hangover, I didn’t have much incentive to get out of bed.  My manager gave me a warning – one more undocumented sick day and I would be let go – and my expected pay raise was delayed.

I was able to recover from this inauspicious start.  At an all-staff retreat soon after my run-in with personnel, we management trainees had to make 5-minute presentations to the 150 or so members of our division.  My presentation was on how support staff positions were graded.  I saw new high school graduates who had never seen a computer except in a science fiction movie being put to work as computer operaters.  The learning curve was steep, but once they mastered the intricacies of the process they glowed with pride.  When they got really good, they were promoted to desk jobs as glorified file clerks.  They became bored and dispirited.  My short presentation recommended changing the rankings of the positions, starting new hires in the file clerk jobs and promoting them to the more complex and interesting positions.

The division management implemented the change!  In the next few months, I was promoted and some months later, was myself assigned to supervise the next batch of management trainees.  I made a practice of checking in with my trainees on every shift.   I would mostly work the day shift but would sometimes come in early to have breakfast in the company cafeteria with the night shift trainees and stay late to spend some time with those on the evening shift.  And, I made sure that sharing company policies was part of the training.

Two:  I was working in a library where the senior leadership was stunningly dysfunctional.  The team was a combination of lifers and brash young hires.  The lifers were just mediocre enough to keep their jobs.  And the young hires were anxious for personal power without the experience or skill that would allow them to use that power well.  A few of us lower-ranked librarians were appalled at what we saw happening – staff grading systems jiggled to promote favorites, solid staff working for pittances, technology applied without adequate knowledge or support –  and much more. 

My colleagues and I were probably a little too energetic in our efforts to improve things and too obvious in our disdain for some members of the leadership team.  Two of us – in the view of our supervisors – crossed the line for insubordination.  One was fired by her boss.  She was hired immediately at a sister institution – in higher level position.  To our delight she got the position that her boss had expected tod be filled by his new wife.  A second colleague was fired by our director but quickly reinstated through the influence of the concerned faculty advisory committee.   We all ultimately left that university for higher positions elsewhere.

Three:  In the first half of my career, librarians were on a collision course – between our exquisite fine-tuning of bibliographic control procedures and the explosion in scholarly publishing.  As procedures were made more elegant, cataloging backlogs grew.  One research library had 150,000 volumes in their backlog.  Acquisitions staff  periodically checked the backlog, culling books no longer desirable for the collection; these went into the library’s annual book sale.

The increasingly complex procedures affected vendors.  At least one integrated library system vendor went out of business trying to meet the demands of its prestigious customers, working to make the system do everything a cataloger might ever want rather than focusing on the key processes all research libraries needed.   As an ex-computer programmer, this software development process was painful to watch.

In this national climate, I walked into a management team where the true power lay with the perfectionists.  In our library, a $500 business reference source aged in the backlog; when it finally reached the reference shelf, it was out of date.  We did not have an approval plan for acquiring books bfor lack of a central space where approval books could be reviewed by subject librarians before adding them to the collections.  And subject librarians submitting orders for new books were required to do careful investigation before submitting their orders to acquisitions.  We had a manual for subject librarians on how to prepare an order; it was more than 20 pages long.  Each of the subject libraries had its own staff for this careful order preparation so that central acquisitions and cataloging would not have to deal with possible ambiguities.

We were very slowly implementing an integrated library system.  The process suffered from our predilection for drafting complete documentation for everything that might possibly happen.  At one point it became obvious that six of us were carefully writing on a multipage procedure for something that might happen once in two years.

As a member of the management team, I thought I was honoring our highly valued system, but I must have asked some unwelcome questions.  Perhaps I inadvertently expressed dismay that the items in the bottom of the piles of unresolved problems on some librarians’ desks were more than a decade old?  Or that the three-foot-high stack of problem journal issues on a branch library office floor had toppled to the side; it had been that way long enough to have a serious layer of dust on all the exposed surfaces.

Eventually I realized some colleagues perceived me as a threat.  Some team members’ conversations stopped when I came into the room.  I suspected that my mail was being read and discussed.  I began to lose confidence in myself – to hesitate to trust my own judgement.  One member of the management team – admittedly a weak contributor – had been leveraged out soon after I arrived.  In retrospect, I realize that I was supposed to go next.  Luckily for me, the team member who had the unyielding commitment to perfection was offered a position elsewhere that, for personal reasons, could not be turned down.

Quite quickly, the ice in the air melted, coolly neutral parties became friendly colleagues, indeed backlogs even melted, and my belief in myself returned.  When I moved on several years later, my staff had to decide which of my commonly voiced comments to put on the T-shirt they gave me.  If I remember correctly, Tolerate Ambiguity won out over Ask Forgiveness, Not Permission.



Solving Problems, Making Change

I get hired for difficult jobs.  Only once in my library career was I hired to fill a position with no obvious problems; that was my first position out of graduate school.  Otherwise, I’ve had where people were struggling with technological change or where major personnel work needed to be done, or the where external situation had been corrosive and the organization needed to be restored to health. 

I thrive in such situations. Once, on becoming an AUL relatively early in my career, I was asked by a staff member (in a mildly hostile tone), “To what do you attribute your meteoric rise?”  I don’t remember having a good response for her then.  But I did ponder the question.  Technology experience (in years when it was still scarce) did help, but the real answer was that I had solved problems or made good things happen in all of my previous positions.  

However, even when you come into a position where there is thirst for change, you should not expect everyone to be happy about the changes you make.  People may be chafing under a controlling and tyrannical supervisor.  But those same people don’t want to see that person face the consequences of such behavior.  They want you to transform that person into someone different.  You will of course try mightily to encourage and engender more effective and less offensive behavior.  Sometimes it works.  But sometimes it doesn’t, and the only option is to make consequences  felt.  The consequences might be transfer to a position more fitting to the person’s inclinations and desires.  Moving a leader who won’t lead to a non-leadership position is one solution.  Or, if there is nothing that needs doing that the person is willing to do, then separation may be the only solution.   

Be prepared for people to be disappointed if you can’t “reform” problem staff.   You can work hard at giving a problem staff member the coaching, training, and support needed but if that person is confirmed in the wisdom of his or her actions and positions, there is not much you can do.  Really good people can be wounded by even the mildest constructive criticism, but they hear it and act on it.  But some are oblivious and dead certain you are wrong in wanting them to do things differently or do different things.  But, as long as you are not asking them to so something illegal or immoral, they are obliged to do what you and the organization needs.

You may also discover that, if a bad situation has been long-standing, some staff may have trouble adjusting to the new day.  Habits formed to compensate for bad environments can be hard to shake off.  Mending an organization may take a long time and some people who had “managed” under the old regime may not adjust to the new one.  This is a sad situation but sometimes inevitable.

Dealing With Conflict Is Doing Your Job

Not all conflict is dramatic or obvious.  But having a sharp eye for evidence of conflict is essential.  Leaders who ignore such evidence end up leading organizations that are in disarray, rife with factions, and far less effective and productive than healthier libraries.  Disagreement is healthy.  But suppressed disagreement is not.  Encourage disagreement; in a meeting, watch people’s faces for reactions; call on those people.  Ask, “Do you have a different thought?  Are there better solutions?” Surfacing disagreement often brings more balanced and successful solutions to whatever issue is on the table. 

There are people who thrive in an us-versus-them atmosphere.  Back-biting and second-guessing can be entertaining and a diversion from boring or familiar tasks.  People can bond over dislike of others who are threatening to them.  Leaders set the tone for the organization.  If you as leader can deal with different opinions without rancor, if you have worthy adversaries rather than enemies, others will respond.   

The candidates you interview won’t necessarily tell you if the atmosphere in your library is poisonous, but they will tell you if it isn’t.  When interviewing candidates (near the end of their interview days), I ask them what they have learned about us.   Comments such as, “I got the impression people really know and like each other,” or, “There seem to be a lot of opportunities for interaction here,” are volunteered.  I reply that they have identified something that is a great source of pleasure and pride for me.  Most of us have worked in at least one dysfunctional organization (or in a period where your organization became or overcame dysfunction) and we know it when we see it.

Solving One Personnel Problem

Leaders fix problems.  Problems have multiple parts.  Sometimes the problem is lack of shared vision.  Sometimes the vision is spot-on but the procedures are flawed.  Sometimes the computer systems are unreliable or badly designed.  And, sometimes human conflict reigns.  Sometimes the problem is all-of-the-above.  But the most challenging problem is human conflict.

Addressing conflict requires bravery; bravery is a much-needed and relatively uncommon leadership attribute.  There are many scenarios where lack of bravery shows its true colors, but the most common one is personnel management.   People who dodge personnel issues often excuse themselves with arguments about compassion.  Focusing on performance deficiencies is seen as mean-spirited.  But not addressing deficiencies affects everyone in the workplace.  Staff morale suffers.  Good workers see others getting away with not pulling their weight.  Someone who does not meet the needs of his or her position generates unfair workloads for those that do. 

An example.  I was once promoted into a position that had all of the above problems.  The circulation system – an early installation – had never worked well.  The leadership had little experience with technology.  Service was erratic and often slow, faculty and students were unhappy, and of course staff morale was low.  Paper-based pre-automation procedures were retained because they were “better” and more familiar (and didn’t fail unexpectedly).  The computer system did fail, and frequently.  I brought technology expertise to deal with the problems we were having with our technology vendor but it took quite a bit of time to get key things fixed.  But the most challenging issue was staff conflict.

The two key people – the desk supervisor and the computer technologist – were good and well-meaning but did not relate to or trust each other.  But we needed the two to work together as a team to solve the problems we faced.  After speaking with each of them separately, I tried meeting regularly with the both of them in my office.  The level of distrust and apprehension was so great that we accomplished little.  Finally, I discovered a communication method that worked. 

There was a wide hallway between the circulation area and the computer room – neutral territory.  I found that if the three of us “met” standing in that hallway, we could “discuss”.  Initially I would ask one a question about the particular problem we were facing.  He would turn red, but then venture an opinion.  Then I would turn to the other and say, “What do you think?”  He would clench his jaw but then provide useful information.  We went back and forth like this until we had a shared sense of the problem and a possible solution. 

On reflection, I think this process worked because standing in the hall wasn’t a real meeting and either one could walk away – but neither ever did.  We met like this for several months. But slowly, those meetings because calmer, even friendly, especially as our confidence grew and we solved one problem after another.   A year later we three went to a conference together and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.  When I left my job there, my position was eliminated.  One of the two was promoted and the other moved to a better job at the university.  They didn’t need me anymore.

Happy Ending (to Collateral Damage)

In a previous post on Collateral Damage I refer to a happy ending to the damaging experience.  In accepting the only available position left in the reorganization (head of circulation), I was able to negotiate more money and a second unit into the deal.  Adding interlibrary loan to circulation created a new department that was dubbed access- an emerging trend in those days – and I became the access librarian.

I knew little about circulation, but I did know computing – which was the expertise needed.  After a few months of problem solving and demanding good service from the system vendor, my staff and I reduced system downtime from 32% to 2%!  And, over the course of a year, we managed to end the feud between the computer room and the desk staff.  But that is another story.

When I became access librarian, I knew even less about interlibrary loan than I did about circulation.  Granted, as a graduate student, I had gotten the occasional book through ILL.  And, I did know that the acknowledgements pages in scholarly books often featured effusive thanks to interlibrary staff. 

I was initially cowed by the experience of the staff.  The librarian who did the catalog searching for ILL was retiring after 50 years.  The supervisor of the support staff had been in her position for 35 years – longer than I had been alive.  And in those days, interlibrary loan staff worked in isolation from the rest of the library staff so I didn’t even know them casually.  

I got to know them and gained their confidence by happy accident.  Doing research for my first-ever conference presentation, I sat at an empty table in the department, capturing data from the various forms that documented turn-around time for requests – as business went on around me.  The research results, comparing the turn-around times for requests submitted by mail, by telex machine, and through OCLC and the Research Libraries Group, were embarrassing obvious.  However, my sitting there for weeks got the staff used to my presence; I got to know them and they were no longer afraid of me.  And I was able to use what I absorbed to to justify new equipment and more student assistants and to recommend a some  changes that reduced work backlogs.

And it turned out that I got involved in ILL at just the right moment.   I participated in the ten-year revision of the American Library Association’s Interlibrary Loan Code and witnessed the loosening of the tight regulations on who had the right to borrow through interlibrary loan and what could be lent.  The code changed from ILL service being restricted to faculty and graduate students writing dissertations to include the entire university community – even undergraduates!  And restrictions on what could be lent (no geneology materials, please) also were relaxed.

A number of groundbreaking events were making transformational change possible. I was able to play a part in transforming interlibrary loan from a cottage industry to a high-volume operation, surviving the explosion of demand for ILL by retraining rather than increasing staff. 

The changes ground-breaking in interlibrary loan are another story.  But riding that wave of transformation made my career, first propelling me to national attention and ultimately to regional and North American leadership positions.  So, the collateral damage I incurred earlier led to unexpected opportunities.

Making Your Boss’s Job Easier Is Your Job

When I started working as a librarian, I thought my job was to do my assigned duties as best I could.  In my first librarian position that was easy because I had a challenging position and a superb boss who made her expectations clear and who regularly gave me useful feedback.  And, the whole library was quite well-managed and most staff were talented and hard-working.  Little did I know that situation was not universal.

As I worked in other libraries, I discovered that good management and staff talent were not so evenly represented everywhere.  Some library departments would be admirable but others were dysfunctional.  I knew of – but never worked in – at least one library where the entire organization seemed to be designed by an evil genius and where undermining co-workers was common.

In another post (When Pretty Good Is Good Enough) I allude to work situations that were less than ideal.  In that post I failed to include a lesson I learned in one of those less-than-ideal situations.  I was always pressing for things to be better and have been guilty of pushing my managers for changes that they could not make.  Once I recognized the limits of my bosses’ power, I had to learn to back off.  I had to stop making a nuisance of myself and stop reminding my bosses of the limits of their power. It couldn’t have been pleasant for them to have an otherwise capable employee continually reminding one of what you can’t fix.

In a recent family conversation, our daughter was telling us about being chided by her new supervisor for taking too much initiative.  In the discussion, her father suggested she refer to my 1990′s article, Leading From Below.  Our daughter countered that she was only following my oft-shared advice to ask forgiveness, not permission.  We all had a good laugh since it is advice I distribute liberally.  But I provide that advice mostly to others who are far less brave and confident than our daughter.  We did leave her with the thought that she could cut her new boss some slack.  He is an experienced employee but a new supervisor and needs to become confident about what his staff are doing.  Once he and our daughter establish a trust relationship, she can begin practicing my usual advice.  But, in the meantime, she needs to act in ways that make her boss’s job easier and more reassuring.

It’s the same all over…

I just read Kayla Williams book, Love My Rifle More Than You.  It is a moving, gritty story of life as a woman soldier in the second Iraq War.  I highly recommend it.  But, I found that that the stories Williams tells demonstrate the same leadership issues that occur in civilian life. 

She experienced leaders who knew their stuff, cared for their men and women, rewarded good performance, and dealt with less than adequate work.  But Williams also experienced leaders who put their own interests and safety above those of the soldiers.  And she met some who valued the position but didn’t have the knowledge and wouldn’t take the responsibility that came with the position.

Many people want to rise in their profession for the prestige, but seem unaware of the responsibilities that come with the position.  They may have the leader title but continue to do the work they did before the promotion, leaving the staff in their units leaderless.  Others were promoted because they were adequate in their previous positions but adequate is not good enough at the next level.

I have a relatively jaded view of what can be expected from one’s leaders.  As I’ve written elsewhere, working for superb leaders is a rare treat.  One learns to be satisfied with OK and tries to live through awful.