The 2004-2005 NMRT’s Membership Meeting and Program Committee Presents Interviews with Library Leaders

For the third interview in the “Interviews with Library Leaders” series, the NMRT Membership Meeting and Program Committee interviewed Rosemary Truitt, Manager of Information Services for Wicomico County Free Library in Salisbury, Maryland. She is currently responsible for both Adult and Youth Services, including print and electronic collections, programming, information services/reference, staffing, staff development, and special projects. Prior to that, she worked for ten years as Head of Reference and Interlibrary Loan, and later as Director for the Eastern Shore Regional Library.

She notes that the most enjoyable aspects of her current position are opportunities to plan and coordinate special projects such as Guys Read, with its focus on developing collections and programs that encourage boys to read, and Next Chapter, with its focus on the 50+ customer groups and their particular information and services needs. She enjoys the ongoing challenge and rewards of defining and re-defining the needs of customers and what we can do to meet them, and finds joy in working with and learning from staff as they explore new roles and responsibilities, learn new skills, contribute their ideas, and become actively involved in determining the present and future of their organization.

In this interview, she offers new and prospective librarians her insights on developing their leadership skills and gives advice on leading teams. Her responses are included below.

What did you do to prepare for this job when you found out you were hired as the Manager of Information Services? How did your previous work experience help?

Becoming Manager of Information Services meant expanding my responsibilities beyond the comfort zone of my knowledge and experience. This was a newly created position, formed by merging the responsibilities of two management positions, Adult Services and Youth/Children’s Services, on the premise that both departments are in the same business (serving customers, whether young or older) and could benefit from sharing a manager who could reinforce the “bigger picture” of information services and establish the shared and common ground between two traditionally separate departments. While previous work experience in and knowledge of reference, collections, and services for adults had been solid ground for managing Adult Services, taking on Youth Services meant that I needed to learn from the staff of the department what providing services to children is all about. The most important skills I needed were the willingness to learn from the staff I supervised, and the ability to bring the departments together where there was common ground while respecting and preserving the necessary differences.

What do you think are the most important skills to develop for anyone who wants to lead and manage people?

Have vision, listen to and consider the vision of others in the organization, or at the very least, make sure you have a solid understanding of the shared vision of your organization, and that you can communicate it clearly to others. A friend in the profession once said that there are two kinds of directors (or whatever your job title of choice for those who head up libraries): there are those who are leaders and those who are administrators, and the difference lies in whether or not they have vision. Leaders can envision the future (envision where we want and need to go, how we can do things better or more efficiently, and how we can make changes that will result in more satisfied customers and staff), work with others to create a shared vision, and are able to communicate that vision to others in the organization. While we may usually think of managers as responsible for understanding the vision and direction of “a leader” (usually the director) and “making it happen,” the wisdom of learning organizations and my own experience in helping staff learn to lead from any position (whether manager or front line staff) is that being able to lead as well as manage staff, services, and resources is a desirable combination. Another skill, usually thought of as the role of a manager, is the ability to translate the vision into action, which also means that you look at everything your organization or your department or your staff does within the framework of that vision. If you understand it, it should guide your planning and decision-making at every turn.

Wicomico County Free Library recently went to a team approach in order to discuss and resolve issues affecting the organization such as technology training and library appearance. Did you find that you needed to develop training on team leadership for team leaders and / or members? If so, what leadership skills did this training focus on?

We discovered after the fact that training on team membership and team leadership would have been helpful, but we did not anticipate needing it during the transitioning to a team approach. We held a number of staff “forums” or informal staff meetings focusing on activities specifically related to Team Learning (one of the five key concepts of learning organization theory), and to a lesser degree, to Personal Mastery and Systems Thinking (two of the remaining four key concepts). Personal Mastery helped us communicate the notion that all staff, whether front line or management, public services or support services, clerical or professional, have something to contribute based on their particular interests or areas of special expertise—and further, that they have the responsibility to contribute. We used the phrase “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me” to reinforce that idea. Exploring the idea of Systems Thinking helped staff understand the need for people from all parts of the organization to be represented on teams and to see how planning and decision-making in one part of the organization necessarily impacts the other parts. We also allowed some of the distinctions among teams, teamwork, team building, and the concept of Team Learning to be blurred, since our focus on implementing an approach to planning and delivery of library services was very different from the more traditional hierarchical process, and all of the team-related concepts and practices needed to be understood and reinforced very generally.

In developing a team approach, your system developed a team climate survey and a team leader check-in. Could you briefly explain what these tools are and how they assist a team leader?

The Team Climate Survey was our way of “taking the temperature of” or assessing the general “health” of each team: was the team accomplishing its purpose? Was the purpose clear and understood by all members? Did all team members contribute ideas and participate in team-sponsored activities? Did everyone feel their ideas were heard and valued? And so on. Each team leader was asked to complete the survey, either alone or with input from team members.

A formal Team Leader Check-in process was planned but never came to pass, since the organization went through a change in leadership. We did, however, have a few meetings of team leaders to discuss concerns, share progress, and articulate the very real problem many teams shared related to having team responsibilities—they all had charters which spelled out a Strategic Plan and organizational responsibilities—without the authority (in many cases) to make things happen. We called it the “parallel universe” of team leaders and teams versus the library administrative/management hierarchy, still very much alive and well.

When someone at your library comes to you with a new idea for a program or a service, or wants to do something different, how do you encourage them?

Listen carefully. Ask them about the benefit to customers/staff—why is it needed? What impact will it have? Ask them to flesh it out by telling me everything they’ve thought about. Ask them to write it up as a proposal (formal or informal). Convince me first.

Think about who else needs to know—maybe have some preliminary conversations with others and try to convince them. Win support. Flesh out numbers/$, staffing impact, etc.—think it all the way through. Figure out together where it needs to go next—management team, director? Allow them to be part of the next step, whatever it is. Reinforce the notion that it may be worth a try (we can test it out and evaluate), and that failure is a relative term (and that it’s okay if the idea doesn’t work out, because we will most likely learn something we didn’t know before we tried it). Applaud them for a) asking the right questions; b) identifying a problem AND coming up with a solution (if there was a problem); c) thinking creatively; and d) caring enough to come up with the idea or solution or service!

If you were going to lead a workshop on leadership, what's the most crucial point you'd make?

Leadership is about inspiring others to grow, not about keeping them in their place. It is about being open to the ideas and concerns of others, rather than about making something (an organization, a project, an idea) your own. Being a leader is a distinction you earn, not a position you get hired to fill.

Management and leadership are often described as two different endeavors. I usually think of the first as keeping day-to-day operations running smoothly and supervising people, and the second endeavor as thinking of new ideas and goals and putting them into action with the help of others who are willing to go along with you. How do you balance these two endeavors as a Manager of Information Services? Do they overlap?

As someone who believes that a good manager also needs to be a good leader (and vice versa), I experience the dual focus as a merging of roles rather than a balancing act. Leaders think of new ideas and goals but they also inspire, motivate, and encourage the staff they supervise to actively participate in thinking of new ideas and goals. In their roles as managers, they can “make it happen” through the day-to-day delivery of services. When you aim to be both, the “make it happen” part is much easier because the staff is already part of the process, and—most importantly—they understand why it’s an idea or goal worthy of implementation.

What advice do you have for the current and up-and-coming library professionals who want to take on more of a leadership role in their library?

Do an honest self-assessment of your potential as a leader as well as your desire to be one, and remember that not everyone in an organization has to be (or can be!) a leader. Be committed to your organization and to the profession. Read the library literature, network with other librarians at the regional, state, and national level through participation in professional conferences, listservs, and so on. Understand the separate functions and responsibilities of all parts of your library, not just the part you’re involved in. Simultaneously, familiarize yourself with the “bigger picture” of your library’s overall mission, goals, and objectives.

Learn how to flesh out your ideas: do some research to find out what other libraries are doing and think about how that might or might not work for your library; think through potential stumbling blocks or risks; consider how a new idea could be “beta-tested” and then evaluated before a decision is made about implementing it. Be able to present the idea in terms of benefit and impact: why would doing it (versus not doing it) be better for customers, staff, or both? Talk it over with your co-workers and win some support. Then take it to someone in the organization who has a leadership and/or management position—this could be your supervisor, the Director, or Assistant Director—depending, of course, on your library’s organizational chart and accepted channels and protocols for communicating “upwards.”

Develop your “reputation” as a leader; exhibit leadership traits; be a good role model for staff; show passion when you feel passionately about an idea, a principle, or an issue; have informed opinions; learn to practice problem-solving, not just identification of problems; learn to discuss rather than debate; learn to listen as much as you talk. Demonstrate your commitment.

Look around to see if you have followers—if you do, you may already be there!