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Managing your relationship with staff, Part I

[The First Year Director: Strategies for Success, 3 of 8]

A key relationship for directors is staff. There are at least two dimensions: managing relationships with direct reports (an administrative team, if the staff is large enough to have one), and with the larger culture of the organization itself. This post will concern the former.

The purpose of an administrative team is to make good decisions. To describe that process, let me outline the arc of a perfect meeting. It answers five questions, in this order:
  1. Why are we here? The first step of a successful meeting is deceptively simple: what is the problem or issue that brings us here today? That statement doesn't have to be fancy, but it should be specific, and based on evidence: "our problem is that our first release popular DVDs are being stolen. In fact, the theft rate has risen to 35%, within the first week of our putting them out." What makes this process deceptive? Not everyone can boil down the real problem, and there are many false trails. The problem is not that DVD's are popular with teenagers. The problem is not that some parts of the library are invisible to cameras.
  2. What might we do about the problem? This is the power of brainstorming: unleashing the collective insight and knowledge of a team. At this phase, wild ideas are ok. (Biometrically activated lockers!) Sometimes the right solution requires some lateral thinking.
  3. What should we do next? At this phase of the meeting, the team is looking for low hanging fruit, things that can be done immediately or with relative ease. ("We can try locked cases at one of our branches for not much money....") Or it may find that the radical solution is the only one that makes sense. But the idea is this: narrow those brainstormed ideas to the things that might actually make a difference and are actionable.
  4. Who is going to do what by when? A key related question to making assignments: Do they need any resources to accomplish it?
  5. When do we meet again?
That all sounds pretty straightforward: identify the concern, cast a wide net of ideas, narrow them down to the best starts, make assignments, follow up. But who among us has not sat through a meeting that began with a proposal, backed up to brainstorming, started to make assignments, then questioned whether we had figured out what the issue is? These kinds of meetings are all too common, and sap the productivity and morale of staff.

But a deeper issue than setting and holding to an agenda is the mix of skills among the administrative team. That is, does the team have someone good at nailing down the problem, someone good at big thinking, someone capable of winnowing through the chaff, someone able to dole out the assignments intelligently? It is highly unlikely that all of those skills reside in just one person, even the director. But a team that lacks one of those skills, no matter how clear the agenda is, is liable to founder. For many first time directors, this is the beginning of a terrible realization: you don't have all the right people on the bus, or perhaps you don't have them in the right seat. Note that this also requires some self-knowledge on the part of the director. Directors have to know what skills they bring to the table, what they don't, and how to recognize the skills they need to recruit. If they want to make good decisions, anyhow.

Too much is made of the leader with "vision," the savior who steps in the door with just the right ideas. The truth is that getting to vision is iterative, depending on lots of communication, lots of hard questions, lots of peering into the darkness, lots of experiments that don't end well, and enough optimism and humor to keep going.

One library director told me that she believed good teams have just two characteristics: an openness to each other's ideas (that ability to form a corporate personality that is more whole, more balanced, than one's own personality), and a surprising factor: affection. Teams that like each other, appreciate each other because of their differences, outperform teams that hire to a type.

So that's the takeaway from this section of managing a relationship with staff: recognize that no one has all the skills it takes to run a library, recognize that productive meetings require both a thoughtful management of a decision-making process, and a team that corrects for its own blind spots.

The Series:
  1. The First Year: 5 Strategies for Success
  2. Managing your relationship with your boss
  3. Managing your relationship with staff, Part I
  4. Managing relationships with your staff: Part II
  5. Managing your relationship with the community
  6. Managing your relationship with the profession
  7. Managing your relationship with yourself
  8. Managing relationships: pulling it all together


Sunnie said…
I think a Director's ability to "know what skills they bring to the table" and their willingness to admit it, is a key leadership skill. I have seen too many leaders who think part of their job is to know everything and that admitting they don't equals failure. As you've pointed out here, the opposite is true! Assembling the right group of people for any given project/challenge is critical and that begins with self awareness.
Jamie LaRue said…
Agreed. NO ONE can know everything, or have every skill. The job of the director (and not only the director!) is to make things better. Pretending that you know things you don't won't help anyone.

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