I'm amused that Sunday's note on my vacation has generated several comments looking for career advice, most recently from Sarah, who asks, "As a new grad,... how does one get administrative experience?" This speaks to one of the most common dilemmas facing those who are trying to move up into their first supervisory position -- "Every job ad seems to want somebody who already has supervisory experience! How am I going to get any in the first place?" No question that this is a tough hurdle to overcome.
Several years ago, when MLA's Medical School Libraries Section was transmogrifying into the Leadership and Management Section, one of the questions we were faced with (I was chair of the section at the time) was, aren't you just setting up a section for directors or director wannabes, and is that something we really need? So we went to great lengths to point out that leadership and management skills are necessary if one is going to be successful in any professional position, from entry level across the board. I think the section has done a pretty good job at getting that point across, and directing its activities to librarians at every stage of their careers.
In my reply to Bob Riley's comment, I mentioned the importance of people skills and good communication skills. I consider these to be the bedrock of the successful administrator, and they are qualities that an entry-level librarian can demonstrate from the first day on the job. Too many times over the years I have found myself in conversation with someone who explains that they're seeking some higher management job because then they'll be able to get people to do things the way they want them done. Using the unearned authority of one's position to command people isn't leadership, and if you are not successful in effectively motivating your peers, you are not going to be very successful just by becoming their boss.
Most organizations these days try (with more or less success, I suppose) to foster a team approach, and there will be ample opportunities for a new librarian to demonstrate their leadership and administrative abilities. How effective are you as a member of a team? Can you handle disagreements in a positive, straightforward, but nonconfrontational manner? Are you willing to take on new projects that may require you to move outside your comfort zone? How effective are you at sharing credit and celebrating the successes of your colleagues? Do you get your projects in on time, or ahead of time? Do you alert your supervisor and your team members of potential delays well ahead of the time that they become critical? There will come a time, before too long, when you're no longer the newest member of the department -- how do you relate to the person who comes in after you? What do you do to share your experience and expertise with them to help them be successful? Do you project a positive and enthusiastic attitude?
Most importantly, do you carry yourself in such a way that you are recognized as a person of integrity? Do your colleagues see you as someone that they can trust, as someone who lives the values and ethics of our profession?
If you can exemplify these qualities, from your first day on the job, you will find yourself being given more responsibility over time. You will find yourself being asked to manage more projects, to take the lead role in new initiatives. When it comes time to apply for that next position, this will give you the track record that you can stand on, and that will lead your references to give you the kinds of recommendations that may persuade potential employers that you're ready for a supervisory position. It won't always -- don't kid yourself. You'll need a healthy tolerance for disappointment. Success is not guaranteed, and there are plenty of people who aspire to a director's job who never get there. But the basic qualities that make good directors are the same ones that make good entry-level librarians, and you should be working at improving yourself in those areas every single day.
And that means now, and for the rest of your life.