Library Leadership

87. How to Talk So Your Boss Will Listen with Sunnie Scarpa

On this show we get tips from Sunnie Scarpa, Library Director of the E.C. Scranton Memorial Library in Madison, Connecticut—who shares ways to talk so your boss will listen with dos and don’ts, how to prepare for conversations, how to create fresh starts, and even tips for the bosses themselves.

Transcript

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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.

Have you ever thought how great it would be to really be able to communicate with your boss? We all answer to someone. Even bosses have bosses. Clear communication is helpful at all levels to alleviate confusion and frustration. 

On this show we get tips from Sunnie Scarpa, Library Director of the E.C. Scranton Memorial Library in Madison, Connecticut—who shares ways to talk so your boss will listen, with do’s and don’ts, how to prepare for conversations, how to create fresh starts, and even tips for the bosses themselves.  Enjoy the show.

Sunnie, welcome to the show! 

Sunnie Scarpa:

Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Adriane:

Question #1: It’s great to have you here. And, I want to jump right in, because this feels like an important topic for all of us. Communicating in a way that our boss can hear us is something we want to do. As we get started, why is it important for librarians to think about the way we talk with our bosses? 01:33 

Sunnie Scarpa:

I agree. It’s definitely something really important for us to integrate into our professional skills. I think for librarians especially, we can get really focused on the service aspects of our job, because we provide service to the public, and we’re always thinking about the public. How can I improve my customer service skills? How can I make sure I’m ordering the right materials for our collection? We’re just always thinking about the public, which is great—or, I should say your constituents. So, even if you’re an academic library, you know you’re focused on what your students need, and that type of thing.

The softer skills, like communicating internally, can sometimes get a little pushed to the side, or pushed to the bottom of the to-do list, so to speak. But these soft skills, especially communication, do lead to better outcomes for us in our careers and our library patrons. So, when you stop to think about it, it’s easy to see how getting in alignment with your boss and making sure everyone in the organization is on the same page, and moving toward the same goals—it’s better for everyone in the organization, everyone working there. And then, it also is going to have an impact on how you serve the public. So, there’s a trickle down impact on the public, but it starts with the internal communication.

Adriane:

Question #2: That makes sense. What are some frustrations that can arise if we’re not communicating well with those above us? 03:23 

Sunnie Scarpa:

Oh, so many, so many—so, it can really lead to staff feeling unappreciated. It can make people feel like they’re wasting their time. If you are someone who’s working really hard on something, but maybe it’s not the exact focus that your boss is looking for. Maybe it’s not in line with their goals for your department, or the overall strategic plan for the library—it can really lead to burnout. You know, if you’re working hard, but it’s not in alignment with these things you’re not going to get a lot of positive feedback from above. And that can be really, really hard. It can also lead to staff members feeling like they’re not being heard and that they don’t have a voice in the overall mission of the library. And, that can be really hard. Having good communication, having feedback flowing both ways in a circle leads to us being able to work smarter, not harder, and working together towards the same goals.

Adriane:

Question #3: What are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to talking with our bosses? 04:38 

Sunnie Scarpa:

Well, I would say the do’s are being intentional, being proactive, and having regular communication. So, making sure it doesn’t slip through the cracks. Making sure you’re not just talking to them when something goes wrong. That’s really, really important.

And then I think some of the don’ts are—well, the biggest one is assuming a preferred frequency, or format without checking in with them about that. So, don’t assume that your boss doesn’t want to talk to you in person and you should only write them emails about things. Or, that they want to hear from you every day. Or, that they never want to hear from you. You know, check in with them and have a conversation. What is your preferred format? When do you want me to call you, versus when do you want me to write you a memo? And, how often do you think we should be talking? And, let’s make sure that we’re using a frequency and a format that works for both parties.

Adriane:

Question #4: Right, every boss is different. So, that makes sense. Let’s say we have set up a time to talk with our boss, how should we prepare? 05:45 

Sunnie Scarpa:

Well, I think it’s important to make a note of both what you want to share with them, and questions that you want to ask them. So that going in, you’re prepared to have both a time when you share feedback with them, and you’re prepared to ask them questions that promote feedback coming to you as well. So that it can go both ways. 

I also think it’s great to make sure you have regular times to think about the big picture and that could be hard for some people the first couple of times. We’re really used to dealing with the urgent and putting out fires, but there should definitely be some time on the calendar where you and your boss can talk about the big picture. Put the tyranny of the urgent aside for a moment and think about the future. So, that can take some preparation, and it’s definitely really, really worth it.

Adriane:

I think it’s also interesting to think even our boss has a boss, right? So, they’re thinking of ways to communicate up and think about that big picture, and how that trickles down to these daily, or weekly, or monthly conversations. So, I think that’s a great point.

Sunnie Scarpa:

Absolutely.

Adriane:

Question #5: If we have had struggles communicating with our boss in the past, is there a way to move beyond that with a fresh start? 07:16 

Sunnie Scarpa:

Definitely. In almost every instance—only in really extreme cases would I say that sometimes you have to start fresh with a new boss. But, that’s very, very rare. [laughter] And, I would say it’s always a good time to start over. You can always start over. I would recommend to people listening who want that, who want to put past struggles behind them, and get on the right path—use this podcast as an excuse. [laughter] Go to your boss and say, You know, I was listening to this podcast the other day, and they have really great suggestions for communicating with your boss. Here are a couple ways that I think we could use this advice in our relationship. Let’s do X, Y, and Z.

Start over. Focus on the future. Put some good practices in place and really, you will reap the benefits. So, definitely start over.

Adriane:

Question #6: That’s great, Sunnie. What should an employee do who has utilized every means possible to communicate with a boss without success? 08:25 

Sunnie Scarpa:

Two things—two answers for this question. [laughter] The first thing I would say is from my experience in the library world, I have found that sometimes people are not always as blunt as they think they are. This is not always the case, but I know for myself, and a lot of other people—my co-workers in the past, we think we’re being really clear about changes we want to see and what we want our boss to hear from us, but sometimes we’re still being a little bit too oblique with what we’re trying to say. I think some of this is, based on what I’ve read, some of this is just a fact that we’re in a profession that’s 80% female. And, we have this cultural way of speaking where we add things like, Well, I was just thinking maybe I could be wrong, but… I read a lot of articles about how this really holds women back in the workplace. We just need to change the way that we are used to speaking. And, we need to be more blunt and upfront in a very polite, professional manner.

So, I would say my first tip is to give that a try. Set up a time. Plan ahead how you’re going to be very blunt, yet professional, about your needs and about what you would like to convey. And then, the second thing is that—you know, like you mentioned before, everyone does have a boss. So, if you feel really certain that you have tried every means possible and you have serious concerns, your boss is accountable to someone. Whether it’s someone in your town government, or whether it’s a board of trustees, there should always be someone that you can talk to—anonymously. I know not all libraries have an HR department, but every library should have a designated person that a staff member could talk to if they have concerns that are not being met by their direct report.

Adriane:

Question #7: That’s good. And you know, I’m a boss. I know that I value people who come to me with what they’re thinking. It helps me be a better leader. And so, I think people who are willing to engage in this are so admirable. So, don’t hold back. As you say, this is really important.

Sunnie Scarpa:

Absolutely. And, I think one of the things that has really helped me is getting comfortable with thinking of confrontation as just sharing information. So, instead of thinking of a difficult conversation as a conversation where if I do it wrong I could potentially hurt someone’s feelings, and then that fear leads me to hold back. Instead I think of it as an opportunity to share information that could help someone. And so, I go into it with a more positive outlook. And, I do take it very seriously to share information, to help people meet their potential, or help them do a job better. I go into it with that outlook. And, I don’t let the fear hold me back, and I’ve had really good outcomes from just that little change of mindset.

Adriane:

Question #8: Do you have any tips for bosses? 11:56 

Sunnie Scarpa:

One thing is, it’s really important if you are going to encourage communication from your direct reports, and throughout your organization, that you are a person who is very, very trustworthy. So, you need to make sure that you’re not sharing information—personal information that someone shared with you with anyone else in your organization. 

So people need to know that if they trust you to come and talk to them about something, it could be something personal, it could be something they’re upset about that involves other co-workers. Whatever it is, they need to know that you will not share it in inappropriate ways. You will only share it in ways that are necessary to improve the situation. That’s really, really important. It should go without saying—don’t be involved in gossip. But some people, sometimes need reminders that when you’re the boss you’re held to a higher standard. You can’t relax and gossip with people anymore. It’s just really inappropriate and it will—it will undermine the trust you have with people who should be able to come with you about anything.

And then, the other thing is, it’s kind of a silly thing, but I really think it has a big impact is—no matter how much you care about the people that you work with, don’t call them a work family. It’s really problematic for a lot of people. It gives a sense—it gives a sense of closeness and a blurring of the boundaries that can really be an issue for people.

It’s important that we are professional, and that doesn’t mean that you don’t care about people. You can care for people in very appropriate, professional ways. We promote our employees. We promote their well-being, both at home and at work. But, that doesn’t make us a work family—makes people really uncomfortable.

Adriane:

Question #9: Is there anything else you’d like to share? 13:59 

Sunnie Scarpa:

I just want to applaud people for really digging into this topic, and I hope people will take this encouragement as a jumping off point. I don’t have all the answers, but I know that I want to know more. So, go out there and read more about—we have such a great skill set as librarians. I would encourage people to just employ that skill set towards learning more about communication. It can be really helpful for some people to start with self-awareness. So, any kind of learning you can do about your own communication skills and where they’re at now. Take some personality tests. Find what Enneagram number you are. Read the Four Tendencies, and think about the way that impacts the people around you—your co-workers.

Think about emotional intelligence, and not just IQ. And, all of this stuff, it really builds your ability to communicate with everyone—get in their heads a little bit, think through the way that you impact them, they impact you. It can sometimes seem like we don’t have enough time in the day to focus on these soft skills. We can get really mired in practical hard skills like learning the next new technology. There’s always a new one. But, the time that you spend on the emotional intelligence, communication skills, those types of things—it really does translate, and it really will lead to better happiness at work, more contentment in your work, career advancement opportunities, and leadership opportunities, too.

Adriane:

Question #10: Do you have a favorite management, or leadership book, and why? 16:07 

Sunnie Scarpa:

Oh, goodness, so many. [laughter] So many, I’m a librarian, of course. I read a lot of books on management, and leadership, and communication is a big theme that runs through all of them. One is Radical Candor, by Kim Scott. I already mentioned that was really important to me in changing the way I thought about confrontation. Crucial Conversations by Karry Patterson, and Joseph Grenny, is really good. And then, for me, I really enjoy The Confidence Code by Katty Kay, and Claire Shipman. And that spoke about some of the things that I mentioned as far as how women are trained to speak, versus how men are trained to speak, which was really impactful for me.

And another thing I do, which I would definitely recommend is I read a lot of articles. Even though I’m a librarian, sometimes books are a little too much. [laughter] I can fit reading articles into my day more often than I can fit reading a whole book into my daily life. So, I follow the Harvard Business Review. It has a nonprofit newsletter that comes out once a month, I believe, or twice a month—I forget. Then there’s a SmartBrief on Leadership. I follow the Ask a Manager blog, which has great information

If you’re reading articles and literature from the nonprofit world on management and leadership, communication is a theme that will run through it constantly because it is so crucial to everything you do. So, podcasts are also really great. Hello Monday… there’s  a Radical Candor podcast, as well. Along with this one, of course.

Adriane:

Question #11: [laughter] Thanks, Sunnie. Fantastic resources. In closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 18:05 

Sunnie Scarpa:

So to me, libraries are all about people. I know some people still think that libraries are all about books, but libraries to me are about people. We provide equitable access to information, and we connect people to ideas that can really transform them, and transform their lives. An example of that would be the research that’s been done about the link between people who read fiction—and they tend to be more empathic people. You can see how empathy, and promoting empathy in our communities can really change an individual, but then also, change everyone they come in contact with. That’s just one small example of how I think we really have the power to impact the people around us through what we do.

Adriane:

Fantastic, Sunnie. Thank you so much for being here. I think this topic of communicating in both directions with employees and bosses is a great one that will help all of us in libraries, and as you say affect our ultimate ability to provide great service in our libraries. So, thank you.

Sunnie Scarpa:

Oh, you’re welcome. It’s a great topic, and so glad you chose to focus on this.

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 have monthly updates delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks 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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