By Damon Campbell
If you are involved with the American Library Association’s New Members Round Table (NMRT) for any length of time, you will probably have an opportunity to serve on a committee. If you do so for long enough and do well at it, you might find yourself chairing a committee.
Chairing a committee can prove to be both a rewarding and challenging experience. It can help you develop the skills you need to successfully manage projects, deadlines and groups of people working toward a common goal, skills that you’ll certainly use as a professional and probably even in your personal life.
While your mileage may vary, I’m going to share some of the more memorable lessons I’ve learned during my time as a committee chair.
Dealing with Distance
You may have already been a part of committees or working groups at work. You may have helped plan a vacation or weekend trip among friends. You’ve certainly participated in group projects in pursuit of your degree(s). The experiences and challenges associated with organizing the efforts of people with different work styles, priorities and schedules than yourself tend to remain constant. In addition to these, the element of distance is an added challenge of chairing an NMRT committee.
As a national organization, ALA boasts a membership that spans the globe. The members of your committee will likely not be as nearby as a stroll down the hall or across campus. I have been a member or chair of at least six NMRT committees (each with six or more members); I have had the opportunity to personally meet with only two of the people with whom I’ve worked, both after our service to that particular committee had ended.
As a chair, you’ll need to be able to work around the lack of physical proximity to your colleagues. Luckily, there’s FaceTime, Dropbox, ALAConnect communities and a host of technological means designed to help bridge the gap and make committee work a more seamless and enjoyable experience. As your needs evolve, you may have to look beyond the popular technological options for newer ones that are more in line with your needs.
While the distance between you and the other members of your committee can be a challenge, it is by no means insurmountable.
Depending on your work style, the need to delegate tasks (and your comfort with delegation) may seem a non-issue, a speed bump or a hurdle. Organizationally, committees are created because of a need for work or projects whose scope would not be feasible for one individual to complete.
As a committee chair, you may feel as though the work of the committee isn’t progressing as quickly as you anticipated. The workload may have increased unexpectedly. A couple members may have seemingly disappeared since the last phase of your project. You won’t have the option of swinging by their office for updates or performing a wellness check. (There’s that distance issue again.) You may feel tempted to take on more or all of the work yourself to get it done. When that feeling strikes, please remember the following:
You can’t do all the work yourself.
The committee was put together largely because the work involved would be too much for one person to complete. Many NMRT members have jobs, families, friends, pets and other obligations in addition to their committee work. Devoting a disproportionate amount of time to work can be unhealthy. Committees are designed to make sure that one person doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of the work. Trying to do everything on your own risks your personal wellness and defeats the purpose of the committee.
A committee is not only put together to accomplish a goal, but so the members can support each other in pursuit of that goal. Rather than take on the work yourself, parceling out portions of it to other committee members will save energy and most likely get the work done faster, and one of your colleagues just may come up with a way of enhancing the workflow. If that’s the case, you may want to consider recommending them as a committee chair in the future.
Even if you believe you can, you shouldn’t do all the work yourself.
Even if doing the work of the committee by yourself were possible, it would be unfair to you and the other members of the committee. Membership in NMRT and subsequent committee work is designed to familiarize early-career librarians with the type of work they’ll be doing both institutionally and nationally. Many of the same benefits and challenges appear in both areas. While sudden changes to or increases in work are things they may experience, having someone step in and essentially do the work for them isn’t something they should necessarily expect. To do so as a committee chair would be to do them a disservice.
Doing all the work by yourself also means that you’re depriving your colleagues of opportunities to learn and grow in their membership. My first committee responsibility was as a member of the handbook committee. Some of my colleagues were unable to fulfill their commitment to the committee, which led my chair to reallocate the work. Had she been unwilling to delegate some tasks, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make more connections, learn more about the process or work with her closely enough that she recommended that I chair the committee the following season.
True, additional work can be unpleasant and stressful, but it is a part of professional life. It can also be a chance to grow as a professional and as an expert in that work. A committee chair is charged with accomplishing the goals of the committee and furnishing its members with opportunities to increase their contributions to librarianship. Failure to delegate where appropriate could lead to failure to achieve the committee’s goals and would lead to a failure to allow the members to grow.
Sometimes in life and work, your situation will shift. You may find yourself with more work or less time than you anticipated having. A new project or process snag may appear and complicate what you had planned to be a smooth, predictable course of work. Your employment situation itself may even change.
Such changes may require a revision of your previously set goals, plans and deadlines. These changes may even mean that goals you put in place at the start of your project may no longer be reachable at all. This situation can be jarring, especially for a committee chair. It’s important to realize that while you are in a position to set the course as you see fit, unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances do occur.
Blaming yourself or your committee for not meeting your original or revised goal is a less productive approach than enhancing the planning portion of your future work to mitigate the impact of sudden shifts. There is always time for self-assessment and modifying your work habits and leadership style. Rather than ask where you failed, though, consider asking instead what was successful and how you can improve your future performance.
The reporting process for chairs provides opportunities for self-assessment. During your term as an NMRT committee chair, you’ll need to submit reports detailing your plans for the committee, the progress you’ve made and the results of your work. Articulating your plans, progress and results gives you the opportunity to examine the feasibility of your goals, to assess how on track you are to meeting them, and to consider what did and did not work well. It’s also an excellent opportunity to get feedback from your supervising board member.
Chairing an NMRT committee is an exciting way to be active in the profession and pick up or hone managerial skills you may not have the opportunity for at your workplace. It is an opportunity to grow and help your colleagues enhance their professional skillsets.
Damon Campbell is an acquisitions librarian living and working in Oregon. He has been a member of NMRT since 2007.