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.