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Managing your relationship with your boss

[The First Year Director: Strategies for Success, 2 of 8]

Make them look good

The first dictum in managing your relationship with your boss is this: make them look good. I say "them" because for most public library directors, their boss is a governing board (i.e. hires the director, adopts the budget, sets policy, etc.). How do you know who the boss is? To quote my friend Pat Wagner, "the boss is the one who signs your paycheck." The boss isn't the only important player, but it's not a bad place to start.

In some cases, a board may be advisory. That is, while its members may well advise the director on library business, those governing decisions are made by someone else (a mayor, a town council, a board of county commissioners).

In other cases, the boss is someone else in the governing body's hierarchy. I once reported to the head of Cultural Affairs. There is an advantage to having a single boss: it's easier to figure out what matters to them, and to deliver it.

It happens that I attended a town council meeting where my boss was asked a question about something that nobody seemed to know much about. She punted. I came back from the meeting and with my reference librarian, prepared a concise overview of key articles and current thinking on the topic. The next day, I presented it to my boss. She was surprised. "Why did you do this?" I said, "The next time you get asked a question about this, I want you to be the smartest, best-informed person in the room."

Unsurprisingly, my boss became a strong advocate for my program, as well.

Boards must act as one

But what happens if you do report to multiple people, a decision-making body?

The first principle is this: you work for the corporate body, and the corporate decision, not the board president or the strongest voice on the board. One of the most useful phrases I learned to use at board meetings, when the operational decision was properly mine, but I was seeking (or got whether I was seeking it or not) some advice, was this: "Thank you for your input. I'll keep it in mind when I make my decision." Alternatively, if the board actually should be weighing in on a decision, "Thank you for your insights. What is the will of the board?" That is, it is useful to capture the broad ideas of board members when you're trying to figure something out. But if the board really should be deciding something, make sure it's the whole board, and a vote is taken.

Your job is still to make those decision-makers look good. The image you want of them is this: they pay attention to what matters. They thoughtfully investigate courses of action. They make decisions, and put the resources behind them. They keep an eye on results. They make a difference.

The board packet is a statement of significance

One of the most common problems I see with directors is what they believe they have to put in a written report, the "board packet."

The packet, in my mind, serves two purposes.

First, it provides accountability. The legitimate job of a board is oversight. Financial reports, the adoption of policies, and lists of key activities (particularly those related to a long range plan), are important ways for a public body to keep an eye on general institutional performance. I particularly like one of the suggestions a board member made to me: every month, give us a one page overview of our main goals, and what we've done on them since the last report. I strongly recommend having that discussion with the board: what measures really matter? Let's get those in the board packet, and talk about that, not extraneous details.

An aside: library performance is strongly correlated with staff hours. Business people sometimes struggle with this: if we reduce staff, we save money. But libraries aren't a for profit business, we are a service business. Service requires providers. Our core asset is staff. Reducing staff reduces library performance generally.

Second, the board report should also call out where the board can be of use. That probably isn't the identification of library trends or operational issues, although too many library directors invite the latter. Rather, the board packet should also use the collective insight of the board to determine the key community issues, and to interpret library trends for their significance to the local environment. It should also provide board members with the compelling stories they need to advocate for the larger meaning of libraries in the community.

When board packets provide only a mind-numbing recitation of operational statistics and details, that invites boards to comment on them. Board packets should mean something, invite the kind of discussion that is worthy of citizen governance.

Minutes. Another board member, serving as board secretary (meaning that she reviewed my assistant's minutes, and edited them for the final version) implored me, "Make us look smart." It isn't necessary to track every comment and who said it. But it is necessary to show that important questions got asked, and the answers informed whatever course of action prevailed. Make your bosses look good. And help them to get better.

No surprises

Another key tip in dealing with a board is this: don't surprise them. Too often, I showed up at board meetings asking them to act on what they learned that night (whether a policy or a vendor contract). It didn't make me look good, and made them uncomfortable. Far better is to say, preferably at a board lunch or study session, "I'm thinking about this project or initiative. Here's why I'm exploring it. Before I make a recommendation to you, what are the issues I should consider? Who should I talk to?"

That question, especially when followed up with action ("I did investigate that issue, I did consult this person") prepares the board for future action, and gives them a valid sense of meaningful participation, and confidence in the director's proposals.

Other tips

Board structure and culture profoundly influences the feel and outcome of meetings. Some do well with a committee structure--putting the work of the board into smaller groups who really dig into an issue. Others prefer an all-member study session. No one style works for all boards.

Boards matter. So does their orientation. Board members should have job descriptions, a manual, and regular continuing education.

I also recommend that in addition to regular, formal board meetings, directors should also schedule a lower key, less formal way to exchange views. I used monthly board lunches to great effect. They're still public meetings, and should still be "noticed" for the community. But the community rarely shows up, and a more casual atmosphere is a good place to build trust. It gives directors a chance to say what they are wondering about, and board members a place to ask their own questions they might not be comfortable voicing in more public meetings.

An important thing to raise for every board is the notion of an annual evaluation of its own effectiveness. Did the board adhere to policies? Do its members behave in a way that contributed to library goals? Do they make the library look good? 

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