17 April 2018

Getting to “good enough”: thoughts on perfectionism

NewCardigan's GLAM Blog Club provides helpful monthly writing prompts for for people who work in galleries, libraries, archives and museums. This month's theme is Control.

If you move into a supervisory or management role in libraries, you will probably at some stage participate in a training course requiring you to take a personality test like the Profiles Performance Indicator or the DisC profile. The rationale for this is that understanding your strengths and weaknesses will help you to become a more effective manager or leader.

I’ve done several of these tests and the results have been consistent in revealing (to no-one’s actual surprise, let alone my own) that I have strong perfectionist tendencies.

So what? you may be thinking. Isn’t everyone that works in libraries a bit of a perfectionist? Isn’t perfectionism one of those fake weaknesses that you wheel out in job interviews when in fact you are quite proud of your 110% attitude to anything and everything? Wouldn’t libraries be better if we were all a bit more perfectionist, not less? If we reduce our focus on quality even by a smidgen, isn’t that the beginning of the end, the start of the slippery slope, the end of the world as we know it…?

Well, no actually. Unless you are undertaking the proverbial brain surgery or rocket science in your library, perfectionism is probably more likely to affect you (and others around you) negatively not positively. In the long run it will probably stop you fulfilling your leadership potential. Here’s just some of the reasons why:

  • You will get less work done and miss deadlines because you will be overly focused on completing each task to an unnecessarily high standard.
  • You won’t understand fully what constitutes good performance. You'll forget that you are being judged as much, if not more, on your ability to deliver outcomes and to deliver those in a timely fashion. You'll also forget that your time - all the hours that you are spending on formatting not content, on sourcing that one perfect image for your slidedeck, on consulting just one more person to be totally thorough - is usually someone else’s money.
  • You will never be able to enjoy finishing things and will rarely stop to celebrate your milestones because you are only focused on how what you have done could have been so much better if we had just been able to [insert unhelpful stuff here]
  • You will annoy more senior staff by failing to deliver what they need and wasting their time as a result. You won't realise that you aren't actually helping when your manager asks you for a 2-page briefing paper and then you deliver a 10-page paper full of background material that makes the issue more complex for her not less, that raises more questions than she had before, and that doesn’t make any recommendations because you still haven’t analysed all the information in the universe that might be relevant.
  • You will apply the same high standards you apply to yourself to your colleagues and people you supervise. Unsurprisingly when people fail to live up to your unrealistic expectations you will be disappointed and judgmental. Congratulations - you will be well on your way to getting a reputation for being hyper-critical and demanding, and for micro-managing.
  • You will fail to delegate because deep down you don’t believe anyone else’s work will be up to scratch. Sadly, you probably won’t even be aware of how arrogant this is.
  • When you finally do delegate, you'll disempower your employees by pointlessly reworking things instead of coaching them to improve, providing clear guidance and then accepting what is produced.
  • You will get frustrated because things aren’t the way they should be, and you express your frustration inappropriately through anger, emotional outbursts, cynicism, sarcasm, or more passive-aggressive means.
  • Or you will turn those frustrations inward, burn yourself out and end up physically and or mentally unwell. All because of your inability to say This is good enough now. I’ve done as much as I need to. Now let it go.
I don’t know why I am the way I am. There is probably some deep reason that would require hundreds of hours of therapy to reveal that! What I do know is that I have found it almost impossible to address this on my own. I’m getting better at aiming for good-enough rather than perfection, but this is after years of support from a manager that knows me really well and has agreed to provide me with firm-but-caring feedback when she observes me falling into my old ways. She doesn’t let me get away with it and so as time goes on some new habits are slowly forming. I also have a colleague who inspires me with his ability to make quick decisions and move things along. I admire his attitude that all we can do is make the best decision with the information we have available, that sometimes we will make mistakes but mostly things will work out OK if trust in our own judgments, and more often than not we are better off taking action rather than going round in circles talking about things and never actually doing anything.

So if a personality test reveals that you are a perfectionist, don’t see it as a badge of honour. Take a few days (or a few years, in my case) to reflect on the unconstructive behaviours your perfectionism might be leading to in the workplace, and elsewhere too. Talk to your supervisor, your colleagues, a mentor, basically anyone who can help you by gently and repeatedly pointing out when you go beyond what’s really required, when what you’ve done is already good enough.

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.