How can we overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed and intimidated when moving into a new role of being in charge? On this show Suzanne Macaulay, Deputy Director of the Pioneer Library System in New York, talks about ways to overcome these feelings as well as how to avoid some common mistakes of new leadership. She shares the importance of support networks and professional development, and what new leaders bring to the table. We are all new to roles of being in charge at some point. Listening to this conversation will help anyone finding themselves in that situation to set off on the right foot. 


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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.

How can we overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed and intimidated when moving into a new role of being in charge? On this show Suzanne Macaulay, Deputy Director of the Pioneer Library System in New York, talks about ways to overcome these feelings as well as how to avoid some common mistakes of new leadership.

She shares the importance of support networks and professional development, and what new leaders bring to the table. We are all new to roles of being in charge at some point. Listening to this conversation will help anyone finding themselves in that situation to set off on the right foot.  Enjoy the show!

Suzanne, welcome to the show.

Suzanne Macaulay:

Thank you for having me. As a long-time listener of this podcast I am thrilled and honored to be here today.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: Ahh, that is so nice, and I’m really happy to have you here with me today. We’re talking about a Beginner’s Guide to Being in Charge. As librarians, moving into a new role of being in charge can be overwhelming and intimidating. Why is it important for us to think about this so we can be effective in our current and future roles?  01:44 

Suzanne Macaulay:

The reason I submitted the Beginner’s Guide to Being in Charge to the 2021 Association for Rural and Small Libraries conference is that I’m far enough into my career where I’ve had a fair amount of experience in leadership roles that I can share some tips and insights. But, I also still feel that I’m fresh enough to remember those feelings of confusion and intimidation—you know, What if I screw this up? What if I’m not good enough?

Communicating to a group of new or aspiring leaders—it’s okay not to have all the answers, and it’s okay to make a mistake, and you are not alone in this was really important to me as advice that I wished that I had had starting out. I think it can be really empowering messaging.

I remember sitting at a meeting once and someone said, Being a director can feel really lonely. And at that moment I was like, Yes, yes, it is. That was a big statement that person had made for me because I realized that I actually wasn’t alone in my feelings, and that we don’t have to be. 

It turns out that with the pandemic there’s a lot of retirements, or a lot of people deciding to step away from public service. We are seeing a big turnover in library directors and library leaders. So, I thought this is a really good time to say, Welcome, you deserve your position. You deserve to be here and you’re going to have some of these feelings of being alone. It’s common, it’s okay, but you’re going to have a lot of successes too.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: What are some common mistakes new leaders make and how can we avoid them?  03:32 

Suzanne Macaulay:

There are two big ones, that I know in my experience, that I have made that I do see happen often. The first one would be setting a realistic workload. I think for a variety of reasons new directors will start working at volume that’s just not realistic. Whether there were areas of the library that had been long neglected and you want to quickly come in and fix them, or you want to make a good impression and get that first win under your belt, or you want to prove like, I can do this job. You were right to hire me. Looking at max capacity will inevitably lead to burnout. 

It’s really important to pace yourself. I have definitely struggled with this so many times. It is easier said than done. In those moments when I’m working at max capacity I’ll hear my dad’s voice in my head, back from high school like, You’re burning the candle at both ends. I try to remind myself to slow down and make sure that I’m working at a sustainable level.

Right now I’ve been actually watching this docuseries on Netflix called Basketball or Nothing. It follows this high school basketball team who has the potential to win the state championship, but the players really like to play this run and done style. They’re fast up and down the courts, taking shots, always rushing, and the coach is always yelling from the sidelines, Patience, patience. Every time he does this I’m like, That is such a good reminder for basketball and life. I just try to think patience. It’s okay to take your time and pay attention to the details and it’s not about quick wins and quick scoring all the time.

We know another thing to remember is—when the board hired you to be a director, they didn’t hire you for one month, or six weeks, or six months. They hired you because you represented the long-term sustainability of the library. Taking time to assess and explore your role, and not rushing—it’s just really important and really valuable.

It lends itself to the second common mistake of new leaders. It is changing too much too fast. When you come in and you’re just trying to change, change, change everything at the library, that can be really jarring for library staff, especially people that have been there long-term. Change can be hard for people. Many times staff will feel displaced by a new director, especially if it’s somebody who was hired from the outside, like not an internal appointment. 

It’s just really important to be mindful of that. Of course like any compliance pieces you do want to change right away. If something has been happening at the library that didn’t match with state labor laws, or policy those are important immediate changes to make. But as for those other things, wait three months, six months, nine months and then start implementing change slowly. I think it’s important to include staff in that process. Ask a lot of questions. 

Or if you’re thinking about, say, moving collections around—take the staff on a walk through the library with you and ask them what they see. Explain what you’re seeing and try to make them a part of the process as much as possible. Don’t make these decisions in a silo, because if your staff feels like things are happening to them, and not with them, that can really feed some resistance, or resentment. Your happy staff is going to be your happy community.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: How can we conquer feelings of doubt and imposter syndrome when moving into new roles?  06:56  

Suzanne Macaulay:

The most important thing really is to recognize that these feelings are common, and although they can be more pervasive with those who are in newer leadership roles, seasoned leaders can and do still experience these moments of self-doubt. 

In my position, when I interviewed and was hired, I truly felt that I was the best candidate, and that I deserved to be hired. But, there are still times where I doubt my skills, and I doubt my knowledge. I have even asked my boss, Did you just hire me because it was easier than filing a variance because we have to have a certain amount of MLS people at the library system? I still feel that way. 

When I gave this presentation at ARSL I was standing on the little dias and I’m like, Who am I to be up here talking about leadership? Am I wasting everyone’s time? It still happens. Those moments happen. They’re normal. They’re part of being human. But I just think it’s important to not let them inhibit us—not investing in that.

I saw this quote on twitter that I saved, and I look back on it a lot. It’s by Olympic Track and Field athlete, Tianna Bartoletta. She says, Turns out it’s not having doubts that’s the problem, it’s believing them. It’s okay to have moments of imposter syndrome but acknowledge them, recognize what made you feel that way, and then try to move on.

I found for me, keeping a list of my successes, like a running Google doc, can be really helpful because then you can see all that you have accomplished. And also, keeping this list of achievements is very helpful when it’s time for your annual performance evaluation, so you don’t have to mine through a year of emails and calendar dates to assess everything. That’s one of the things that I use and it’s a little bit of a win-win.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: How important is it to create a support network when we first begin being in charge?  08:45 

Suzanne Macaulay:

A lot of emphasis has always been placed on mentorship, which can be wonderful and an invaluable resource. My first director, when I was starting out in the field, was at Kilton’s Library, back in 2007. She was, and continues to be, an incredible source of knowledge and guidance. But I know not everyone is able to form those relationships for a variety of reasons. I think that’s totally okay. I think there’s other ways to get support out there. There’s advisors, allies, sponsors—but these support networks are something that I’m finding more and more valuable as I start to develop personally and professionally. Support networks are groups of peers, either officially or formed in an ad hoc way, that provides both emotional and practical help. 

Some examples of those in my library system—we launched a women in leadership program where I facilitate a group of thirteen women, and they’re not just directors, but they’re from all different library roles, experience levels and career points. The sharing and support has just been such a wonderful experience because it is like, You feel that way too, I feel that way and how did you deal with that? 

Just having that space to talk and share has been absolutely fantastic. But, even if a formal group is not available to you, reach out and try to connect with some newer directors. Get your own cohort together, because I do think chances are if you have a question a dozen other people have that question too, so just ask it. There’s definitely no shame in asking for help. You can’t possibly have all the answers, but I know that many times when we’re sitting in a meeting and somebody says something we don’t understand we just smile and nod, then after the meeting rush over and Google it and find the answer. Just ask the question. 

One of the other newer support groups in our system, started by my executive director, is for new library directors. This group was started because a new director was brave enough to say, This is a lot of information, can we get something together because I have questions and I need help? It really tapped into a need. By reaching out and asking for this help this director did such a great service to herself, and to so many others. Sometimes it’s out of our comfort zone to ask for help, but really wonderful things can come of it if you can and do. [laughter]

Also right now, I’m reading the book Huddle: How Women Unlock Their Collective Power, by Brooke Baldwin, that explores the concept of huddling, or those support networks for empowerment, inspiration, and strength. If you’re interested in learning about more of the benefit of forming support networks I think this is a great resource—a good starting point.

But, I do also want to mention that the value of state and national organizations like ARSL has been a great resource, because the members, to me, are just so enthusiastically willing to share and support, which is really important with small and rural libraries. I work with primarily small and rural libraries. We have forty-two libraries in our system. Our smallest one only serves a community of 350 people. Sometimes the trajectory in small and rural libraries is quick and fast, like one day you’re not working in libraries, and the next day you’re a director. There aren’t those steps up the ladder that you may see in bigger libraries. Having a state or national organization like this is great to tap into, especially with the small and rural libraries—the solo librarian, which I never heard of until I started working in these types of libraries, where you are it. You are the only one. You are the show. Being able to find other solo librarians like you out there can be an invaluable experience.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: Since you mentioned that, what is the importance of investing in personal and professional development?    12:30 

Suzanne Macaulay:

This is something that I’m really passionate about too. I do help to oversee the continuing education for the library workers in our system, but for me it’s always—be learning. I love a good conference. I have missed in-person conferences very, very much, but I think the past two years really pointed out how in-person conferences are not accessible to all library workers for a variety of reasons. I do hope that virtual and hybrid models continue, but that conferences are not the only means of learning. Reading, listening, watching, talking—they’re all wonderful ways to learn and grow, especially from outside the library world.

One thing I use as an example all the time is The Last Blockbuster documentary on Netflix. I thought that was such a great example of something we can learn from, and relate to our work in libraries. Aside from the obvious lesson of how we can stay relevant in a constantly changing world, but the positive message that documentary had on customer service as meeting some need in your community. 

The Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon still exists because it brings value to its community and it meets a need. I just saw that there were so many parallels between that and the work that we do in libraries. But, the podcasts, such as this one, documentaries, books, articles, social media, conversation—basically anytime I consume new information I consider it learning, even if it’s not related to my work in libraries. I feel like there is something in there that will make me either a better person, or a better at what I do.

In leadership so many of the lessons I learned, I learned when I waited tables back in college, or when I was managing retail. I use those lessons every day. I think small businesses can teach us a lot too. I just feel like there are so many lessons in the world around us that we can apply to our library work. It may not be in that formal conference setting. I keep my eyes open and my ears open to all the lessons available. 

The one thing I’m trying to work on is trying to learn with my heart open to—especially after the past two years like, How can we be better people, and better leaders, and with grace and empathy? That’s something that I’m actively working on. 

I also think it’s important that as leaders you don’t hoard the learning opportunities. Make sure there is time and budget available for your staff to participate in personal/professional development. I think that’s vital, and making sure that they’re aware that those opportunities are there for them.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: What do new leaders bring to the table in terms of value, knowledge, and skill sets?  15:07 

Suzanne Macaulay:

I think the most important thing new leaders bring is fresh perspective. When I go out and meet with new directors they often will start a statement with, I’m just new here. But to me, that doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re talking about. It means you have fresh perspective, fresh ideas, fresh ears, fresh eyes. I think there’s a lot of value in that, because at times we can—I think all of us can fall into that rut of, We’ve never done it that way before, or, I just don’t think that will work. Having someone challenge with that fresh perspective is just really fantastic for growth for us and for our organizations.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Is there anything else you’d like to share?  15:48  

Suzanne Macaulay:

Yeah. [laughter] I mentioned value a few times as I think that it’s something that I can get very caught up on, and new leaders can get very caught up on. Am I using my time valuably? Am I bringing value to other people’s time? Am I bringing value to my organization, to the libraries that I work with? It can become sort of a grind. 

I just think it’s a good reminder that sometimes the most valuable thing you can do for you and for everyone around you is to allow yourself the time and space to rest. When a child gets tired and they get the tired tears, adults say, Oh, it’s time for a nap. Oh, it’s time for bed. But as adults when we get the grown-up version of tired tears we just think like, We need to muscle through it, we need to fight through it, that if we admit we need rest it’s a sign of weakness. It’s so important that leaders not only make sure they’re giving themselves permission to recharge their batteries, but they’re giving it to their staff, too.

I think leaders have the great honor and responsibility of taking care of those around them, which means leading by example, not creating an environment where time off is shameful, but also recognizing when your staff may be over capacity in asking sincerely what can I do to help?

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: Do you have any favorite management or leadership books, or resources and why?  17:04 

Suzanne Macaulay:

Okay, I have three to recommend. [laughter] The first one is more customer service oriented. It’s a little bit older too, but it’s the book Fish!: A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results, by Steven London. It also has four simple practices to energize a workplace. One of those is Make Their Day, and I just absolutely love that idea. This is a book I read when I was working in retail, but I have applied it to every position I’ve worked in since working in retail. You don’t know what kind of baggage people are carrying when they come into the library, both our patrons and our staff. So, let’s do our best to make sure our interactions with them make their day. It can feel so good to make someone’s day. If we can say yes to somebody. This is something that I just try to work on and continue to do in any position I have, both leadership, and non-leadership. I just want to make someone’s day.

The next one that I would recommend is The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You, by Julie Zhuo. This one really has good practical tips for managing people for the first time, especially when you have to do performance evaluations, and have those crucial conversations. Those are really hard. That’s probably one of the hardest things about being a new leader. A lot of new leaders will avoid having that, but I think providing good feedback, and talking with your staff about goals—their goals, and what they want to accomplish is so important. I think this book had a lot of good information for when you’re starting out in that kind of a role.

The other book that I’m recommending to a lot of people right now is, She Proclaims: Our Declaration of Independence from a Man’s World, by Jennifer Palmieri. Women in leadership is something I’m very passionate about, and when I read this book over the summer I was marking it up like crazy. I just felt with every page I was like, Yes! It’s just something that I’m recommending for not only women in leadership, but I just really think anyone, anywhere could benefit from reading it.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9: Thank you, Suzanne. In closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?  19:14 

Suzanne Macaulay:

Ahh, gosh—I think libraries mean so many things, and it can even change daily what libraries mean to me. So, I’m going to say that my goal for libraries is to mean accessibility and belonging to all community members. I think we’ve had a lot of important, tough conversations in the library world over the past few years, but there’s a lot of work to be done to make sure that our spaces are truly inclusive. I hope everyone continues to do the work, and to realize that this work is never done. We must continuously learn and grow about what accessibility and belonging looks like if our libraries are really and truly going to be for everyone. But, that’s what I want libraries to be, and I think that we’re headed there—so that’s what I’m going to say my goal is for them to mean, to not just me, but to all of our community members.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

That’s great. And, you’ve given us a lot to think about today, which is valuable. We are all in charge of something, sometimes as a brand new person stepping into a role. So, thinking through these things for our current roles and then roles we may be moving into in the future with so many opportunities open right now. This is a perfect and timely topic. Thank you for sharing all of your thoughts today.

Suzanne Macaulay:

Oh, thank you for having me.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

It’s been a pleasure.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into, 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.