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.

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.

Change is Opportunity

Although opportunities for new work or promotion may not be as many as there are people desiring them, change may provide some stimulation not otherwise available.  Change comes in several ways.  One may be change in leadership of the library, or – less common – leadership change at a higher level.  A new library director brings change.  But a new provost may also have strong opinions about the library.  Or the board of trustees may have ideas about education that affect the library.  Or change in technology or publishing may require new skills.  Any of these changes brings opportunity for flexible people willing to take chances.

As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”  So, if you are energetic and open to new ideas, you will be prepared for opportunities.  Your energy, curiosity, and openness will be noticed and you may be asked to take on the new project.  Or, if you see a new opportunity, you can start talking about it.  If time is right, you may end up doing it.   Many now-retired library senior leaders distinguished themselves from the ranks librarians by being willing to try the newfangled searching of indices and abstracts.  They were willing to try using the new dial-up technology, with its Silent 700 machine the size of a portable typewriter, its continuous feed thermal paper, and its charges of $100/hour (when that was a lot of money).

There are pitfalls and dangers in encouraging new projects or them accepting, but none of them are fatal.  A new leader may ask you to do something for which there are local roadblocks unknown to him or her.  Or an idea implemented elsewhere may not be right for your institution.  Some organizations can experiment with new ideas and absorb failure quite easily.  Some may be so stretched that they cannot try a new idea until it is proven.  And, some new services require academic cooperation that may not be forthcoming.  Over time one learns what would be useful and can be done within the library without enthusiastic collaboration from others in your institution. 

One may hesitate to step forward and suggest a new program or to accept an offer to implement one.  Hesitation is understandable.  The new idea may not work; one learns that only by trying.  It may involve frightening responsibilities, like taking on your first supervisory responsibility.  Or you may hesitate to become the supervisor of people who are your current peers.   Don’t let these stop you.  You can ask for training in the areas that are new and for conference attendance to understand others’ experience with the new program.  You can talk to others you respect and ask their advice about your new opportunity. 

Whatever your hesitations, go for it.  What is the worst case scenario?  Even if you “crash and burn”, you’re not likely to be fired.  Most people who rise in the profession have “crashed and burned” more than once.  It is an occupational hazard for those who are forward-looking and energetic – like saddle sores for cowboys.  The angst you experience when you fail is painful.  But, over the course of a career, you realize that it is the down-side of being open-minded and forward looking.  That same tendency also drives your many successes.  Once you accept that, the recovery period is dramatically shortened.  You learn to say to yourself and other, “Well, we tried that and it didn’t work.  We won’t do that again too soon.”  The “too soon” qualification is necessary because something that fails now often works sometime later, when the time is right.

More Thoughts on Change is Opportunity

I am reminded that some organizational change may be far from what you would choose if you were making the decisions.  The change may make you unhappy but that shouldn’t keep you from accepting with good grace the opportunities that come with it.  It would not be the first time in history that unwanted changes produced unexpectedly good results – see earlier post Collateral Damage. 

Excerpt from Leading a Full Life

The Association of Research Libraries published an article of mine in the August 6th issue of Research Library Issues: (  This article is primarily about work/life balance and finding ways to “have it all”.  Here is an excerpt:

Focus initial energies and attention on people who will help you succeed.  When you come into a new position, 20% of your new staff will support you whatever you do, a few will oppose you whatever you do, and the rest will watch to see who prevails.  Focus your initial efforts on the 20% and address the resisters later.  In time, you may create a tsunami that sweeps resisters along.  Or make them stand out in bold relief.  That is the time to take them on.


Collateral Damage

How bad can it get?  This example began with a casual statement from the director to the relatively new supervisor of an inconsequential department.  “You should apply for the head of public services here,” he said.  The supervisor was intensely flattered, had some doubts about readiness for such exalted work, but did apply.  And, of course could not compete with outsiders with more experience and did not get the job.  So she suffered the humiliation of the unsuccessful internal candidate.  But, it got worse. 

The organization was in the midst of a restructuring.  And the director then called the supervisor and asked her to become head of circulation.  (Circulation in then-class system of libraries was not highly thought of; indeed it wasn’t usually headed by a professional.)  Knowing the other open positions, she said, “No, I’d rather be head of reference.”  Director, however, indicates that a more experienced and highly respected colleague had asked for that position.  So supervisor says, “Then I’d rather keep my current position.”  Director says, “I already promised that to the (non-professional but very good) reserves supervisor.”  This story ultimately has a happy ending – although it is not relevant to the purpose here. 

What is illustrated here is that good and very well-meaning leaders can inadvertently injure some of their best people by making statements they cannot follow through on.  When faced with a promising employee, the urge to praise and encourage is strong.  But the line between acknowledging good work and implying promises is a fine one.  And we have all crossed it at one point or other in our career.  Catching yourself in this – especially if you have ever been on the receiving end – is a humbling experience.

Writing compellingly and speaking clearly

I am passionate about clarity in speaking and especially in writing.  If I am preparing a public presentation, I always go through multiple drafts looking for clarity and brevity.  I try to avoid acronymns and jargon, although in our acronym-ridden profession, complete avoidance is hard.  Even within an individual library, the jargon of one unit may be incomprehensible to another, especially for non-librarian staff. 

Here are some things I try to avoid.  Thanks to word processing, there is no excuse for using acronyms in writing and not much use for using them in speaking.  You don’t have to type “Arabic Manuscript Collection” every time you want to refer to it.  Many people will write Arabic Manuscript Collection (AMC) on the first mention and ever after use AMC.  Don’t!  Or do it in your draft, but for your final text, use find and replace and insert the full phrase.  If that feels cumbersome, then occasionally say “the Collection” or “the Manuscript Collection”.  Each of these flows off the tongue more smoothly than A..M..C – and conveys meaning.  Anything that stops the reader’s eye and causes him or her to look back in the article for explanation interferes with absorption of your argument.  People reading or listening do not want to (and should not have to) master acronyms to follow your meaning.

Admittedly, in libraries some acronyms are so common as to be impossible to avoid – maybe LC, ALA, ACRL, OCLC.  But keep your list short.

As a leader, public speaking is something you must do.  And you must do it well.  It isn’t hard, once you realize that you will be talking about what you know – your library, your plans, the needs of your community.  You do need to sort through what you might say to insure that it resonates with an audience of intelligent civilians.  This is not the place for esoteric language.  Some people think esoteric terms convey professionalism.  Often academics speak and write for each other and use words that laypersons must look up to understand.  And in doing so they limit their audience to insiders.  We librarians certainly talk to each other in the jargon of our profession, saying monographs and continuations rather than books and journals.  The word continuations has a definite meaning but not one that adds value to general discussion with users, administrators, or our non-librarians friends.  So strive for plain English, even when talking with close colleagues.  It is good practice. 

Remember that few non-librarians really understand libraries.  They might think they do, but the size and complexity of a contemporary library is not part of their imagination.  And the stereotypes of librarians are strong.  When I became a librarian, my younger brother used to say, “My sister is a librarian but she’s not like that.”  Indeed, many people pictured me at the front desk checking out books.  The older ones probably imagined me doing it with one of those pencils with a date due stamp at the eraser end. (Indeed, when I worked – in computing – for AT&T, my grandmother pictured me as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, the switchboard operator.)

So, when I am the “entertainment” for a group of non-librarians, I start with the size of my budget (tens of millions) and the number of my staff (hundreds).  Most people get “money” and “people”.  Then we can talk about the details.

Dress Codes

[I'm contemplating including in my book stories about how the world for women has changed since I entered the workforce in the mid-1960's.  Here is one story.]

In the late 1960’s, proper office attire for women was still dresses and stockings (and preferably high-heeled shoes).  Remember, this was a time when jobs ads in newspapers were still listed as Jobs for Men and Jobs for Women.  Yes, 21st century women, the world was as depicted in TV’s Mad Men.  But things were changing. 

In 1970 Goldie Hawn – the “giggling dumb blonde (sic) of Laugh-In TV fame – made news by wearing a pantsuit, or more accurately by wearing half of one.  Miniskirts were common by 1970, but pantsuits were still forbidden in most white collar workplaces and up-scale entertainment venues.  Hawn, wearing just such an outfit, was turned away at a posh NYC nightspot – for appearing in pants.  So, she took off the pants, passed them to the coat checker, and went into the club wearing only the top – which passed muster as a dress!

At that time I was working as a lowly computer operator despite having done higher level work in New York at AT&T.  The operator position was one of the few jobs where the employment agency could even get me an interview.  (When I casually mentioned to the agent that my husband had similar experience to mine, her eyes popped open.  She said, “Send him here; we can find him a job!”)

My male colleagues in the small, staid engineering firm in Chicago talked with awe and some fear about local feminist rallies.  They were taken aback by the feminist button I wore on my jacket.  This attitude was reflected in the dress code, which forbade pantsuits for women.  So, since I was just biding my time before starting grad school and was amused and inspired by Hawn’s bravado, I decided to act.  I had such an outfit and would wear it to work the next day.  If challenged, I planned to take off the pants, as Hawn had done.

Unfortunately for my star turn on the corporate catwalk, the firm’s treasurer overheard me sharing my plan with my women friends in the lunch room.  Within an hour, the human relations officer issued a new dress policy – women could wear appropriately dignified slacksuits (the tortured prevailing euphemism for the new attire).  And we did.