26 January 2018

What I learned in 2017 (confessions of an ambivalent manager)

NewCardigan's GLAM Blog Club is out of the blocks for another year, providing helpful monthly writing prompts for for people who work in galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Recognising that the transition from one year to the next is often a time for reflection, this month's theme is the same as last January's: What I want to learn in the year ahead / What I learned in the past year. 

If 2016 was the year that I began to more fully embrace my role as a hybrid library/IT professional, 2017 was the year I lost my ambivalence about becoming a manager.

I transitioned into my first management role in late 2014. This happened after many years of telling myself that this was not the pathway for me. I was so convinced of this that I spent a year in a mentoring program ten years ago identifying career pathways that would help me avoid management roles without completely stalling my career progression or meaning that I couldn't have a leadership role of some kind.

In 2014 I saw a job ad that changed my mind for three reasons. Firstly, it was working for someone that I admired, who I knew would be a good role model, mentor and source of support. Secondly, I had been in the organisation for long enough to know it had good frameworks in place for developing staff who were moving into supervision and management. Thirdly, I was starting to realise that as lots of library profession leaders were transitioning to retirement, someone would need to take their place. Could that be me at some point in future? I felt scared to step up and take on a lot more responsibility than I had ever had before. But if I asked myself the question If not now, then when? the honest answer was There won't be a better time, you idiot! so I decided (with encouragement from my partner, friends and some colleagues) to go for it.

2017 was my third year in that management role, which recently expanded to cover both library systems and research repositories. Last year a lot of things finally starting 'gelling' for me. My learning has not just been about management in an objective sense i.e. what tasks are involved, and what is expected of someone at that level. I've also had to consider what management means (or could mean) to me. My ideas of what a management role involved were very limited prior to actually having one; I now know my existing knowledge and skills were more transferable than I thought. I also understand much better how some of my strengths can be expressed in a management role and how I might address some of my weaknesses over time.

Here are some thoughts on this process that might help you feel better about taking this plunge at some point.

Managers manage lots of things, not just people

I though most of my job would be about supervising people but actually a not-exhaustive list of the things that I manage includes staff, business processes, systems, time (my own and that of others), corporate information, risk and compliance, budget, procurement, contracts and vendor relationships, recruitment, projects, policies/procedures, a workspace, and health and safety.

Yes, managing people is a large and important part of this, but it is definitely not everything that I do.

You can't be good at everything, and that's OK

If you are managing lots of things (see above), it makes sense that you will be better at some things than others, right?

Of the list above, I'd self-assess as really competent at some, including a few things that other people probably find difficult or very very tedious. If you need to run a tender process or to review and negotiate a systems contract, I'm your go-to gal. I can spin up a position description and run a recruitment exercise for a new job, no worries at all. Spotting a copyright / privacy / reputational risk at a thousand paces or working well with pernickety folk responsible for compliance with IT architecture and governance are also things I know I can do. 

But then there are other things I still find difficult and will likely spend the next twenty years trying to incrementally improve. Finance-related tasks that do my head in seem to be a breeze for others. Managing staff remains a work-in-progress; as an introvert with a preference for logic and systems I find it really challenging to lead a group of human beings who all bring their own backgrounds, thought processes, motivations, emotions, interests and relationships to the workplace. On bad days I feel like I will never even really understand other people I work with, let alone be able to motivate or inspire anyone.

What I have learned is this: I don't need to be great at everything. Not only that, from three years of observing management-level peers and superiors, I now know that not only am I not good at everything, neither is anyone else! Everyone is just trying to do their best and everyone has their blind spots.

It's not even possible that any one individual could flawlessly handle everything a management role in a messy, ambiguous, ever-changing 21st century organisation might throw up. Three years in, I know that there are plenty of ways in which I am a good manager. I also know that the best way to deal with the things I'm less good at is to acknowledge them and ask for help. In my experience this will be freely given because our profession is full of lovely people who want to help other people succeed.

A big part of management is managing yourself

This recent Huffington Post blog article provides a neat introduction to what this might mean in the workplace. It describes self-management as demonstrating "self-control and an ability to manage time, priorities and decision-making capacity."

For me this has meant coming to grips with a number of things. Here are just some.

I'm being watched (and judged) all the time
This is an uncomfortable truth for those of us at the introvert end of the spectrum. Being a manager (or a leader of any kind, really) means you are a role model, whether you like it or not. People are taking notice of the way you present yourself (both in person and online), what you say and the actions that you take. You just have to get used to it.

I can be myself, but I should try to be the best version of myself
Does being watched and judged mean that you should pretend to be someone you are not? No. It's definitely important to be authentic and to develop your own management / leadership style that works for you (and your organisation). It's OK to be yourself, but important to think about how you are presenting that self in a professional context. Outside of work you wouldn't go to a wedding in the outfit you do your gardening in, or talk to your nana the way you talk to your friends. That doesn't mean you're being inauthentic or untruthful; it just means you are gloriously mutable, like every other human being ever. In management, as in the rest of life, there's a performative aspect that you can choose to be scared of or choose to control (most of the time I still waver somewhere inbetween).

My emotions have an impact on others
With heightened visibility comes heightened responsibility. If I am sad or angry or frustrated or stressed, if I roll my eyes at someone's idea or burst into tears in a meeting, that will have an impact on other people. This doesn't mean striving to have a poker face on at all times or to be an automaton without any feelings. It does mean acknowledging the feelings that you have (especially those you are trying to hide from others, and even from yourself) and trying to express these in timely and constructive ways that don't hurt other people. I'm not always very good at this and hope it's something I can get better at in future.

I need to be deliberate about how I spend my time
This includes being more careful about commitments I make and learning how to say no to things. It means actively managing time; blocking out chunks in the work calendar so that high-priority work can be done without distractions; restricting email checking to allocated times during the day; and ensuring meetings I make are not just talkfests but actually have outcomes.

Being in good physical and mental shape helps me do my job better
Librarianship is knowledge work, but don't believe for a second that being physically fit won't help you be a better manager. Losing weight and getting more active has given me more energy and concentration. It also reduces the risks associated with sitting at a desk in front of a computer for 40+ hours a week. I walk through native bushland once or twice a day, just taking the time to slow down and observe incremental seasonal changes in my local environment, and this reduces my stress levels and puts a lot of trivial work-related things into perspective. Reading fifty-plus novels a year gives me the same pleasure now that it did when I was a bookworm child; now it also gets me out of my own busy head for a little bit of time each day.

In 2017 I started to embrace my new role and to reflect more on what a satisfying career path in library management could look like. I don't have any firm ideas yet, but I am looking forward to finding out what comes next! If you have been thinking about a management role, but have been putting off applying for things through lack of confidence or lack of insight into what the role actually involves, why not make 2018 your year to explore this? You might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

20 December 2017

Interview skills for LIS students and new grads: notes from an ALIA panel

I was a panellist at an ALIA Students and New Graduates Group workshop on interview skills in September.

Having had countless job interviews (some more successful than others!) and also having been a chair and member of quite a few interview panels, I can see things from both sides of the table and was happy to share some practical advice along with my other panellists.

Below are my raw notes prepared in advance for the session - not all of these were used on the day and they do reflect the sector I am most familiar with (academic libraries).

For other perspectives, you can also read a wrap-up of the event on the ALIA SNGG blog and view a recording of the panel session on their Facebook page.

What can I do to prepare myself for an interview?

How do I stop anxiety?

You can’t really! However, there are a few practical things that can help.
  • Get a good night’s sleep the night before
  • Don’t over-caffeinate
  • Remember to take some deep breaths while you are waiting and in between questions. 
As a panel member I expect you to be feeling a bit nervous and it is absolutely OK for you to acknowledge that you are feeling that way. It’s actually really uncomfortable for the panel too when someone is very nervous - we want interviews to be as positive as possible for everyone.

It is OK if you are feeling really out of control to ask for a moment to compose yourself. Take a deep breath, have a drink of water, then when you are feeling ready give the panel a smile and let them know you are OK to go on.

What do I wear?

I usually think about what might be standard for the role and go slightly more dressy than that.

It's important to choose something that you feel comfortable in - there is no need to add to your anxiety / discomfort, and for that reason, I would avoid wearing something that you haven’t worn before.

What should I bring?

Things to consider bringing include:
  • A copy of your CV and application (for your own use - the panel will already have copies of these)
  • Any notes that you think might help you. But remember, these should be prompts rather than written out answers - you are there to talk to the panel not read to them! 
  • A pen and a piece of paper to jot down any keywords from the question can be useful - writing a few notes can also give you a bit of breathing space if you get asked something tricky and need to gather your thoughts. 

What are the technicalities of a panel interview?

How do you rank candidates during the interview?

At my place of work, questions would usually be related to the selection criteria. We would also usually have an icebreaker / opener along the lines of “Tell us why you’ve applied for this job and what you think you would bring to it.”

Panellists will have a list of questions with some pointers from the chair about what to look for when scoring.

We use a 1-5 scale and also take a lot of notes so that we have information for panel discussions later on.

How do you formulate interview questions?

Questions would usually be based on the selection criteria and on behavioural interview principles.

Depending on the job and the level we might also include a work task of some kind. We would let people know beforehand what this is if it requires any preparation, or would at least give them a heads-up that a work test of some kind will be part of the interview.

What questions should I prepare to ask the panel?

The specific question doesn't matter so much to me, but what I am looking for would be:
  • Questions that demonstrate that you have done some research about the organisation
  • Questions that show you are genuinely interested in the position e.g. What would a typical day be like?, What types of activities would I be involved in during my first six months? 
You should also ask anything that you need to to convince yourself that you would take the job if offered it - it is a two-way street so if you have concerns this is your chance to air them.

What happens after the interview?

When do you call referees? What questions do you ask them?

I call referees as soon as possible after the interview, though it can sometimes take a few days to organise a phone call.

I ask questions based on the selection criteria and use the same behavioural style as for interviewees - I ask for specific examples of particular skills or experiences that we are after.

If there are any niggling concerns from the interview I might ask something specific about that.

I also ask these extra questions:
  • What do you think this person’s strengths are?
  • What areas do you think this person may need some coaching or professional development in to enable them to succeed in this role?
  • Would you employ / work with this person again?

How long does it take to decide on a candidate?

It usually does not long to make a decision once the referee checks have been done. However HR processes can take a really long time!

The chair of the panel will usually have to provide some documentations justifying the panel’s decision. Then there are likely to be different levels of approval in HR, Finance and other areas that have to be granted before an offer can be made.

On those "soft skills"...

Who should I address when talking to the panel?

The person who asked the question is a good place to start but it is good if you can make some eye contact and look around a bit if you can remember to do that.

What can I do to stop from showing how nervous I am?

See points made above about not over-caffeinating, getting enough sleep and remembering to breathe.

I get really shaky hands sometimes in interviews. If that happens, I try to keep them in my lap under the table.

What kind of body language should I demonstrate in the interview?

A nice firm handshake and a friendly smile goes a long way when you first enter the room. Making as much eye contact as you are comfortable with is also good.

Don't wear anything that is going to encourage you to fidget with clothes, hair and jewellery. It's really distracting for the panel!

Try to have an open posture. Sit up straight with your shoulders back - this helps with breathing too.

How do you select interview candidates?

Masters or diploma qualification, does it matter?

It will depend on the position but usually having an undergraduate or postgraduate degree is less important to me in my assessment than your responses to the selection criteria.

Visas, English as a second language

The rules around visas are usually dictated by legislation and workplace policies - the supervisor usually does not have much say in this.

For me, it is not your English language skills per se but the ability to communicate well to a variety of audiences that is really important. I work in a technical back-of-house function but we still have to communicate with other parts of IT, with clients, and with vendors all the time. We also need to be able to produce very clear written documentation for different audiences.

Years of experience vs "new graduate" willing to learn

Experience is really important. In addressing selection criteria, you will do better if you can provide specific examples of how you would be able to do the job or learn how to do the job. This is what you generally get from the workplace, which is why I would encourage people to make the most of their placements, well-chosen volunteer opportunities, and any short-term work that you can get while you are studying.

Internal vs external staff 

Panels who are doing their jobs properly should be interviewing candidates on their own merits. It should not be the case that internal candidates get special treatment. I have employed an external candidate over an internal candidate who had been acting in the role.

However what you must realise is that if you are up against someone who has already got experience in a particular job that will enable them to supply really good stories in their written applications and interviews. So that is why they have an edge.


Again, panels should be as neutral as possible in assessing candidates against the criteria. However at the final stages then fit with the organisation and longer term planning can definitely come into it. It is very expensive to recruit someone and induct them into the organisation and then have them leave and have to do it all over it again.

I have personally employed someone over-qualified who I believe could use a job as a stepping stone to something else. I don’t have a problem with that as long as the expectations are clear that I would expect a high performance from that person while they are in the job.

What are your top tips for a candidate during an interview?

I would encourage you to think very clearly about the first impressions that you will make and in particular how you will respond to the first question you will be asked, which is usually about why you have applied for the job and what you will bring to it.

This is often really badly answered. People waffle on for ages, repeat what’s already in their written application, or focus only on themselves (e.g. I am ready for a challenge, I want to take the next step in my career).

My advice is, put yourself in the shoes of the panel. We want the best outcome for our organisation and going through recruitment is a time consuming and highly stressful process for us as well. We are not there to solve your problem of not having a job or sufficient career progression. We are there to solve our problem which is that we have a gap in our organisation that we need to fill with the right person for the job.

If we’re interviewing you then you are likely very close to being that right person. You can make our jobs easier for us by focusing not just on why the job would be a good thing for you, but why having you in the job would be a great thing for us.

02 July 2017

IT Skills for Librarians: Q&A with Susan Tegg (Griffith University) about business process improvement

This post is Number 8 of 8 in a series arising from a presentation that I will be giving at the New Librarians Symposium 8 on 25 June 2017 in Canberra. You may want to start reading with the first post in the series

For this post I asked my colleague Susan Tegg about how she got started building her skills in business process improvement, and how this fits within her current role as the Team Leader, Library Technology Services in Griffith University's Library and Learning Services.

Thank you, Susan!

Can you briefly describe your your current role and your career pathway to where you are now?

My current role is Team Leader, Library Technology Services. This involves
  • working with the team to achieve the key performance indicators in the team's operational plan 
  • service management planning to ensure our systems meet the changing requirements of stakeholders and are operating at optimum levels
  • watching the library environment and system roadmaps for changes and likely impacts
  • working with stakeholders to improve workflows and student experience
  • working with staff to prioritise work and dealing with crises
  • encouraging and listening to staff concerns while also keeping perspective
  • representing the team and service at meetings and in discussions
  • creating a team environment of mutual support.
Lately my work has been more project-focused as Griffith has changed its approach and needs.

I started working in libraries over twenty years ago. Positions I have held include serials librarian, cataloguer, system librarian, head of circulation, faculty librarian, and library operations manager. I have supervised staff for most of that time. My career has been uneven due to lifestyle changes which meant career interruptions and a focus on things outside work.

What were the circumstances that led you to identify business process improvement as something that you wanted or needed to develop further?

The main reason I am attracted to business improvement is that I see the need for libraries to revolutionise their work to take advantage of IT changes.

I often see teams believing they are adapting to change when what I see is their trying to adapt the change to to their current processes.

I want to challenge current processes, to identify outdated processes and redundant tasks, and processes that can be streamlined or removed/automated. Many are legacy processes designed to manage print.

Libraries need to change and stop or reduce doing many of the labour intensive tasks so librarians are adding value in areas that need professional judgement.
What formal or informal development options were available to you to develop your business process improvement skills and knowledge? How did you initially get going, and do you have plans to continue to develop in this area?

When I was operations manager at a previous library, I was able to design workflows and ensure tasks were streamlined.

During two library system conversions, business processes were challenged by vendors and I enjoyed being involved in conversations with business areas.

Coming to Griffith encouraged me to refine my skills after attending a one day course on Business Processes and working with Scholarly Resources [the team that manages acquisitions, cataloguing etc] to map their processes.

At the moment improving my skills is done by talking to a colleague and examining other business analysts at Griffith to understand their way of working.

Can you briefly describe what business process improvement involves? What kinds of tasks or activities have you undertaken as a practitioner of this skill? Are there specific methodologies or tools that are commonly used?

Business process improvement has a few stages.  

Initially current work processes are mapped with the business area. The desired outcome is a document which reflects the current business processes, presented in a way which encourages the manager/team leader and staff read and review, and hopefully see areas for improvement. It is challenging because as the person mapping the work, I need to understand why an activity is done without antagonising them.      

Once the process is mapped on Microsoft Visio (although I have also used Google Drawings), a step by step table is created. In this table, there are various fields which explain ownership, systems used, dependencies and issues. The table is quite detailed and to ensure it's manageable the business process is often broken down into parts.

The diagram and table need to be reviewed several times to ensure it is correct.  

Parts that are hard for me include:
  • not making assumptions
  • not getting enough detail
  • trying to move too fast so failing to let the team reflect as the mapping happens.
Hand in hand with process mapping is user stories, which explain why activities happen. For example: Why is that copyright statement stored? This ensures each activity has a purpose.

Once completed the manager or team leader can reflect on the process. They can then decide that a business process should be stopped (because it is no longer required), improved (e.g. by using a different system or combination of systems) or automated.

How do you feel business process improvement ‘fits’ with the other skills and knowledge that you bring to your professional practice as a librarian?

Business process improvement is an essential skill for librarians.  Having an approach that looks for constant improvements and challenges legacy practices is needed because the world and work is changing around us.

How do you and your organisation benefit from your having business process improvement skills in your toolkit?

In the current environment, I don't have much opportunity to work through process improvements outside projects or in my own team. I can see that managers and team leaders would get benefits from doing business process improvement work especially for transactional work.

What advice would you give to a new professional starting out who had an interest in business process improvement? Can you suggest any no- or low-cost professional development options that are available?

As a new professional, I would ask for procedures for whatever team I worked in and create a diagram. Ask your supervisor if they have an area that could benefit from business process mapping, for example where no procedures are written. Express your interest developing and practicing but with real life situations.

Diagrams are powerful for explaining a business process visually and are quickly understood. Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) is a standard for business process diagrams - to be useful it's important to understand and use the standard shapes in BPMN (e.g. a circle for an event, a rectangle for a task or activity, a diamond for a gateway or decision point). The step by step explanation reveals things not in the diagram, like dependencies, staff/time involved and issues. Both parts are needed.
  1. Start with internet resources or books.
  2. See if you can get advice from a business analyst and examples/documents from your organisation.
  3. Talk to your supervisor about what you are doing because it will involve your time and meetings with others. Time is valuable!
  4. Getting information without challenging too assertively gets good results so practice listening skills but identify gaps and question things that don't make sense.  
  5. If you have a business process mapping tool like Microsoft Visio available use it or otherwise start with Google Drawings or another free tool.
  6. Be ready to present and talk through anything you do. Documentation needs to be professional and in line with your organisation's templates.

That brings us to the endn of this series of blog posts to a conclusion. The purpose of this series, and the associated NLS8 presentation, was to inspire new librarians (and maybe some more established professionals) to think beyond coding to the many other IT skills applicable in library and GLAM workplaces. 

You don’t necessarily have to study user experience, change management or business process improvement at university or attend a formal training course. There are lots of opportunities to learn on the job and in your own time, and it doesn’t have to take years or cost a lot of money. 

Hopefully what’s also become evident through this series of posts is that many IT jobs don’t actually require in-depth technical knowledge. The best IT projects aren’t just about the technology. 'Soft' skills like communication are essential for success and librarians can often transfer these from their more traditional roles. 

At the conference, I closed by encouraging new librarians to find someone to have a chat to about IT skills they are interested in. It’s my experience that most people love talking about what they do, especially if you buy them a coffee or a drink while you fire your questions at them!