So you want to be a Director of Library and Archives? Reflections from the first four months.

First of all, two apologies. First one for not updating my blog for almost five months and the second one for the long title of this blog post. I have been in my new role (Director of Library & Archives) for around four and a half months now, and it has been a great experience so far. There are certain things I learnt very quickly, which I am sharing as no one really tells you about this when you make a move to a Director level role.

My first reflection is on handling the initial pressure that comes with a Director level leadership position. This would vary to some degree across institutions, but basically, there is a lot more expected of you when you become a Director. There is no explicit mention of this, no one will ask you to work odd or more than usual hours. However, this will be mostly driven through self-criticism and peer pressure, both within the organisation and across organisations. Let me elaborate this further.

When you join a new organisation, you realise that you took a lot of things in your past organisation for granted. Your relationships and networks develop over time, your knowledge of organisational decision making is built with actual experience and your credibility increases as you deliver quality work over time. All of this goes away when you start all over again. I am fortunate that my manager in the new role helped significantly in overcoming these hurdles, but that won’t be the case across the board. As a consequence, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to learn a lot as quickly as possible. As you join Director only mailing lists and networks, you realise that you are pretty much the newbie in many areas and this puts further pressure on you. Coupled with this is the networking element within the organisation. You want to get to know your staff, you want to build credibility with the senior management of the institution, you want to develop networks across academic and professional management of the institution, and you want to build your leadership team to be highly effective and joined up in their thinking. You want to do this all together and as quickly as possible. This causes this internal dilemma of going fast or going far.

My second reflection is on how different strategic planning and financial processes can be between institutions. As a Director, the accountability of strategic and financial plan for the organisational unit lies with you. However, I am still struggling with parts of the financial processes at York, what is allowed against local policies and what needs to go through other processes. Another difference at York in comparison to Lancaster is having separate organisational unit budgets as well as shared budget lines between the converged Information Services Directorate. This is all very different to what I experienced at Lancaster and feels alien to some degree. This reminds me of a lesson that my previous manager Pete told me.

Don’t be hard on yourself and give yourself a full financial year to understand the process entirely

My further comment on this would be to use your management accountant (or finance partner) as much as possible, don’t be afraid to ask what you may think are stupid/basic questions, and use your admin team effectively (they have gone through these things a lot of times).

My third reflection is on not to assume things, particularly as you work with and develop your leadership team (this includes you and your own development too). I know this is common sense, but in the swing of things, it is easy to miss the difference between what you think your team knows and what your team actually knows. There have been a couple of instances where I have been considering the strategic direction and what I want us to deliver on so much that I thought everyone in the team is also thinking the same without any real discussions on the topic. However, very quickly, I realised that this is also a consequence of the self-criticism dilemma and moving too quickly on things. I kept thinking that while I am still new, my leadership team has been in the limbo for much longer (previous Director announcing the decision to leave, then a gap in the middle, and then initial delay as new Director gets to know things). This puts that extra pressure to deliver quickly. Don’t let this happen to you. Take your time because it is absolutely crucial to bring your leadership team with you in all your ideas. I actually wrote a reminder to myself on the whiteboard in my office “there is no rush”. Another lesson that I learnt from Nicola Owen (CAO at Lancaster) was how the definition of success changes when you join a Director level or above position.

It is not about what you can deliver yourself, but what you can get your team to deliver.

Your team will make or break you in your role so investment in your team is worth every penny.

My fourth reflection is on accepting your weaknesses (or opportunities as I would call them). As an example of this, I am coming in this position with a fairly strong background in research support and digital environments. I am also coming in this position with least knowledge of Archives and Content areas. Eventually, I will need to let go of my strengths and trust my staff more in these areas, and develop my knowledge further in content and archives. As a Director, you depend on your team, and you rely on them. As I get to know my team better and they get to know me better, we will reach that common understanding of what we expect from each other. A lesson learnt here is not to be afraid of sharing this early on with your team. Would you like them to prepare briefings for you, would you want them to give you regular updates on policy changes, would you expect them to keep you informed about everything or only at a certain level. I am personally adopting a radical candour approach with my team, and I will keep you informed on how well this goes in a future blog post.

Being a Director is a very different role to being an Assistant director or Head of a section. You lose the satisfaction of doing things yourself. It is also one of the best jobs I have ever had so far. I am relishing the challenge, I am really enjoying working in the converged environment (being from an IT background helps but is not required for this), and most of all, I am really enjoying working with my leadership team and my staff. If you mentally accept the new definition of success for yourself, you can truly develop a team and a culture that can transform the organisation in the long run.

4 comments On So you want to be a Director of Library and Archives? Reflections from the first four months.

  • Hi Masud,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences and please do continue to do. As someone who’s moving up into a more strategic role myself, it’s always interesting and useful to hear other people’s experiences of making that transition for themselves.

    • Thank you so much for your kind response and glad to hear that you found it useful. One thing I have noticed is that we all face these challenges to a greater or lesser degree but feel very hesitant to share our feelings about it. Leadership at this level requires navigating through a lot of unknowns, especially at the beginning, so don’t forget to give yourself lots of time for reflection.

  • Another really interesting post. I am going to do some reading up on the radical candour approach. Look forward to reading another post soon 🙂

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