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.

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.