25 April 2019

Libraries, leadership, and overvaluing expertise

I am not usually a big reader of the business self-help books that pop up in airport bookshops. However, I took notice when a colleague recommended How Women Rise, because I respect her and trust her judgement and because her career path is one that represents a possible direction for my own. I've now borrowed this from my public library service twice and recommended it myself to some co-workers, so I thought it would be good to blog some reflections. 

Cover of How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith
I'm not going to review the book as a whole or go through the whole list of self-limiting behaviours that the authors observe through their executive coaching practices as being more prevalent amongst women. It's useful to point out up front that Helgeson and Goldsmith are aware of the many structural barriers to women achieving their full potential in the mostly-corporate environments from which they draw the book's case studies. However, they see themselves addressing a different set of challenges, which they argue are more within women's immediate control. If you can take this approach at face value you will probably find yourself able to get something useful out of this book. For a more #critlib view you will probably want to bypass their sidestepping of these structural issues and read something else entirely!

The one habit (#3) that jumped out at me from my own career and observing others in libraries is overvaluing expertise:
Trying to master every detail of your job in order to become an expert is a great strategy for keeping the job you have.... you put enormous effort into learning every aspect of your job and assuring your work is letter-perfect. This feels proactive, but it can set you up to remain on an endless treadmill, constantly setting a higher bar for yourself as you seek to always go the extra mile.... 
Of course, we're not advocating sloppy performance. And we know that skill and knowledge are required for success. But if you want to rise in your field or your organization, expertise will only take you so far. That's because the top jobs always require managing and leading people who have expertise, not providing expertise yourself. (86)
The authors discuss the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and the way that mastery of a work area provides both the satisfaction of knowing you are doing something really well (intrinsic) and a pathway to having your contributions recognised by others (extrinsic). This is good up to a point, but can become a problem for women who want to move into leadership positions for three reasons:
  • Learning every aspect of your job to the highest level uses up mental bandwidth that could be shared across other equally important areas
  • Doing your current job to perfection only demonstrates that you're great at the job you're in now, not the jobs that you may want to move to in future
  • Your expertise makes you indispensable to your boss, who may then have an interest in keeping you where you are. 
Meanwhile, the authors argue, male colleagues are likely to be focused on doing their jobs well enough, while still leaving time to build the relationships and organisational / industry visibility that will help them progress their careers. 

The authors also describe four types of power that we can have within organisations. Expertise is only one of these, the others being connections/relationships, personal authority, and positional power (i.e. where we stand in the organisational hierarchy). These are complementary and ideally would be in balance because "cultivating expertise at the expense of other kinds of power will not position you as a leader" (93). 

(I might digress slightly to say that the word power is a bit fraught for me. I think it has some poor connotations for lots of people, probably because we have all at some point in our careers been on the receiving end of someone else wielding power - probably positional power - over us in a negative way. The authors' definition of power in this book is a bit different. They describe it as "influence potential" and argue that "if you want to influence the world in a positive way... you have to have power" (95). It is hard to summarise this, but I think they see power as the ability to articulate your goals - both for your organisation and yourself - and work purposefully towards them, which is definitely a bit more palatable a concept.)

So, how does the overvaluing of expertise play out in libraries? I have seen this in my own career and in various positions and workplaces in a range of ways, including:
  • Reinforcement of rigid distinctions between 'professional' and 'para-professional' roles, and between different types of professional roles (e.g. front-of-house vs back-of-house)
  • Suspicion of team leaders and managers who have not 'risen through the ranks' by developing a deeper and deeper technical understanding of the area they are responsible for
  • Locating specialist expertise in one role that is essential for the organisation strategically but a dead-end in terms of career progression for the person in it - this is particularly obvious in emerging areas (research data management, I am looking at you) but also seems to apply to other types of roles (e.g. see this blog post about e-resources management)
  • Length of service as a proxy measure for ability - a sense of entitlement to higher positions by virtue of having the most years of experience
  • Pressure on students and early career librarians to specialise in a sub-discipline (cataloguing & acquisitions, liaison, public programming) and/or commit to a sector (schools, public, academic, special)
  • Negative attitudes towards those who 'jump around' (including envy of the career progression that can result for those prepared to take the very real risks associated with these leaps)
  • In recruitment and development, weighting library experience over generic transferable skills such as customer service, communication, teamwork, advocacy, IT skills, and problem solving, even when the generic skills are more important to being successful in the position
  • Lack of awareness that many skills needed for management positions cannot be easily gained alongside mastery of a work area or function, unless specific attention is paid to them as development goals (e.g. recruitment, health and safety, financial management, vendor management)
  • Consolidation and validation of expertise-based silos / team structures at the expense of cross-disciplinary groupings. 
I don't have any firm thoughts right now on what this means for us at a sector or organisational level, but it's definitely made me think about my own views on expertise (my own, as well as that of others). By highlighting this as a potential issue to be aware of, this book has definitely helped me make sense of some challenges I have had transitioning into a more senior role and given me some food for thought about how I can ensure I don't close down opportunities for myself and others in future. 

Further reading

Helgesen, Sally, and Marshall Goldsmith. 2018. How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back. Penguin Random House.