Tips for developing a successful work relationship with your new (Library) Director

A few people have now asked me about what they can do to develop a strong relationship with their new Library Director/University Librarian (from here on referred to as boss as the same tips apply more generally as well). I will jot down a few things here which might be useful, but please do note that these are my thoughts only and if you want to use any of this advice, don’t forget about your local context.

  1. Bandwidth – The bandwidth of your boss is limited and shifts significantly over time. When they start, they are likely to have more bandwidth, they will speak with staff, they will invest more time and effort with you, they will read longer reports, etc. However, once they have established their own networks and work streams, the bandwidth changes drastically. Don’t expect that because they read a 40-page report when they started, that is the acceptable norm. If they have been there for 6 months or over, limit your papers to 2-4 pages at most or ask them what they would want now.
  2. Solution focussed – Your boss is interested in knowing if there is a problem, they can occasionally provide advice on how to tackle it, but they are not the experts in that area, section, or may not know the people in depth. They are trusting you to come with a credible solution. When you present a problem, bring at least one and ideally more solution options with a clear recommendation.
  3. Do your homework – If you are bringing a challenge with a recommended solution, think of what would be the impact (e.g. impact on staff, impact on culture, impact on finances, impact on service delivery, impact on strategy). Do some benchmarking and horizon scanning. Find out what others are doing. If your boss has come from a different place, they are interested in knowing that you are outward looking. An informed discussion would not only bring quick positive outcomes but will build strong credibility and trust with you over time.
  4. Ensure quality – Very important element as it will build your long-term credibility. Double check the quality of work that you have asked your team to do before you send it to your boss. Ask yourself questions on the line of: is it in the form that they were expecting (and if you don’t know what they were expecting, see next point), are the numbers right, is your contingency in finances so over-inflated that you will lose all trust, etc? These are really important things to consider.
  5. Clarify expectations – What does the word urgent mean to them? What does quality mean? Ask them openly what you can do to improve any paper, report or presentation further in the future. If your boss has asked you to do something that you can’t achieve within their timeline, mention it and provide some other options.  
  6. Inform – If you or your team is doing a piece of work for someone of a level that your director could be asked about it, inform them. When in doubt, inform them. Clearly mark your message as “For information”. Your boss does not want to look like a fool in any meeting, not knowing what their own team is up to. Close the loop on communication. If they asked you something ages ago, and you have now managed to do it, don’t think that is the job done. Send them a short message “For Information” – this job is now completed.
  7. Knowledge – Don’t assume that your boss has in-depth knowledge of all areas that they have under their remit. At the levels that they are working at, it is pretty much a basic level of knowledge in everything and mastery in none. This does not mean that they won’t challenge you, they should challenge you, and you should be able to defend that challenge. There is a mutual stretch and challenge element here but in a positive way. When you are talking about a project, introduce it briefly again. Don’t assume that because you mentioned it two weeks ago, your boss would have full recollection of everything about it.
  8. Leadership and pro-activeness – At this level, your boss is expecting leadership from you. This means you being pro-active in identifying areas for improvement for your sections, leading particular parts of strategy and implementation plans, responding to complex problems, taking things off your boss’s plate, and pushing the boundaries of your self-development. Very importantly, letting your boss know that you are actively developing yourself, reflecting on things, and providing ideas for improvement. If your boss has asked you to review your section, the response can’t be it is all really good. Go back, look at what works well, what are the problems, identify solutions, and bring those back with a recommendation. There are rare exceptions where things are working well but in 95% of the cases, this signals to your boss that you may be burying your head in the sand.

As I said, these are just my thoughts. If you agree or don’t agree with any of this, please do add your views in the comments. One thing that I didn’t mention but is of fundamental importance is don’t try to become someone else, remain authentic, and remain flexible in your approach. This pays off in the long run.

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