Hire and higher

In 10 years of managing libraries, the most important thing I have learnt about managing teams is to hire good people, and to not feel intimidated that they may know more than me about what I’ve hired them to do.

I think on the whole that I HAVE hired good people in libraries, and I’m pretty sure I’ve only screwed this up once with one real clanger. This was the time a colleague and I interviewed someone who looked great on paper – a Masters degree, articulate, smart. But one key question we left off our list was “so, how are you with technology?” So on Day 1 of her tenure she arrived for work punctually (tick), headed out to the front desk to take instruction, then clamped on a wrist brace and said “by the way, I have OOS, and I don’t use a computer. I use voice recognition technology.”

I was flummoxed. How could this be? She has a Masters degree. How on earth did she do that without a computer? We, on the other hand, are a poorly funded public library. We spend most of our days working the desk, and I can guarantee there is no chance of us acquiring voice recognition technology at this branch any time soon.

I got off lucky with this one, as this was a casual contract, and I got out of it by simply not using her until she picked up a role elsewhere in the organisation in a more paper based environment. But I can tell you, there’s now always an IT question when I interview.

Since then I’ve hired some amazing people, which gives me the ability to lead – the role I was hired to do, knowing that there are awesome and intuitive people reporting to me who can add all the bells and whistles and do the job that I have hired them to do.
As a leader, I believe a key role of mine is to say “Yes” when my teams ask me if they can try something new. This obviously needs to be framed by the obvious questions – how, what will we need, how many staff will be involved, what are the benefits, what happens if it doesn’t work, and of course in a public library, how much will it cost? And I just love it when the answers to these questions are “it’ll be easy, not much, not many, huge, nothing major, and nothing.” When this happens, or when there is a small cost or hurdle to be overcome, my role as their manager is to solve these logistical problems. I’m the facilitator for their entrepreneurship. I have the easy part.

If staff feel empowered to try new and cool things and initiate new programmes or projects, they will be encouraged to keep being awesome, and the communities we work in will continue to be the beneficiaries. The prospect of these people turning up for work every day and having their initiative and enthusiasm slowly stifled and drained out of them by always being told “No” is just too awful to contemplate. And what’s the worst that can happen if an idea doesn’t fly? Well, at worst you don’t do it again. At best, you modify the plan. And when it does come off, please make sure that you share the credit!

The communities always benefit from staff who are prepared to give stuff a go and to push themselves beyond their own comfort zones to do so. Stretching and empowering staff is also key to being a good leader. Fairly recently a very competent but unconfident staff member attended training on the library’s ebook platforms. She was very nervous about attending and felt that she wouldn’t be able to get it. She had to be persuaded to go.  On returning to the branch she was fizzing about how easy it all was, and how she would like to share these new skills with the public. Before long she was planning a session in a local cafe with wifi where she could sit for a couple of hours, with a tablet (and with the cafe owner’s permission, of course) and show interested patrons how to download ebooks from the library catalogue. As it eventuated, this was not quite what happened in the end, but this team member became very confident at teaching customers how to use the library’s ebook and emagazine platforms within the library.

All of this doesn’t mean that I, as a leader, sit back and wait for the great ideas to come to me. I’ve had my fair share of good ones too. And I’ve always had great teams around me to help bring these to fruition.

So to anyone who is hiring staff in any sector at all, please don’t hire adequate staff in order to make yourself look more competent. Hire brilliant people who will help to make you and the rest of your team shine. Hire people who are better than you at what they do. Then do everything you can to support and nurture them.


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