Library Managers as Triathletes of the Mind? Meaghen's Wisdom for Librarians

Meaghen Ann Harris, award-winning athlete

I'm putting the finishing touches on my slides for ALA, where I'll be presenting the LLAMA preconference "The Tough Stuff: Leadership, Change, & Performance Management for Library Managers" with the incredibly wise Jenica Rogers. This past weekend I was trying to find a theme to run through my portion of the talk on managing change. In a fit of pique and laziness, I polled Facebook, and my sister Meaghen noted that triathlons were a pretty good metaphor. She noted that triathletes have to swim to T1 (transition #1), tear off their wet suits, put on bike shoes and helmet, and cycle to T2 (transition #2), where they "drop off bike, tear off helmet, throw on some kicks and the FINISH. Manage the change, Colleen. Manage the change."

My little sister is wise. (And a kickass athlete to boot, regularly taking 1st, 2nd and 3rd in her age group, while I cheer her on from under my covers and half a country away.) But Meaghen is right - triathletes manage not just their training, but issues of endurance and skill and training and awkward transitions. That sounds pretty much like library management to me. The next message she sent me via Facebook struck me right between the eyes:

“You always spend the most time on your bike. So it's a very important part of training. Swimming is the shortest part of the race (time and distance wise) but it takes skill and technique--- like- I can bust my ass to be a better runner/biker, but it doesnt work that way with swimming- if you try to swim faster by working harder you just end up thrashing through the water and looking stupid. It takes time to become a better swimmer (my current dilemma- because I want to be good NOW). Some people are JUST good swimmers- I like them- because I end up passing them on the bike and the run.”

Hmmm. Matching this up to library management issues, I see a lot of parallels. Where we spend the most of our time is an important part of our work (though perhaps we're not as well trained in it as we should be), managing the day to day aspects of our part of the library, the regular small changes that we absorb and move through with regularity. What is the shortest part of our management race/life? Maybe dealing with what I would call "catastrophic change" - things that happen rarely but are paradigm-changing. Like Meaghen mentions about swimming, I don't know that it is something we can do by working harder -- mostly, the folks I see who deal well with this are the library managers who work smarter, and who have gone through a few of these experiences and streamlined their responses. But if the only skill set a library manager has honed is the one necessary to deal with the huge, catastrophic changes, and they're not prepared to handle the more quotidian long-haul issues, they're not really prepared to hit any sort of finish line or goal with their organization.

Jenica notes in a recent blog post that the interest in learning how to manage - and how to manage better - is alive and well within librarians. My sister joined a team with a coach, and they support each other. I've found what Jenica might term my tribe of management peers largely through the luck of having great mentors, latching onto folks I want to talk to at conferences, and deciding to craft my speaking proposals around something I feel strongly about. I keep coming back to "[I]f you try to swim faster by working harder you just end up thrashing through the water and looking stupid."

Where are we working harder when we should be honing skill and technique instead? How (if at all) are MLS programs useful as a "training program" for library mangers? Should we instead be focusing on things like the TRLN Management Academy? I've asked before and I'll ask again, given the success of ACRL's Immersion for instruction librarians, why is there no Immersion for library managers until they get to the director level and can attend the ACRL/Harvard Leadership Institute? Why do we think we can develop library managers - mental athletes - by simply hoping they'll show up at the starting blocks, fully trained and ready to go?

These are the thoughts bouncing around in my head as I make my final preparations before heading to New Orleans tomorrow. Jenica and I will get to spend the day with forty-nine library managers on Friday who hail from academic, public, and special libraries, and I can't wait to hear what, how, and why they're doing at their own libraries in terms of management and leadership.

Disclaimer (for this blog post and for my slide deck):

I am not a triathlete. But my sister is. Take my advice about managing; take her advice about athleting.


laura k said…
This is a great metaphor. And I agree; I haven't found that there's much leadership/management training for librarians early on in our careers, but aiming for leadership positions in the future. I thought that's what ALA's Emerging Leaders program was for, but, not so much.

It sounds like your tribe of library leaders could be the people to, at least unofficially, provide this kind of training. I feel like I'm learning a lot just reading your thoughts and ideas here.
Colleen said…
Laura - thanks for reading! Yes, I found the Emerging Leaders program is really a "get involved in ALA' program - for those of us who already know how to do committee work, it's not a very useful program, nor does it have much to do with leadership in actual libraries.

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