Library Leadership

51. Criss Cross, Be the Boss: How a Youth Services Skillset Can Prepare You for Library Leadership

What leaders need to be successful can be developed in a variety of ways. But, as a profession, how often do we think of having a youth services skillset as an ideal path to leadership? Today, I talk with Amadee Ricketts, Director of the Cochise County Library District based in Bisbee, Arizona. When her career path led her into administration, she was struck by how her youth services skillset applied directly to leadership.

So, she conducted a survey to explore this further. We are fortunate to get to hear about what she learned that will hopefully inspire and build great leaders in libraries, from youth services beginnings. 

Transcript

This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created, with program sites in Las Vegas, Nevada; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Emporia and Overland Park, Kansas.

Adriane:

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 leaders need to be successful can be developed in a variety of ways. But, as a profession, how often do we think about having a youth services skillset as an ideal path to leadership?  

Today I talk with Amadee Ricketts, Director of the Cochise County Library District based in Bisbee, Arizona. When her career path led her into administration, she was struck by how her youth services skillset applied directly to leadership. So, she conducted a survey to explore this further. We are fortunate to get to hear about what she learned that will hopefully inspire and build great leaders and libraries from youth services beginnings. Enjoy the show. 

Welcome to the show, Amadee.

Amadee Ricketts:

Thank you, I’m so glad to be here.

Adriane:

Question #1: And, I’m excited to have you here today, especially because we are talking about youth services librarians becoming leaders. Once upon a time I was a youth services librarian, and here I am a leader of a library. I know you were a youth services librarian and are also an administrator. So, let’s jump in. When you, first of all, started thinking about being an administrator what helped you with that decision? 01:56 

Amadee Ricketts:

That’s a great question. I was a librarian for many years working with youth and I just loved it. For most of that time I never pictured myself as an administrator, at all. So, my views on that started to change around 2014. The thing that set that off was the director at my previous library in Colorado retired and my boss, the assistant director, stepped into his position. So, seeing the impact she was able to make in her first year as a director, putting patrons first, removing barriers, simplifying procedures that had been in place for decades, really opened my eyes to the difference an administrator can make. 

I’d worked for some great administrators in the past but they had all been well established before I came along. So, seeing a strong, new director really changed my perspective of what might be possible for me.

Around that same time I was starting to feel a little stale, or burned out in my youth services work. I really enjoyed kids and families and I had a wonderful staff. But, I’d been doing similar types of work for more than a decade. So, I didn’t feel that same level of challenge from day-to-day, or excitement that I had before. I started thinking it might be time for a change.

By 2016 when my current job opened up as a director of a rural library district in southern Arizona, I knew I was ready for a new challenge and this had a lot of elements that were hard to resist. 

So, I went ahead and applied, and finding that right opportunity was the final piece of the puzzle that made me take the jump. When I got the job it was partly because I had a supportive director who really helped me through the whole application process.

Adriane:

Question #2: Those are great reasons to move in this direction. And as you started, you talked to others who were in a similar situation and you realized that working with youth and families gave you skills that helped make you a successful leader, and you wanted to explore this further. So, you did a survey. Can you tell us about that? 04:07 

Amadee Ricketts:

Sure. This was actually kind of fascinating to me. During my first couple of years in my new position as an administrator, I noticed that some of the skills I’d picked up in youth services gave me a real boost in my leadership role. As I thought about it I realized that some of the best library leaders also came from a youth services background. Including Sandy Irwin who was my director at my last library in Colorado. 

So this connection seemed really interesting and I started to think about putting together a session on the subject for our library conference. But, it didn’t seem terribly interesting to talk about myself for an hour. And, I really wanted to know whether other professionals had a similar trajectory.

So, I put together a brief survey. I collected responses from September to October 2018. Twenty-six people were kind enough to respond. Their jobs when they filled out the survey ranged from section supervisor in a large library, to state librarian. And the majority of them, actually nineteen out of the twenty-six, had spent at least six years working mostly with youth before moving into leadership or administration positions. 

Their answers were really insightful. Along with getting lots of information to work with, the survey confirmed that other people had noticed this similar youth services effect as they moved into leadership positions. 

When the respondents were asked to rate how much of a difference their youth services skills had made, or how much it had contributed to their success as a leader, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 meaning not at all, and 10 meaning very much. Twenty-three of the twenty-six people, that’s 88%, gave that an 8, 9, or a 10 out of 10. Fourteen of those folks gave it a 10 out of 10.

So, I said, There’s some self-selection at work here. People who didn’t think their youth services work had been valuable later in their careers might have just passed on taking the survey. But, this was still a much higher rating than I would have expected to see, and it definitely corresponded with my own experience.

Adriane:

Question #3: So interesting. What kind of skills are we talking about that you learned about in the survey that transferred over from youth services to administration so nicely? 06:23 

Amadee Ricketts:

The skills that were listed most often by survey participants really overlapped a great deal with my own impressions during my career. These were communication, this was mentioned absolutely the most across the board, creativity, flexibility, empathy, and the ability to juggle multiple projects and priorities. 

Quite a few people also mentioned event planning, advocacy, grant writing, and supervisory skills. I did see a lot of overlap with what I’d experienced myself. The more I thought about how youth services skillsets are transferable to library leadership roles, the more I thought, at least for me, some of these skills are especially helpful in reaching a leadership position, and showing what value you could bring to that role. And others are especially key to succeeding once you get that job.

The types of experience that helped me get hired for my current position were communication, again, supervisory experience, budgeting, grant writing, and outreach. I think that the skills that have helped me succeed are communication, again, flexibility, humor, and a particular kind of fearlessness that I think is common among a lot of youth services people.

Adriane:

Getting up in front of all of those toddlers in a costume, right? Nothing is braver than that. So, how did these skills show up in real life?

Amadee Ricketts:

This is the part that I find really exciting. In part, because I think a lot of people working in youth services don’t give themselves enough credit, or realize just how well their skills transfer to other types of library work.

I’ll just give a few examples. But, it’s easy to come up with more once you start thinking about it. Since communication skills came up the most frequently in the survey, and this has really been an overriding theme for me. I see this as key in attaining a leadership role and succeeding once you get there. So, let’s start there and then just briefly touch on a couple of other skills. 

Communication is a broad topic. Three aspects of it seem especially relevant. Those are public speaking, communicating with varied audiences, and having those difficult conversations when you are in a leadership role. 

Public speaking is interesting because if you’re in youth services and you do programming or outreach, it probably doesn’t seem like a very big deal. But, being afraid of public speaking is very common. In fact, according to a recent article in Psychology Today, one quarter of adults described themselves as very afraid of public speaking. It’s one of the top things that they’re afraid of. So, feeling okay about it, even if it took you years to get comfortable doing it, gives you a huge advantage as a candidate for administrative or leadership jobs.

The second piece under communication would be communicating with varied audiences. In library settings, adult services and other library staff frequently step aside when something comes up regarding children or teens. But children and teens come with caregivers, and families. So, youth services staff get comfortable dealing with every part of the library service population. They get very adept at adjusting their communication style according to who they’re talking to.

Finally, those difficult conversations. Whether it’s handling challenging behavior in a program, or talking to a caregiver who’s left a young child unattended, or helping to sort out a complicated situation where, My library books are at Dad’s house, and I can’t go there. Youth Services is a crash course in handling tough conversations, kindly, tactfully, and in between juggling sixty-three other priorities. So, I can’ really overstate the importance of that communication skill set that I think comes with working with youth. 

A couple of other things that came up a lot, and I do think are important, are creativity, and flexibility. Creativity is a must in youth services, as I’m sure you know. The same skillset that lets you put together engaging, original programs on a minuscule budget will serve you equally well when you’re asked to fill in as a speaker on a topic that may not be super familiar, or to demonstrate why your budget priorities have value for the whole community. 

It really teaches you to think on your feet. Which leads straight into flexibility. Another characteristic that, I think, feels like second nature to a lot of people in youth services. But, it’s not nearly as common in the general workplace as you might think. Experience in event planning and outreach gives you an ability to plan for contingencies, and truly adjust on the fly.

Adriane:

Question #4: I don’t know that we all think of this, as youth services librarians in the field, that these can be amazingly applicable. So, what are some of the things that people in your survey told you about their experiences that worked well in leadership? I know that you had some amazing responses. 11:33 

Amadee Ricketts:

Really did. I so appreciated people taking the time to give really thoughtful answers, and consider their own experience, and being generous enough to share that.

Participants highlighted some of the same skills and experiences that we’ve touched on already, but through a lot of different lenses. The director of a large library system here in Arizona, who had worked as a youth services librarian for a long period earlier in her career, said, Working with children and youth helped create the ability to multitask, organize projects, give clear direction, and handle unexpected events with a calm, clear head. Which I thought was a really succinct way of summing up some of the things that we’ve just looked at.

Our Arizona State Librarian, Holly Hanley, was also nice enough to respond and came from a youth services background. She said, Youth services work gave me the opportunity to develop customer service and communication skills that are critical to me today as a leader. Libraries today need to turn outward and listen to their communities. I feel that I’m better able to do that because of my experiences. 

Another library leader had a more succinct take, but I think we can all relate it was, If you can wrangle a group of toddlers or teens, you can wrangle a group of staff.

Adriane:

Question #5: So as an administrator, can you share, especially for those who might be in youth services now and thinking forward, maybe asking themselves for the first time if they want to be in a leadership role, what do you like most and least about your role as an administrator? 12:52 

Amadee Ricketts:

I love the challenges that come with this new type of work because I’m learning new things every single day. I love having a wider impact in my organization and being able to support other staff members and colleagues in meeting their goals and providing the very best library service we can in our tiny rural communities. We’ve accomplished a ton over the last three years and it’s really satisfying to look back and see how far we’ve come already. Of course, there’s more to do.  

As far as the thing I like least—I miss working directly with the public. I do miss presenting storytimes and children’s programs on a regular basis. I do still have a chance to help with youth programs once in a while or substitute at a branch, and it’s a wonderful change of pace. But honestly, I’m having too much fun in my new role to want to go back. 

Adriane:

Question #6: Sure. I get to help with storytimes once in a while, too, and it is a lot of fun. So, if someone is out there and says, Hmm, you know what? This doesn’t sound bad. Maybe I should think about this. What advice would you offer them? 14:04 

Amadee Ricketts:

That’s another good question. That’s also something where I asked for some feedback from survey participants. This answer is a mix of my impressions and contributions from that group. I hope that all youth services librarians, whether they currently think they’re interested in administration or not, will sit back and really think about the skills that they already have and the skills that they might want to build for the future. Having that variety of knowledge and experience opens doors, and you never know when an opportunity will come along, or when your ambitions and ideas for yourself might change.

One thing that really helps, and has helped for me, is to look for mentors, or experienced colleagues who can support your career development. If you’re lucky, as I was at my previous library, you’ll have a supervisor, or director who goes out of their way to help you move forward with your career.

When I applied for my current job, I had plenty of supervisory experience. I had experience in grant management and some other areas that were asked for. But, I’d never prepared or managed the budget for a whole institution. I knew that was a weak spot. My director, good old Sandy Irwin, filled me in on every step of our library’s budget process, and invited me to sit in on related meetings. So, when I walked in for the interview I really felt prepared. 

If you don’t have a Sandy, or even if you do, it’s great to look for connections through your state, or regional library association, or your own personal network. Many of us have had great help and support along the way, and would be thrilled to be asked to help someone else along.

As a really insightful survey participant, who’s now a library director put it, Ask for training on how your branch works. Your boss will appreciate your interest. I was always surprised at how much I knew about how things run, when my colleagues in the same position, or even higher, couldn’t answer questions that I could. Don’t be the I don’t know person, be the I’ll find out person.

Finally, have the confidence to make the most of the experience and skills you already have. I think that many of us in the library profession, and especially women, give ourselves too little credit. If you’ve assisted in writing or implementing a couple of grants, you have grant writing experience. If you’ve supervised a small staff, you have management experience. Present yourself accordingly and don’t minimize your experience and skills.

Adriane:

Question #7: Youth services librarians are doing incredible work that counts toward a lot of things out in the field that are broader and expand their reach, so that is great advice. Anything else you’d like to share? 16:44 

Amadee Ricketts:

Just that—I really appreciate the invitation to talk today. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to a bunch of episodes of the Library Leadership Podcast since discovering it last fall. And, I loved the most recent interview with Robin Newell. I’ve learned a lot from it, and I’m just tickled to be in such good company.

Adriane:

Question #8: Oh, it’s great to have you on the show. I was so excited for today. I mean, this is near and dear to my heart. I wanted to ask you, do you have a favorite book or resource you’d like to share about leadership, and why? 17:11 

Amadee Ricketts:

One that is a couple of years old that I just read for the first time recently is, Pre-Suasion, by Robert Cialdini. It’s very well researched and readable. It’s packed with practical tips to help you set the stage for success, whether you’re selling a product or promoting an idea. A lot of us in libraries have many occasions to get out and advocate for our services.

Another favorite of mine is not a leadership, or a management book but it’s all about a library leader that I really admire. It’s called Gratia Countryman: Her Life, Her loves and Her Library by Jane Pejsa. It tells the story of the first female director of a big city library system. Gratia Countryman was the director of the Minneapolis Public Library from 1904 to 1936. She was a pioneer in outreach and youth services, establishing joint youth libraries and branches. I first read it back in library school and I find myself going back to it every couple of years for inspiration,

Adriane:

Question #9: Those sound like great ones. Thank you for sharing them. In closing, what does being a librarian mean to you, personally? 18:17 

Amadee Ricketts:

I love connecting people with information and resources. In youth services that often meant helping a child find a book that was just right, or helping teens learn how to identify trustworthy information sources. In my new role the job is more focused on connecting staff and other libraries with information and resources. But, the goal and the satisfaction are the same. 

I think that public libraries are wonderful institutions because they welcome everyone and strive to give them the tools to succeed and meet their own goals. So, I just feel lucky and proud to be part of that.

Adriane:

So do I. And I feel lucky and proud that I have gotten to talk to you on this show today. And, I hope, based on what you’ve shared with us, that we’ve got some people thinking about the value of their skills in new ways. Maybe looking to grow. That would be really great.

Amadee Ricketts:

That would be wonderful.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at https://libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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