Library Managers - Be More Like Scotty and Less Like Geordi

Yes... the title is a Star Trek reference (after all, this blog is called 3 Geeks and a Law Blog).  We'll get to the management styles of Engineers Montgomery Scott vs. Geordi La Forge in a minute.  
Since the Great Recession started in October 2008, I've been seeing and hearing more and more comments about how librarians need to give up certain things in order to survive the economic downturn. While some of those statements may be true, I'm not sure I like the blasé attitude that I'm hearing from others in the field about ceding ground on a number of library issues.  For example, I had to sit through a library meeting on the east coast a few weeks ago and listen to a consultant tell the group that if your employer (law school, firm, court, etc.) is discussing layoffs... go ahead and volunteer some of your staff for layoffs so you'll be seen as a team player.  WHA??? I looked around at the room waiting for someone to jump up and hit the speaker, but very few in the audience seemed to have noticed the great insult the consultant hurled at them. I had missed the first half of the presentation, so I thought maybe I missed the front end of this story that made the "go ahead and volunteer some staff to be laid off" as the punch line to the joke mentioned earlier.  But when I checked with a friend afterward and she said that it wasn't a joke and that the consultant was giving clients the same advice. And, just think... those clients are paying for that advice.
This morning, I read an article on LLRX.com called "From the Law Firm Library Trenches: A Conversation Between Two Veterans" where a running dialog between two experience law firm librarians (Karen Krupka and Elaine Billingslea Dockens) discussed a variety of issues.  Now, I'm going to be a little unfair to the two authors because I'm going to criticize a small piece of an otherwise great article and probably take the comments out of context as well. So, now that I've apologized in advance...
When discussing the value of membership in professional organizations, attending professional conferences, and continuing education programs, both Karen and Elaine agreed that if the firm doesn't pay for these activities in its professional development budget, then "you should pay for it yourself and include the expenses in your personal budget."  I agree... but felt that about five "you should fight for this" statements that were missing between the "firm not paying" and the "pay for it yourself" statement.  The library's professional development budget is probably one of the smallest line items in your budget.  Giving in on this produces very little "budget cutting" and ends up being a morale buster and in my opinion creates a situation where you're hamstringing your ability to be risk manager for your firm.  It is through professional development events that we connect with our peers, get the latest information on what new products are being introduced, and have the ability to foresee issues that will affect the firm in the near future and be ready to proactively address them now rather than react to them later. Rolling over on issues like this may make you a team "player", but it most certainly doesn't make you one of the team "leaders". 
There is always a "game" being played between the leaders of the law firm libraries, and those that want to cut what they see as firm overhead.  In the crudest of terms, it can be called the "Prove Your Worth Game."  First of all, if you don't know there's a game being played, or you don't know the rules of this game, you've probably already lost.  Libraries tend to have one of the highest budgets in the firm, and are always under attack.  Since you probably spend most of your money on two specific vendors, it makes it that much more difficult on other line items (such as professional development).  When you're faced with the situation where you have to make cuts, you can be a team "player" and methodically go through and trim line item after line item and even volunteer a few more things along the way.  Or, you can be a team 'leader' and start trimming those same items, but at the same time standing up to those that want to cut overhead and let them know the overall effect that each of these cuts will have on the firm and the library's ability to manage risk for the firm.
This brings me to my Scotty vs. La Forge comparison.  Take this conversation between the two engineers and see if you can spot who is the team player and who is the leader:

Geordi: Look, Mr. Scott, I'd love to explain everything to you. But the captain wants this spectrographic analysis done by 1300 hours.
Scotty: [thinks about it some time] You mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.
Geordi: Yeah. Well, I told the captain I'd have this analysis done in an hour.
Scotty: How long would it really take?
Geordi: [annoyed] An hour!
Scotty: [looks unbelieving] Oh. You didn't tell him how long it would REALLY take, did you?
Geordi: Of course I did.
Scotty: Oh, laddie. You've got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker. 
There will be many times when you'll need to cede ground on issues like professional development and have to face the fact that if you want to do it, you'll have to pay for it out of your own pocket.  However, items like professional development shouldn't be given up with out a fight; otherwise those that are looking to cut overhead will see you as weak and will be back for more.  If you are expected to pay for your own professional development today, and you give in without a fight, then what will you be asked to pay for out of your own pocket tomorrow?  

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Anonymous said...

Finally, someone who will come out and say professional development is important, and should NOT be cut, and should not be on the individual's dime unless it is extremely necessary!

Nina Platt said...

I like the reference to Star Trek and can definitely see Scotty saying something about working miracles. I hope you don't mind if I add some sage advice from a geek consultant.

1. It may be necessary to volunteer layoffs depending on the situation. If there are more library staff than lawyers, you won't win an argument about keeping all your staff - no matter how savvy you are. OK, so I really mean if your firm has made significant cuts in lawyers or if the firm loses significant clients, don't expect to save everyone on your staff.

2. Do what you can to save professional development but, again, you may lose some ground if the firm's edict is no travel for anyone. If the firm doesn't pay for the conference, pay your own way. It will demonstrate how important the conference is to you in the work that you do.

Too often, librarians are not seen as team players, trying to "save the library" at all costs. If you think of the work the library does in a business-like manner and see yourselve as part of the firm's management team rather than the Leader of the Library, you will do what is best for both. I know many directors who lost their jobs because they "lost the firm's partner's confidence." Make sure you are acting on their behalf, not your or your staff's behalf.

Greg Lambert said...


Agreed. There are times when cuts have to be made, and tough decisions are laid at the feet of the law library leadership. My concern has been that advice on being a "team member" is coming off as "you need to roll over whenever someone asks you to."

The consultant I heard last month made it sound like if you volunteer to lay off staff or cut budgets, even before being asked, then you'll somehow reap a reward on down the road. My thoughts are that if you give in too easily, it is like a putting blood in the water filled with sharks.

Again, I'm not saying that it is a fight to the death. There are times when you have to make cuts, but let me put it in a way that may make more sense on what I mean by "fight."

For most of us, if we have someone leave a position and we want to refill that position with another qualified law librarian, we have to write out a business plan and justify why that position is important, necessary and beneficial to the law library and the law firm as a whole. Why on earth wouldn't you make that same effort when you are asked to lay off employees, or cut professional development budgets? The resulting business plan may determine that it is necessary to cut staff or cut budget, but that same plan will also lay out what the results of such cuts will cost the firm.

My concern was that if we don't step up as leaders and show that we understand the big picture of what the leadership in the firm "wants", but that we also need to sometimes stand up and make a case for what the firm leaderhip wants to do may not be what the firm needs to do. By giving the other leaders in the firm the full picture of "if we cut 'X', then we're looking at 'Y' results from that action" is stepping up to our leadership responsibilities. In the end, we may still end up with loosing staff, cutting budgets, and paying for professional development out of pocket, but we've educated our peers that we are an integral part of the overall organization and can be team players without being seen as weak in the process.

Chris Graesser said...

I gotta say there's a point on both sides. Librarians should take ownership of their professionalism and not depend on their employers to do it for them. That said, part of professionalism is to articulate to our bosses why they should support professional activities and why adequate funding of the library is important. If taking one for the team compromises the quality of library services, we do more harm to our firms' bottom line than good.

I recall a conversation I had with our human resources director and a lawyer. The HRD commented on how the library was the most cost effective department in the firm - always ready to cut more from their budget. I said, yes, maybe TOO ready (I'm a branch librarian, not the director), and got an odd look from the HRD, but don't regret saying it.

BTW, Greg, LOVE the Star Trek ref - maybe a Lost analogy next time?

Greg Lambert said...

Good points Chris!

Next reference will most likely be from "Doctor Who". I'm trying to figure out a post where I can use a sonic screwdriver and become "Time Librarian Victorious"!!

Anonymous said...

It's not a new phenomenon: the higher compensated at the top sacrifice lower level workers to help secure their own positions. Librarian/ managers will mimic their "superiors," to whom they wish to cozy up. Intelligent worker bees should not be afraid to move on.

Greg Lambert said...

All I can say to 'anonymous' is this:

1. If you consider yourself merely a 'worker bee' then you are in the wrong profession.

2. If your supervisor considers you merely a 'worker bee' then you are working for the wrong person and need to find somewhere else to work.

Jill said...

I agree that soley focusing on being a team "player" may not necessarily make you a team "leader." Nina Platt's suggestions above are an excellent example of how one can work to stike a good balance between the two.

Library managers and directors should always try to align the Library's goals with the firm but also be willing to be a strong and vocal advocate for their team. It certainly isn't easy and likey a constant challenge since every situation will be different. One must listen to and weigh both sides, figure out how to show value to the greater organization and learn from every attempt. To me, this is a big part of what being a leader is all about (and the kind I hope to be someday.)

Rich DiGirolamo, Organization RECESSitator said...

Unfortunately in times of financial crisis training and development budgets are the first to be slashed. The sad thing is that there are low cost alternatives out there; yet when the budget gets taken away no one bothers to look how to get the best value for the remaining budget. Too often the funds sit and don't get used and then vanish all together.

Keeping employees engaged and trained should never ever ever be eliminated. And don't you find it odd that a companies single biggest expense item (people) is usually the place where they invest the least?


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