Managing the Managers

For best results, learn to speak "administrator"

March 27, 2013

Linda Braun

Sometimes relationships with those up the organizational chart are fantastic. Sometimes they are awful. Whether you work for an angel or a demon, you need to manage the relationship. Since what is required to accomplish that feat is not always obvious, I’ve put together 10 tips for success.

  1. Build relationships. Whenever I talk with library staff about professional collaborations and partnerships, I emphasize that success requires relationship building. It takes time to get to know each other and develop trust. It’s no different with administrators, and it’s not so hard to do. For starters, don’t always talk about youth services. Express interest in and be ready to discuss big-picture library issues. A sure way to help administrators trust you is to be seen as someone who makes good thoughtful decisions, and as someone who gets work done in a timely and efficient manner.
  2. Communicate regularly. It may take some extra time and effort, but make sure you keep administrators informed about what’s going on with youth services. Send an email once a week that summarizes the latest news and statistics about your work. If your supervisor prefers face-to-face communication, schedule monthly or quarterly half-hour meetings to go over the work you are doing. In all of your communications, make sure to think like a manager. That might require using a different vocabulary than you are used to: less youth services–oriented and more business oriented.
  3. Be transparent. I’ve worked with many youth services staffers who think it’s better to fly under the radar and try new initiatives without going through the proper administrator to get approval, or even simply inform them about what’s in the works. But when youth services staff aren’t transparent with administrators about what they are doing and why, they are incapable of helping them understand the value of youth services to the community, or counting them as allies.
    For example, instead of simply putting that possibly controversial title on the shelf and hoping your administrator it doesn’t notice, initiate a conversation to explain specifically how the item supports the youth in your community. Such transparency enables administrators to appreciate the thoughtfulness and effectiveness of your policies and decisions.
  4. Focus on solutions. I knew a library school professor who told his management students that they should always go to library directors with solutions, not problems. If something isn’t working in your children’s or teen services, be up-front about that, but also take the time before reporting the problem to consider how to rectify the situation. By presenting the solution along with the problem, you are encouraging your administrator to give you an opportunity to make changes that you know are right for the youth in the community.
  5. Don’t stop at “no.” It is possible to build relationships, communicate regularly, be transparent, and focus on solutions, and still hear “no” from administrators. That doesn’t mean you simply put your tail between your legs and give up. Instead, find out why the answer was “no.” Analyze what you learn and think about ways you might change your request in another week, month, or six months. If you believe what you are requesting is a good idea, then be persistent, do your homework, and go back and ask again with intelligent revisions. “No” can often turn into “yes.”
  6. Think big picture. Whenever I consider thinking about the library big picture, I’m reminded of a small suburban library I once worked in. The director was great, but the staff was displeased with him because he spent a lot of time outside the library. However, he was forging relationships that went a long way towards the library getting what it needed every year at budget time. That director was thinking big picture—but the staff wasn’t.
  7. Set goals and evaluate. Understand why you do every aspect of your work and what you hope to achieve. You need to be able to articulate the goals of every facet, even something as typical as preschool storytime. Your goals should be measurable so you can report whether you are succeeding or need to make changes. In this way, you can tell your administrator, “We set these goals for our storytime and I have data that proves we are meeting them.” Or, “We set these goals for our teen advisory group and I realized we aren’t quite reaching them. The data I have shows that if we were to make these tweaks, we’d be more successful.” Administrators will appreciate a data-based approach that can demonstrate success or failure constructively.
  8. Collect and tell stories. In addition to data, you need to collect stories that tug at the heartstrings and show the positive impact of your work on youth in the community. Make your anecdotes short and sweet, and use them sparingly for best effect. Manage the stories by keeping a database or blog, using searchable tags and categories, so the tale that best illustrates your specific need is always at your fingertips —say, proving the need for technology funding by telling how the computerless teen was only able to win a movie-making contest because of access to resources in the library’s computer lab.
  9. Get involved. It’s easy to get so immersed with the youth you’re serving that you think you don’t have time to be a part of the bigger library or community. The truth is, you can’t afford not to. Make sure your voice is heard in department meetings, on strategic planning committees, and on community boards and committees. Build relationships so that those in other community agencies and organizations already know why your work is essential when you approach them to support a special project.
  10. Always keep the library vision and mission in mind. You don’t work in a vacuum. When you discuss with administrators what you do and why, make sure to tie in how your work supports the overall goals and mission of the library. If you want to expand the YA ebook collection or get more involved in the community, explain how that supports the library’s mission. Show that youth services are important to the library as a whole and to the community at large.

These tips can take some time and effort, but remember that once you have established a relationship of trust with an administrator, she or he will more readily listen to your ideas and trust you as a knowledgeable professional. They may not always understand your ideas, but if you are clear about your vision for service to children or teens, you will have a greater chance to move forward with the services you know the youth in your community deserve.

LINDA W. BRAUN is an educational technology consultant for LEO: Librarians and Educators Online, a professor of practice at the Simmons College library school in Boston, and a past president of ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association.