24 August 2018

Trying on a new hat: acting/interim roles as professional development

About six weeks ago I took on some additional responsibilities as acting manager of two extra teams at my library.

In this post, I reflect on this experience so far in the context of some insights gleaned from some recent LIS research and practitioner literature on this topic.


As a result of a restructure at my place of work, recruitment was underway for some new positions, but until those were filled a number of teams did not have managers in place. My supervisor (the Director) was planning to manage these teams on top of her usual duties as well as leading the recruitment process for new position. This didn't seem feasible or fair, so I approached her as part of a regular one-on-one meeting about sharing responsibility for managing these teams.

As well as taking some of the pressure off her, I argued that this would be a valuable learning experience for me. I would gain some insight into areas of the library's operations that I am less familiar with, and would also get some experience managing a larger team of direct reports. (In my usual job, although I have responsibility for a team of nine overall, only two of those people report to me directly.)

It took me a few days to get my head around the idea of making this request to my boss. I still feel like I am finding my feet with a lot of aspects of my management role, so taking on more felt daunting to say the least. As the duties were more of a sideways shift into another part of the library, rather than a 'step up' into a more senior position, I knew that I would not receive any extra money for the extra time and energy I would need to put in. I also knew that I would be taking on the new duties on top of my usual job, so I would need to much more seriously put into practice some time management strategies such as delegation. 

I have been in this dual role for a while now, and am finding it challenging, exhausting, stimulating, exciting and many other things all at once. It is a bit of a rollercoaster really! There has not been a lot of time for reflection, with my number of direct reports increasing from two staff to eighteen.

Benefits and challenges: what does the LIS literature tell us? 

Although taking on acting roles is often spoken about informally as a professional development strategy (alongside other workplace learning through things such as projects, secondments and exchanges), there is surprising little in the library literature about this.

Partly this is due to terminology; when I was trying to find some relevant professional reading it took me a while to discover that what I've been doing is called "interim leadership". Interim leadership can include both acting temporarily in a role that you intend to apply for, as well as taking on alternative or additional duties. 

My experiences so far are consistent with what has come out of the surveys and interviews carried out as part of the research projects and case studies I've added below as further reading.

Noted benefits include:
  • New or improved skills that you may not be able to develop in your current role
  • The opportunity to showcase your abilities to senior stakeholders who may not be aware of your capabilities or career goals
  • A chance to try something new without needing to make a long-term commitment - this could help you apply for that role in future, or equally importantly help you to identify that this is not a career path that is a good fit for you
  • A change to grow professional networks, both inside and outside the library
  • New perspectives for example, finding out more about how your organisation as a whole works ("joining the dots") or getting more insight into how the library fits into its parent organisation (the "big picture").
Interim leadership is not without its concerns though. These can include:
  • Workload and time management - interim leaders report physical/emotional exhaustion and negative impacts on personal life and other commitments
  • Difficulties balancing responsibility for your usual position while undertaking the new responsibilities (particular where your substantive position is not backfilled)
  • Having the same accountability and responsibilities, but little guidance
  • Lack of training in advance, due to the often unplanned nature of the temporary role
  • Difficulty forgiving yourself for making mistakes
  • Relationships with others, as new relationships are formed and existing relationships change in terms of their dynamics - this can include feelings of isolation
  • Ramifications of acting in a temporary role that you intend to apply for, including disappointment if you are unsuccessful in applying for a role that you have already been doing
  • Transition issues at the end of the interim period, including dissatisfaction on returning to your substantive role after having done something different or more challenging.
For the teams being led, it can also be challenging to have to adjust to a departing leader, a temporary leader and then to a final more permanent leader. 

My lessons learned

If you are considering an acting role, it is well worth reading the articles mentioned below as they contain some valuable lessons learned.

The ones that seem most relevant to me as someone currently in this situation are to be clear about scope and expections, take good care of yourself, and don't be afraid to ask for help. 

Lesson 1: Be clear about scope and expectations

The readings I mention recommend a discussion and agreement in writing prior to the appointment. Things to cover should include:
  • the timeframe for the interim period - while in some cases this might be open-ended until another position is filled (and you should be prepared for unexpected extensions), knowing a rough timeframe is essential for you to determine an appropriate scope
  • the goals for the position, so that you have a clear understanding of the priorities that they will need to focus on
  • the authority that you are being granted, and the reporting lines both to and from the position
  • any contract and salary changes e.g. a temporary new appointment or a higher duties allowance
  • any other ways that the additional contribution may be recognised or rewarded beyond financial compensation, such as enhanced access to funding for course or conference attendance.
Before I took on acting responsibilities my supervisor and I had a conversation about the goals that I had set myself for the year. It was clear that I would not be able to meet my existing goals and that a number of things would need to go on the backburner for a period of a few months at least. While we did discuss organisational goals and authority for the acting role informally, I would make more of an effort next time around to document a plan in writing. I would also make an effort to update my own performance plan to be more explicit about my own goals for professional development during my interim position.  

Like many people, I have taken on my acting responsibilities on top of, not instead of, my normal duties. Whether this is reasonable seems to me to depend a bit on how long the time period will be and whether there is a definite end in sight. I have been able to re-shuffle some of my usual duties and delegate in the short term. In future, if I were in an acting position for a longer or indefinite time period, I would probably make an argument to have my usual position back-filled by another staff member under a higher duties arrangement.

Lesson 2: Take care of yourself

It is reasonably common for interim leaders in libraries to feel burnt out by their additional responsibilities. It's important if you are taking on acting responsibilities to think about how you will take care of your physical and mental health. 

I've been trying hard to maintain healthy habits such as eating well and doing my regular exercise. I've also planned a week of leave - I know work will pile up while I am away but I'm also aware of the real risk of burnout!

Lesson 3: Ask for help

There are a number of aspects to this:
  • asking colleagues to help, including by delegating but also by actively seeking advice and support from trusted peers and seniors
  • seeking help from family and friends
  • delegating or outsourcing personal tasks - for example, I recently got a fortnightly cleaner, which has made a big difference to me in terms of my ability to balance my work and other commitments. 

Further readings

Bielavitz, T., Lowe-Wincentsen, D. and Read, K. (2018) ‘In the Interim: Leadership Shorts from Three Interim Library Directors’, PNLA Quarterly, 82(2). Available at: https://arc.lib.montana.edu/ojs/index.php/pnla/article/view/1268.

Farrell, M. (2016) ‘Interim Leadership’, Journal of Library Administration, 56(8), pp. 990–1000. doi:10.1080/01930826.2016.1231547.

Irwin, K. M. and deVries, S. (2019) ‘Experiences of Academic Librarians Serving as Interim Library Leaders.’ Preprint available at: https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/view/16994.

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