What benefits might we see working on projects and supporting teams if we are able to decenter ourselves and empower others? On this show Erin Leach, Head of Administrative Projects and Organizational Effectiveness at University of Georgia Libraries, talks about what it takes to be an effective leader who puts others forward to create successful outcomes.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

What benefits might we see working on projects and supporting teams if we are able to decenter ourselves and empower others? On this show Erin Leach, Head of Administrative Projects and Organizational Effectiveness at University of Georgia Libraries, talks about what it takes to be an effective leader who puts others forward to create successful outcomes.  Enjoy the show!

Erin, welcome to the show.

Erin Leach:

Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1:  It’s a pleasure having you. Today we are going to talk about decentering ourselves and empowering others. As we start, what made you interested in this concept?  01:24 

Erin Leach:

My interest in the topic was pretty pragmatic, honestly. I’d been an academic librarian for almost twenty years, and I’ve done a variety of service work—both within the libraries where I’ve worked, and also in professional associations. In my first leadership role in a professional association I was pretty early in my career and I encountered an experience that I feel is probably familiar to your listeners who’ve also done leadership work. 

I was put in charge of a group of volunteers who were really eager to be involved, but they really saw me as a person who is not only the person with the strategic vision for the committee, but the person who would also do the majority of the work. They were the enthusiastic cheerleaders on the sideline happy to help, but they really saw me as doing the bulk of the work.

When I thought about that way of doing committee work I knew that I didn’t have the time, or frankly the interest, to be the one who carried that burden. I knew I didn’t have the skillset to do all of that work on my own. I knew that I had to find a way to engage this group of enthusiastic volunteers over whom I had no managerial authority. 

I used all the tips and tricks at my disposal and I came up with what I’ve been calling a decentering strategy where I removed myself as the hub of the activity of the group, and I moved to serving as more of facilitator, which allowed me to support the volunteers on the committee in doing the good work that they volunteered to do. I found this strategy to be really effective and I’ve been using it in many situations across my career.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2:  Let’s jump in on the decentering strategy. What is it, and why should effective leaders do this?  03:11 

Erin Leach:

It’s a three-point strategy that’s going to sound really simple when I tell you, but it’s actually more difficult than it sounds. The first point is to find the people in your organization who want to do cool things. The second point—empower them to do those cool things, and then the third point is to give them the credit for the cool things that they’ve done.

So, the gist of the strategy is that when you assemble a team, or committee, find the people in your organization—whether it’s a professional organization, or your library whose skills and knowledge support the work that you’re trying to do, then gain buy-in for your project with those people by appealing to their values.

Then as a team leader—so moving into that second point, remove as much administrative burden as possible in order to clear the way for people to bring their skills and knowledge to your project.

Now when I talk about administrative burden, I mean things like scheduling meetings, or taking notes, or following up on questions that the group generates, doing tasks like that. Once you’ve done those first two points the last point in the strategy is as a project leader, or committee chair. Take the time to publicly acknowledge the members of your team and the impact that they made on the project.

I find this to be an effective strategy because it allows members of your committee, or your project team, or the group you’re working with to focus on the unique skills and knowledge that they bring to your project, or committee, instead of on the administrative aspects of the project, or the committee.

It also takes some of the pressure off of you as a leader to generate all the ideas and do all of the work. And then finally, using a strategy that incorporates giving credit to everyone involved establishes you as a person of character and credibility in your library, or your professional organization. It makes people more likely to want to work with you in the future.  So again, it’s that three-point strategy that sounds really simple, but it’s taken me a career to get the hang of.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3:  You say that it’s important to empower those who are being led. Will you elaborate on that?  05:12 

Erin Leach:

I think there are two important pieces to acknowledge when we think about empowering the people that we’re leading in committee work, or on projects, or in professional organizations. I think the first thing to acknowledge is that by empowering the people you lead to do the work you need them to do, you pay deep respect to their skills and knowledge.

We ask people to join our committees and our projects because they have some piece of knowledge, or some skill that we need in order to be successful. It may be the case that it likely isn’t that you ask someone to join your committee, or your project, because they’re really skilled at scheduling meetings, or taking notes. It’s more likely that they know something, they can do something that’s really important to you to get your work done.

If we remove ourselves as leaders, whether it’s a committee leader, a project leader, into the role of facilitator we allow people to do the work that we need them to do, and we allow them to shine. That’s the first part. The second thing to acknowledge is that by decentering ourselves as the hub activity we center those on our team, our committee, our project who don’t always get the opportunity to shine in our organization, because of where they sit—where they are in the org chart, the work that they do, or the identity they hold. There’s certain people in our organizations who don’t often get that time to shine.

By empowering the people that we lead we amplify their voices, and we make them a partner in achieving a goal of importance in our library, or organization. There’s a real practical way that we let people shine in lots of different ways when we empower them to do the work that we really need them to do related to their knowledge and their skills. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4:  You used the decentering strategy to develop a diversity plan for your organization. Can you use this example to share what the process looks like when applied?  07:02 

Erin Leach:

Absolutely. In 2021 I began to work with a team of eleven people in my organization to develop my library’s diversity and inclusive excellence plan. Our plan was developed in response to my university’s diversity and inclusive excellence plan. As the university created that plan they tasked all of the constituent units within the university to create plans. The library had to respond to that call. The format of the university’s plan, and then our plan was supposed to be constructed—was pretty rigid. The format was goals, key performance indicators, and annual targets. So, we were tasked with developing a plan that had those key components. 

As the team was developed—and, I inherited this team after it had been constructed, but I was pretty fortunate because as that team was developed they chose people from across the library that represented almost every functional area in the library, and almost every layer in the library’s organizational structure. So we looked pretty broadly, and pretty deeply across the organization. 

All of these people were chosen to be part of the group because of their knowledge and their skills. When I joined them and facilitated the work I saw myself as a facilitator to help bring out their best.

Fairly early in the planning process the team divided into three working groups. As project lead I supported each group to the extent that they needed me to with things like scheduling meetings, attending those meetings and taking notes, and then following up with additional information to answer their question. 

I really met each group where they were. Some groups needed a lot of support in doing those administrative tasks, in doing scheduling, and note taking, and that sort of thing—some only needed a little bit of help. My role was really to meet them where they were. I felt by showing up for them in this way I freed everybody in the group, those three working groups, and then how they fit together as that larger team, to offer their knowledge and their expertise about how our library ran and what our functional areas were, and where we needed to go with relationship to diversity and inclusion to the process.

I freed them up. I gave them the opportunity to do that. The goals, and the key performance indicators, and the ideas they came up with were absolutely better than what I would have come up with had I centered myself as the hub of activity, and idea generation. Their ideas were much better than most of mine would have been. 

As we moved out of that creation of the plan phase and then into taking that plan to key constituent groups in my library during the revision process, I followed that third point that I mentioned as in the strategy of always being mindful of giving credit where it’s due to every time I presented the plan to a group of people, to a committee—always being mindful of giving my planning team, the group I worked with, credit for their hard work, and their good ideas within the groups I was presenting to, then also directly communicating my appreciation back to the committee every time I sent them an email, or gave them an update on the process.

So, I’m happy to say that the postscript to this story is that in 2022 we had to share our draft plan with our university’s offices of the president and the provost, and we got back some really great feedback on the plan. I really credit our planning team and the work that everybody did as really—that’s why we succeeded as much as we did.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: That sounds great. What are the challenges, and opportunities involved in decentering ourselves as leaders?  10:56 

Erin Leach:

That is such a great question, because as I mentioned as I was telling you the three points—I said, Oh, it sounds so simple, and it’s so difficult. I do want to talk about some of the challenges associated with this strategy. The biggest challenge with adopting this strategy is around how we think of ourselves as leaders. I know that I still struggle with this even though I’ve used this strategy many, many times.

As leaders we sometimes identify too closely with being the face of a committee, or project. We really get wrapped up in what it means to chair a committee, to manage a project, to be the face of that work. In doing so we start to think of credit as a zero-sum game. What I mean by that is if we give credit to the people with whom we work on these projects, or committees, we as leaders might worry that no one will see how hard we worked as the leader of the group. I get that, because I sometimes still struggle with that. But the thing is, you should absolutely take credit for your work as a project leader, or a committee chair. 

I know from experience, and I’m sure a lot of your listeners in leadership roles also know this from experience, that getting a group of people who you don’t have any managerial authority over to really jump on board with your vision and work together as a team to achieve a goal is really, really hard work. You should absolutely celebrate that win and be really proud of that work that you do, and take credit for it.

But, I want to suggest that taking credit for the work that you didn’t do makes you less credible as a leader. One way around that is being really clear when you decenter yourself in saying how much you appreciate the work of others, and what others contributed to that work. When your team, or committee shines you shine as a leader. There isn’t any need to dim anyone’s shine in order for you to shine brighter. To me that’s the real challenge of adopting this process—changing that mindset in really thinking about how you can help other people shine, and shine in the process.

The opportunities there involved in decentering ourselves as leaders are really around amplifying the voices in our organizations—letting more people be part of the process of developing new workflows, new strategies, new ideas, and amplifying, again as I said earlier, amplifying those voices who don’t always get the opportunity to be as part of the decision-making process, or the implementation process in your library, and bringing more ideas to the table.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6:  I like that mindset of letting everyone shine. Is there anything else you would like to share?  13:36 

Erin Leach:

Yeah. I’m glad that resonates with you, that idea of allowing people to shine. It does lead into what I think is important to share about this decentering strategy, and that is that it might be for some of your listeners some of these ideas might already be incorporated into their work, or their mindset, or their thought process. I don’t claim to have invented this strategy. You may already be doing some of these things. Some people who are listening might think of this as something they could never adopt because of the way their organization is structured, or how work gets done, or they just don’t feel comfortable with it. Not everything I’ve said today might resonate with everyone who’s listening. That’s totally fine, but what I’d like to say is that I hope something in here is useful to you. I encourage you to take what resonates and to disregard the rest. Hopefully some nugget in here, or some piece of this process has been really helpful, and something you’d like to implement.

As we’re moving out of talking about the strategy I’d also like to say that you can start small when thinking about incorporating this strategy into your leadership toolkit. I’m going to encourage you, and I can’t hold you accountable because you’re listening to this after I’m asking you to do it, but I hope that you’ll take it to heart. Take some time after you’ve listened to this podcast episode to think about one thing that you could do to move toward a more decentered strategy of leadership. Where is one place that you could start? If you’re a committee chair, maybe the next time you run a committee meeting you could think about, Oh, maybe I could take on some of the burden around taking the notes, or maybe I could ask for more people’s input, or maybe I could—whatever that looks like for you. Think about one small thing you could do to move toward a decentering strategy, and then commit to doing that one thing. I really, really hope that you will take that challenge to heart, because I do think that even if you don’t take everything away from the strategy, one small piece is a good place to start.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7:  That is definitely useful. Do you have any favorite management, or leadership books, or resources, and why?  15:46 

Erin Leach:

When I thought about that question one thing came immediately to mind, and I think when I reflect on the development of this decentering strategy that what I’m going to talk to you about really influenced the development of this strategy. It’s probably the most influential thing in my career, which is an article by Shirley K. Baker from 1995 called, Leading From Below. You can find this article—it’s not online, but you can get it in print. If you can get your hands on it, I really suggest it. It gives advice to people who are not in a formal leadership role about becoming informal leaders in their libraries. 

In this article Baker talks about three attributes that she thinks are important for people who want to move into informal leadership. Those are vision, courage, and the ability to make things happen for others. She makes the point in this article that you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader. As you hear me talking about this I’m sure that you can hear little pieces of that article coming through and that strategy that I’ve been talking to you about.

I came across this article in my first job out of library school. When I worked for Dean Baker, and when I was trying to find ways to become a leader in my library without being in a formal leadership role. When I started out of library school I had a job where I was pretty low on the org chart. I wasn’t a middle manager. I was a librarian, but I was below that middle manager area. I hadn’t really had a lot of experience as a committee chair. I was just dipping my toes into association service work, so I didn’t have a lot of experience, but I knew that I wanted to be an influential leader, and I was struggling with how to think about that. That article came at the right time. It had such good advice, and it’s something that I return to over, and over again even almost twenty years into my career. I gain new insights every time I read it. If you can get your hands on it either through interlibrary loan, or however you can get your hands on it, I suggest it. You may be thinking, Oh, it’s an article from 1995, it can’t be resonant. It’s absolutely resonant, and it’s wonderful, and it’s been so influential in my career.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8:  Sounds good, thank you. Erin, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?  18:13 

Erin Leach:

I have been really fortunate to work in libraries my whole career from my first high school job shelving books in a public library until the work that I do now. I have worked in libraries my whole working life. I’ll say as I answer this question that given that most of my work experience has focused on academic libraries I’m going to focus my answer there. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that other kinds of libraries are important, I absolutely see value in every kind of library. I hope that my answer can be translated into other contexts. I hope that people listening to this episode outside of academic libraries can see themselves in my answer, but I did want to say that since most of my career is there that’s the lens through which I answer this question.

Since the fall of 2017 I’ve been a part-time doctoral student studying higher education. I can imagine that this sounds really navel-gazing to people who are listening, but in this program I studied the organization and governance of higher education, the finance and economics of higher education, and the history of higher education. Through my work in academic libraries, and through my studies I grew more certain that academic libraries play a key role in the life of colleges and universities in which they’re situated than ever before—especially with an increasing focus on student success and the purpose of higher education.

From people doing research and instruction who are connecting people to resources, to people who are doing research data management, who are connecting researchers to the support they need for data—academic libraries, college and university libraries just play a key role on college campuses, and that’s translatable to every kind of library. Public libraries are hubs of their community with providing resources, providing programming, providing the books everyone wants to read, and you can translate that out into other contexts as well. Just think that libraries are the hubs of the communities that they’re situated in. 

Over the past few years I’ve had firsthand knowledge of the impact that my library makes to campus as I’ve used library resources. As I moved from a doctoral student in coursework to a candidate writing my dissertation, I had a really unique opportunity to see the pain points that our users encounter, but I’ve also seen how library resources have made an important impact in me achieving my educational goals. So, I’ve seen firsthand in my own life how important libraries are. I just think libraries are such wonderful hubs within the communities that they serve, and that’s what libraries mean to me is that community, and connection, and service.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9: Communities, connection, and service are definite core values of libraries, and when we are leading groups in our organizations to make so much happen the things you are talking about today regarding decentering ourselves, and empowering others really makes that possible, so I’m very pleased to have you on this show, Erin. Thank you so much.  21:00 

Erin Leach:

Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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