I'd been the director at St. Louis for about six months and found myself talking with Wayne at an MCMLA meeting. He was asking me how it was going, and I said that at least I no longer felt everyday that the whole place was going to fall apart like sand running through my fingers, but I still really hated it when I had to do something that made somebody have a bad day. He grinned and said, "Scott, sometimes it's your job to make them have a bad day."
I've told this story many times -- several times with Wayne in the room, and while he shakes his head when I tell it, he's never disavowed it. When I took on the director's job, I was very inexperienced and the transition was pretty tough. I had this notion that I had a dual responsibility -- to the institution of which the library was a part, and to the people who worked in the library. I was determined that the decisions that I made would be equally good for both.
I found out soon enough that this view was terribly naive. The two come in conflict. All too often, the decision that is not only best, but necessary for the organization is going to have a negative impact on somebody. Sometimes it's a matter of scheduling that is going to disrupt somebody's life. Sometimes it's giving an opportunity to someone when there's someone else in the library who really wanted it. On rare occasions it is as serious as taking someone's job away. I cringe when I hear someone who aspires to a director's job say they don't like dealing with personnel issues, but they guess they could put up with it. If that's the attitude, you're going to have a very difficult time being happy in the job, much less successful.
For the last year or so, we've been having monthly meetings of all of the supervisors. Sometimes the discussion is on very practical things, like the revision to the supervisor's manual. But sometimes the discussion gets into the really difficult parts of supervising, like how do you handle the situation where you've got to confront someone with performance or behavior problems. "It can get really uncomfortable," someone said.
"It should be," I interjected. The further you rise in the organization, the more impact your decisions have on more people. If that doesn't give you pause, if that doesn't make your stomach churn a little bit, then you're not paying enough attention to the human side of what you're doing. You have to learn how to think those decisions through very carefully, considering every option, considering every impact, being very aware of how it may negatively impact somebody, of how it may be criticized and misunderstood, and then, with your stomach churning, go ahead and do what you believe is the right thing to do.
And you should assume that every decision will be criticized and misunderstood. This is an aspect of change management that I haven't seen discussed much in the libraryland blogs. I believe in having as open, transparent and participative a decision-making process as possible. I believe in consensus building. But "consensus" doesn't imply unanimity of opinion. The quest for complete agreement, the desire to adjust to everybody's concerns in making decisions can paralyze an organization.
Figuring this out on a day-to-day basis is an art. It's never clearcut. I almost never know for certain that the decision that I'm making at any point in time is absolutely the right one. I rely on my own experience, on the advice of people that I've learned to trust, on the instincts that have developed over time. On the good days, I look at what we're accomplishing and I'm proud of the part that I get to play. On the other days, I put my head in my hands, grimacing at the bone-headed things that I've done. I have more good days than bad, which, I suppose, is what keeps me coming back.
I'm thinking about all of this in the context of some of the frustrations that I see expressed in the blogs from people who are trying to create change in their organizations, but don't have enough authority to make the decisions that will get them to where they want to go. A phrase I often use when talking about how to identify opportunities within the larger organization is "Find out what keeps the decision makers awake at night." Whether it is the president of a university, or the CEO of a hospital, or the mayor of a small town, the people who have the authority to make the decisions that affect your library are going to have a small number of really key issues or problems that they are most concerned with. If you can figure out how to present your idea as a solution to one those problems, your chances of getting the decision made in your favor are greatly increased.
The same, I think, is true within the library. If you can figure out what the problems are that your library director or your supervisor considers most important, and couch your innovative idea in terms of solutions to one of those problems, you're likely to be more successful. Part of doing that is being able to see the situation from their point of view, and getting a sense of what they're trying to balance in making those decisions. The more that you can do that, the better you'll be at persuading people to your point of view, and the better a decision maker you'll become as well.