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The accidental library manager – Instalment 2

Managing the transition into management


The transition into management, particularly into a first management position, is often more difficult than new managers anticipate. Once that first rush of being asked to "run the zoo" fades and the reality of new responsibilities and relationships sets in, library managers face managing this transition as the first big challenge of their new role.

Accidental managers, many of whom may not have planned ever to move into management, tend to feel especially unprepared and unqualified for their new positions. Their fear of being found out as managerial frauds or imposters, as unqualified or unsuited for their positions, can prevent them from moving forward and settling effectively into their management roles. To become effective, new managers need to find ways to smooth the transition, to draw on their existing skills and experiences, and to start out as they mean to continue.

As Louis Pasteur famously said: "Chance favours the prepared mind". He spoke as a scientist whose training and experience enabled him to make the most of his observations, but this applies to other fields as well. Realize that, as a manager (whether intentional or accidental), all of your previous experience prepares you for your new role; if you have yet to move into management, open your mind and prepare yourself for the possibility.

Smoothing the transition

The biggest pitfall most accidental library managers face is their inherent reluctance to manage. Many new and potential managers go in to librarianship with the mindset that they’ll never move into management, or that management is only for those who are older, more political, or more bureaucratic than they. Most professional employees in any field see their managers as removed from front-line work, as overworked and overstressed, and as tangled in politics and bureaucracy. These (often inaccurate!) images send new managers into a state of denial: if they don’t admit they themselves are managing, they won’t have to become one of "those" people.

When accidental managers, though, resist their new roles because of their negative picture of management, they create a bumpier transition for both themselves and their staff. One way to smooth the transition: deliberately addressing this negative mindset and envisioning the positives of management. These include:

  • The ability to effect change.
  • Long term career potential
  • More money
  • Avoiding boredom and burnout.

When new managers refocus in this direction, it makes them more receptive to their new role and helps them settle in and become effective.

Realize also that library staff can be equally unsettled by the promotion or arrival of a new manager. Their comfortable world has been turned upside-down, and they now need to settle in to a new management style, a new way of working with a new boss or supervisor, and new uncertainty about what to expect. New managers do best when they avoid making sweeping changes right off the bat; first settle in and get to know staff, their skills, and the existing workflow. (Find more on managing change in the third instalment of this column.)

Drawing on your skills

Accidental library managers settle most easily into their new roles when they deliberately draw on their previous experiences and existing skills. These provide a stable base for building a new set of managerial skills and for beginning to move forward. Although they may not feel prepared, accidental managers are usually better off then they believe – they just need to think of their skills in a different way.

Each and every new manager has a unique set of management experience and skills, gained through activities as diverse as:

  • Parenting a child
  • Leading a committee
  • Coordinating a group project
  • Planning an event
  • Moderating an online discussion list
  • Supervising student workers.

When we expand our view of "experience", we see that these types of activities both draw on and build the same skills needed by managers in any type of library, including supervisory skills, leadership abilities, coordination, budgeting, and vision. Accidental managers who step back and look at their own activities and involvement can come up with a personal list of experience and skills, which easily transfer over to the more formal library management setting.

Library skills and principles also connect naturally to library management, so any working library experience or LIS education benefits accidental library managers. These skills and principles include:

  • The ability to collect and analyse information
  • The urge to share information
  • The ability to organize knowledge
  • Commitment to equity of access and treatment
  • Front-line skills in any library department.

Each of these parallels a set of library management skills. For instance, the ability to collect and analyse information is crucial when putting together a long-range plan; front-line library experience allows managers to connect with their staff and understand both their work and their concerns.

Starting as you mean to continue

The true cure for "imposter syndrome", or this underlying concern of being found out as a fraud, lies just in spending time on the job, settling in, and proving abilities. Starting out on the right foot, though, can jumpstart this process and help staff and colleagues see you as a strong manager from the outset. Missteps at the beginning leave a lasting impression on staff and colleagues; it’s better to jump in strong than to have to recover from a disastrous first impression.

This means that, no matter how uncertain a new manager may feel, it’s important to project confidence. This also, again, highlights the importance of building knowledge and relationships before making any major changes. Some staff may see a new manager as the perfect opportunity to push through pet projects or agendas; be aware of this possibility and take time to consider any decisions.

View this transition period as an opportunity: to build relationships, to settle in, to develop a personal management style, to start developing a vision for your section, department, or library. The next column instalment talks about building on this vision and beginning to effect change as an accidental library manager.

This series is based on Rachel Singer Gordon's book The Accidental Library Manager (Information Today, Inc., Medford, NJ, 2005;