RLUK’s New Director Network (NDN) was formed a few years ago as an informal grouping bringing together people who had recently become Library Directors at RLUK member institutions. It acts as a peer network for those newly appointed.

Recently the network welcomed a new member who, when thinking about navigating the first few months in their new position as a library director, asked:

  1.   What is the one thing you’re really glad you did in your first 90 days as a new director?
  2.   What is your one key piece of advice for me?

There is a wide range of management theory and literature on how to approach the first days of any new position. This blog post reflects some of the practical advice and thoughts from the New Directors Network that followed the asking of those two questions.

Within the Library

A key theme in responses was setting a positive tone with colleagues within the library, building trust, and letting staff hear your authentic voice.  

Try to talk with all of your team, individually if possible. Ask them a set of questions: what’s good, what’s bad, what would you keep the same, what would you change, what do you want from me? This may ‘kill your diary’, but gives you a lot of information and ideas.  And the positive effect of your being ‘seen’ by staff within the wider library shouldn’t be underestimated. 

This also gives you the opportunity to think about ways of working – how did the senior team operate before, what do colleagues expect from you, what can you change to fit how you want to work?  This can be especially important when coming new into the institution – what is morale like within the team, how was your predecessor perceived, are there any legacy issues around how the library was run previously?

These conversations are an opportunity for you as a new Director to set out your vision and values and begin to outline your priorities for the library. Combined with careful listening to colleagues and visibility (either in person or virtually!) this will help to build trust and allow staff to see how your values are driving decision making.

The wider institution

The majority of RLUK members are libraries within universities, and so the role of Library Director sits within a wider institutional context. Getting to know that context (especially if you are coming to the job from another institution) is vital. Although all universities look superficially similar from the outside, there is a dazzling variety of structures, reporting lines, ‘corporate’ verses ‘collegiate’ management styles, etc, etc. Understanding how these work for your institution, how decisions are made, and where the power lies is essential.

The advice is to identify key stakeholders within the institution, to understand their priorities, and to determine where you need their engagement. During the first few months there is a window of opportunity in which you can say “I’m new, can we meet…?”. One tactic is to ask people what they would like you to do if anything were possible. It’s a useful barometer not only on peoples’ wildest dreams and biggest frustrations (including the ones they think aren’t resolvable) and useful ideas you can use, but also a way of seeing how wide or narrow people’s horizons are.

In addition to these general conversations, specific issues can be used to initiate wider conversations with senior members of the university – a conversation on budget can lead to discussions of strategic priorities. And in all of these discussions it is key to understand the wider strategy context and ambitions of the institution and place the library in relation to these – explain how you and the library can support the institution’s strategic priorities.

It is important to be at the table where decisions that might affect the library are made. Use these conversations to identify the right committees to be on. And if these are committees where the library has traditionally not been represented before, use your honeymoon period as a new Director to push for you to be included in the meetings.

Finally, a piece of advice is to get to know your Finance Director – really well!

Action mode vs listening mode

If you have followed the advice to talk to and listen to colleagues, be visible within the library, and build relationships within the wider institution then the first few months are going to be busy – a packed diary full of meetings. But it is important to build in some time to think – to ponder, collate, and cogitate. Huge amounts of information will be coming at you quickly and to ensure that you are not overwhelmed you need time to synthesise and to plan next steps.

Over the past 18 months, anybody starting as a new Library Director has done so in a period of unprecedented uncertainty and confusion as lockdown rules change, decisions needed to be made on whether physical buildings can open, budgets are stretched and reallocated to allow purchase of more electronic material to support remote research and teaching, etc.  So, there has been less opportunity to postpone important decisions.

But where possible, the advice is to only prioritise those decisions that are genuinely urgent. Do not rush into changes as that can give the impression that you have preconceived ideas and can undermine the work that you have done in building trust with colleagues. (Of course, wider institutional constraints might force your hand – coming into post at the same time as significant budget cuts, for example, might mean that you have no choice but to move quickly.)

An exception might be where you can quickly do something eye-catching (in a positive way!) that allows you to make your mark early.  This can act as a signal of intent.

And most importantly…

A final piece of advice that came through in the conversation was to enjoy the job!  Being a Library Director places you in a position where you can make positive change – working with talented colleagues to enrich research and teaching and learning. It is a job so manifestly full of possibilities and of such fundamental good.

Bring your authentic self to what you do and be kind to yourself, especially under the weight of other people’s expectations, and the spectre of imposter syndrome.

Additional reading:

Over the past few years, a couple of members of the NDN have written about their experiences in new jobs. Masud Khokhar, when he joined the University of York in a two-part blog post: So you want to be a Director of Library and Archives. Reflections from the first four months,  part two can be read here. And Katie Eagleton’s blog posts when she joined the University of St Andrews can be read here