Maureen Sullivan provides insights on the American Library Association’s Emerging Leaders Program, designed to empower up-and-coming leaders through project planning, peer networking, and gaining inside perspectives into the American Library Association (ALA).

In this episode, Maureen shares thoughts from her time as President of the ALA in 2012-2013 and from her work with librarians across the country as she designs and implements numerous leadership development programs. You won’t want to miss her thoughts on some of the valuable resources that will benefit everyone in the information profession, along with the personal reasons why this work means so much to her.


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 Kansas, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, and South Dakota, and by the Park City Library, making film and podcasting possible with green screen and sound recording resources.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Today on Library Leadership Podcast, we’re highlighting an outstanding way to get involved with the American Library Association through the Emerging Leaders program, which enables librarians to participate in project planning workgroups, network with peers, and gain an inside look into the ALA structure.

We are interviewing Maureen Sullivan, a widely recognized leader and educator in the library profession. She is a consultant to numerous academic and public libraries, developing strategic plans – programs to redesign work, create new organizational structures, and leading numerous librarians into their own personal leadership development. I know Maureen from the Mountain Plains Library Leadership Institute. She’s also a past president of the American Library Association, from 2012 to 2013. 

Maureen, welcome to the show. 

Maureen Sullivan: 

It’s my pleasure. I’ve been looking forward to this.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: Wonderful. Well, we’re here today to talk about the American Library Association Emerging Leaders program. Can you tell us a bit about that?  01:30

Maureen Sullivan:

Yes, I’m involved because when Leslie Berger became the president of the American Library Association, she had six different things she was pursuing, but one of them was a program to fast track younger people, newer to the field, through their engagement in ALA and it’s variety of different components.

Leslie put together a general idea of the program and then engaged Connie Paul, who was a colleague of hers in New Jersey, where the two of them had worked to create a similar program in New Jersey. It was Connie who invited me to join the program for exactly the reason you just described, Adriane. I had had a lot of experience designing and presenting leadership programs in the field.

Connie and I worked together to create the actual structure for the program, and we launched the first one in 2007. I can say to you now that it’s 2018, that this program gets better and stronger every year—both in terms of the individuals who participate in the program, but also in our ability to engage them in a way that they’re making important contributions to ALA, overall, to its different units, and to state and regional library associations, as well.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #2: So, tell us a bit about it. I know that fifty people were selected for the 2018 program.  03:05

Maureen Sullivan:

When we started, we had over 100 in the first couple of classes. But, we began to see that if we reduced the size it would be a more meaningful experience for the participants. By design, the only two opportunities we have, to have the participants in each cohort in a room together is at the Midwinter ALA Meeting, and then the Annual Meeting. When we recognized the importance of some continuity for the participants between Midwinter and Annual, we came up with the concept of projects.

In the first couple of years that we were doing this, very few of the participants had had any experience working virtually. That has changed. We now have most, probably, participants have had some experience working with others, or in a team, virtually.

We came up with this concept of project teams. We formed small teams that actually carry out a project that has been proposed by, and it’s often a mix of library associations that come up with proposals, and ALA units. It’s real meaningful work that they want to have done. We ask each of the units proposing a project to identify someone who is going to serve as a resource to that group, or team, from their membership. We also ask that there be someone from the ALA staff who is going to be a resource and a guide for the participants.

The participants now begin to be in touch with each other before we ever convene at a Midwinter Meeting. Sometimes we see evidence that they’re starting to reach out to one another within days of the cohort being announced. When they come into the Midwinter Meeting, we have a program that is designed to orient them to ALA as an organization, to give some foundational information about what it means to be a leader in association work.

 We’re also really trying to enable them to come together and begin to prepare for their project. Then in the spring, as they are working on their project, we also offer webinars about every four to five weeks. And, when they come back to gather at the Annual Meeting—and this year it will be happening in New Orleans, we have a schedule where we take them through a program, primarily in the morning, and then in the early afternoon, and give them the opportunity to set up for a poster session.

After the first couple of years, we were recognizing the need to give the teams time to really organize to do a presentation, and we do it in the form of poster sessions. Each team presents the results of its work. We invite people who have served as the guides, and the staff representatives, but also the boards of the different divisions, and a variety of other individuals to come and see the work that has been accomplished by these groups.

While I’m talking about this I just have to mention, for me one of the most heartwarming aspects of this is to see the quality of the work that can be done by individuals who spend only about six or seven hours together at Midwinter, and really have to meet the challenge of working together as a team. Then how it all comes together in a series of really high-quality presentations during the poster session.

Last year we made an adjustment in our schedule at Annual, because it was time to celebrate the success of the program. So, we had an anniversary celebration. That caused us to curtail, and really redesign the agenda for the Annual Meeting. I’m so glad we were able to do it then because we were ready this year when the opportunity for this year’s class of Emerging Leaders arose for special treatment in attending the Opening General session where Michelle Obama will be addressing the group. This year’s group has the benefit of reserve seating at that conference.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #3: What an incredible opportunity. Well, you have long been a person who has prepared librarians to be conveners of community engagement, to be public innovators, to be leaders. If someone is looking to apply to this program or be a part of it, what should they be expecting to get out of it? Do we have dates we need to be keeping in mind for upcoming sessions? 07:35

Maureen Sullivan:

Let me start with that. Last year the application process was announced in mid-July. This year we’re hoping that it will be announced earlier. Even on the ALA website, there’s a mention that we’ll open applications in June for participation in the program.

The deadline for completing the application has, pretty consistently, been August 31st. We have a working group that provides oversight to the program. A subset of our members then acts as a selection process, those individuals review the applications, and they face the challenge of selecting the 50 best out of the set that apply.

One of the things I’m always careful to encourage is individuals who are not selected, to reapply. Because every year it’s a different set of individuals. So, I would say, watching the ALA website for the application to go live in June, but particularly to be looking for it right after the Annual Conference, and be ready to complete it, and submit it by August 31st.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #4: Fantastic. If you’re a person new to this program, what would you tell that person about what they’re going to be experiencing? I mean, you’ve described the program, but what is going to help them become stronger leaders through being involved in this? 09:12

Maureen Sullivan: 

I think being able to fill out the application so the applicant is really presenting, or representing the best of their potential to benefit from the program. This is a program that while in some places it’s described as leadership development; the program itself is really intended to, I usually use the term, fast track engagement in ALA and in other library associations.

It does that by particularly focusing on understanding the Association. Most people who’ve had any affiliation with ALA recognize its complexity. Having the opportunity to come into a program where you’re identified as part of this cohort, you immediately begin to meet and get to know established leaders in the association. You also have a set of colleagues who are joining you as part of the Emerging Leaders group.

It’s really been remarkable to watch how the program has benefited the association by preparing people for more effective engagement earlier in their careers. Also, how it has enabled individuals to really benefit, not just in their work in the association, but generally in their careers.

Because of the work I do, where I am working across the country in different libraries, and with different library associations, I on a very consistent basis, am in situations where someone will come up to me and say, Maureen I was in this class of the Emerging Leaders and this is what has happened to me since that experience.

We’ve had individuals who have moved up more quickly in their organizations, who’ve been able to make connections so that they have been in a situation to be considered for positions earlier in their career than might otherwise have been the case. We’ve had individuals who have moved very quickly into serving on the ALA Council, serving on the boards of the different ALA divisions. 

One of the people from the very first class was the first individual to become a member of ALA’s Executive Board, out of Emerging Leaders. It’s just thrilling to see the benefit that accrues, particularly to those who come into the program very intentional on making the most of the experience.

I also have to explain, as I carefully do with each new cohort of the Emerging Leaders, why this is not what I would call a leadership development program. The effective ones—and you mentioned the Mountain Plains Leadership Program that’s offered by MPLA every other year, those programs are intensive. They go on for several days, and they’re constructed around a set of areas of competence for individuals to develop. When you go through an intensive several day program, it’s reasonable to expect that you will acquire, if not new skills, certainly the opportunity to enhance some existing skills and deeper knowledge about what the practice of leadership means.

The most we’re able to do in the Emerging Leaders program is to introduce the participants to some of the principles and practices and invite them to think together about how they can further develop what some of their competencies might be, especially as they’re leaving the program at the end of the Annual Meeting.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #5: These things are so important: engagement; networking; getting your name out there; being engaged in projects that show your leadership skills. I know that you have been working across the country to develop libraries and library leaders. I wonder what resources you recommend, because not only is it important to take advantage of these opportunities, but to delve in ourselves into leadership resources. What are some of your favorites?  13:23

Maureen Sullivan: 

Whenever I’m asked that question, especially in the last couple of years since it’s been available—the first thing that comes to mind is The Strength-Based Leadership book that arose out of the work with StrengthsFinder, which started with some of the research that was done by, I think his name is, Donald Clifton at the Gallup Institute.

Strength-Based Leadership is a more recent resource. 

The reason I like that as much as I do is that the self-assessment inventory is one that you get to by purchasing or being given a copy of the book, where you have instructions inside to go to a website and complete the assessment. You immediately get a report, and in fact, every year that I work with this I discover that they are continuing to improve and enhance the information that comes as a result of completing the assessment. I just used it with the Virginia Library Association, about two months ago, and several of the participants were coming in with three or four different reports all of which they found to be helpful.

The other advantage of Strength-Based Leadership over StrengthsFinder is it gives you your results of your key areas of strength in a construct of four different aspects of what they define to be leadership. So, your five are displayed across the four different aspects. Because it’s a book, it is not that expensive. One of the selling points, for me, is when it’s going to be used in an organization, there’s the possibility of purchasing the books at a discount, and making them available to individuals.

I’m also an eager reader of the Harvard Business Review. I have both a print and an online subscription to it. Whenever it comes in the mail, I just sit for a few minutes and look at it, because it seems to me that in the last several years every issue has had several articles that have the potential for being helpful in a library context.

I read the literature and the results of research on leadership through the lens of, what is going to be most useful, has the greatest potential for benefiting the leadership practice of people who work in our field. Also with that in mind, it’s important to keep abreast of the publications that are being produced by individuals who work in our field. I have two that I would particularly recommend. The first one is entitled Crucible Moments. Stephen Bell, who writes the Bell Tower column in Library Journal, is the editor of this. The subtitle is Inspiring Library Leadership. While many of the articles were written by people who are from the academic library field primarily, there’s also a really wonderful article in here by Peter Bromberg, a public librarian.

The other one that I would highly recommend is The LITA Leadership Guide: The Librarian as Entrepreneur, Leader, and Technologist. This is a series of essays edited by Carl Antonucci and Sharon Clapp. Both of whom work at Central Connecticut State University. 

And, there are others. There’s one on managing from the middle. I just would highly recommend people in our field watching the publications that come out. The LLAMA division of ALA has a regular publication, in a journal format, and that one often has really useful articles for individuals.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Fantastic resources.

Maureen Sullivan:

What I’m currently reading—there are two books, and both covers are fairly similar in that they are light blue. One of them is Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. This is design thinking applied to an individual’s life. It was recommended to me as a way of having more of an on the ground understanding of design thinking. It’s an easy read and rich with good ideas.

And the other one came to my attention because I know both authors in their earlier work, Sally Helgesen, H E L G E S E N is the person who published a book a number of years ago called, The Female Advantage. She’s partnered with Marshall Goldsmith who’s done a lot of writing about effective leadership. One of his books is entitled, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. He’s also the person who came up with the concept of Feedforward as a replacement for formal performance evaluations that are based on reviewing past performance, and this book is called, How Women Rise. The subtitle of which is, Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job. Understandably, the target audience for this is women, but, I think most of the twelve suggestions or the twelve habits to overcome are ones that would benefit anyone who is focused on improving their career and improving their opportunities to rise in their organizations.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #6: Thank you for sharing those. It’s so important for us to continuously develop as leaders, and you are a prime example of someone who is doing that out in the field. I would encourage anyone who can get involved in the Emerging Leaders Program, or be involved in a Leadership Institute with Maureen, to do so. You will not regret it. In closing Marine, can you tell me what being a leader and developing leaders in the profession means to you, personally? 19:17

Maureen Sullivan:

The question touches me. Thank you for asking that. I’m very seldom asked that question. For me personally, it means being in a position to help people who have that strong service orientation, but also who are interested in guiding, working with, coaching, and leading others, really develop the capacity to do the work that they most want to do. It’s very rewarding. I believe deeply that everyone working in libraries today has the intent to make a difference for those who are in their communities.

It’s challenging to be able to do that, given the kind of change that we’re experiencing coming from a variety of different forces. A key part of what I try to do in my work, in fact, I sometimes describe this as the most important outcome of any of the leadership development that I do, is to help people discover greater confidence in their capacity to make a difference.

I really look for each person coming through one of these intensive programs to be able to leave with more confidence. Sometimes I think having greater confidence is more important than really developing the broad set of skills that are important in leadership.

I also might mention that an intensive leadership development program that I have been involved in, that is also an ALA program, is the Leadership Institute that we offer each August. That was something that I wanted to create when I was president of ALA because there were so many state library associations with strong programs, but not yet one that was just for the American Library Association.

That was a real source of pride for me, as having the opportunity to establish that program. And I do that, I think it’s usually, the second week in August with Catherine Dice. It is a program that people have to apply to, and those applications open shortly after Midwinter, because we’re trying to select the group that will come into the program in August. We usually make those decisions so that people know they’ve been selected in May.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

That’s fantastic. Well, Maureen, I personally would like to thank you for all you’ve done in the field to inspire so many of us to be stronger leaders. You’ve done an amazing job and touched so many lives, and made us all better in serving our populations. So thank you for that.

Maureen Sullivan:

It’s been a great set of experiences for me and has given me many opportunities, it’s a mutually effective process.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

It truly is. So, thank you. And, I look forward to seeing the next batch of Emerging Leaders and hearing more about all that you’ve got going on.

Maureen Sullivan:

Great. Thank you, Adriane.

Thank you. You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. For more interviews go to our website at Where you can subscribe to have our episodes delivered to your email inbox. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.