Library Leadership

25. Pushing a Boulder Uphill: Leading Organizational Change with Phil Johnson and Jessica Hayes

Have you ever felt leading organizational change is like the mythical story of Sisyphus, pushing a boulder uphill, only to have it roll down again? If so, you will want to tune into this show as we gain insights that help us lead organizational change, strengthen our skills for this challenge, and engage in techniques that increase success.

Phil Johnson, Dean of the Auburn University at Montgomery Library, and Jessica Hayes, the organization’s Head of Public Services, share their experiences in this area. Tune in to learn that pushing a boulder uphill really can get easier.

Full Transcript

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:00:00]

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.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:00:25]

Have you ever felt leading organizational change is like the mythical story of Sisyphus pushing a boulder uphill only to have it roll down again?

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:00:36]

If so, you’ll want to tune into this show, as we gain insights that help us lead organizational change, strengthen our skills for this challenge, and engage in techniques that increase success. Phil Johnson, Dean of the Auburn University at Montgomery Library and Jessica Hayes, the organization’s Head of Public Services, share their experiences in this area. Tune in to learn that pushing a boulder uphill really can get easier. Enjoy the show.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:01:11]

I’m here today with Phil Johnson and Jessica Hayes. Welcome to both of you and thanks for being on the show.

Phil Johnson: [00:01:17]

Thank you we appreciate it.

Jessica Hayes: [00:01:18]

We’re very excited to be here.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:01:20]

It’s great to have you here. Today we’re going to feature the content you created for a Library Leadership and Management Association webinar called, Pushing a Boulder Uphill – Leading Organizational Change in an Entrenched Environment. That’s so important. There’s so much change going on in libraries today.

Jessica Hayes: [00:01:36]

It’s almost as if we can’t go an hour without some new development occurring, I don’t say problem, but a new opportunity for growth and challenge to overcome. That’s part of why I like what I do every day.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:01:56]

It’s so true.

Phil Johnson: [00:01:56]

Addressing change and making ourselves more and more valuable to our users, and that changes on an almost daily basis.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:02:07]

It’s true, and I like what you named your webinar, which is basically pushing a boulder uphill. It’s like the mythical story of Sisyphus with the impossible task of pushing that boulder up the hill only to have a roll down over and over again. So tell us a little about this analogy and how it applies to organizational change.

Jessica Hayes: [00:02:27]

It just hit me one day. I was working with my wonderful staff and wonderful team. But, we’d hit a snag due to some cultural things that had not been changed yet. This was, oh wow, maybe 2017, so forever ago. It feels like – man, I just feel sometimes like you keep pushing a boulder up a hill and then you think you’ve got it there. You think you’re there. And then, something comes up and you watch it slide right back down the hill.

Jessica Hayes: [00:03:14]

I expressed that to Phil – I was really impressed. I’m big enough to say I’m impressed by myself. No, no I’m just kidding. But, that’s really something that I feel like is a lot of what we have done. And, I feel like that might be something Phil himself has experienced, maybe once or twice – he’s laughing.

Jessica Hayes: [00:03:42]

So, it started that thinking. I know it sounds discouraging but in a way, I felt and even now more so than then, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as you’re aware of what it is. And, I think maybe that’s the point with Sisyphus. He might never have known that he would never really reach there, and so he got discouraged.

Jessica Hayes: [00:04:13]

He didn’t realize that the process was the journey. So, Phil said this, and I really liked it. I’m going to take it on over to him. But, that’s where the analogy came from. And so in our way of talking and developing this we came up with that idea.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:04:35]

I think it’s perfect.

Phil Johnson: [00:04:36]

This analogy on its face may seem discouraging, but really that’s not the case and that’s why we used it. The truth is that organizational change is an ongoing process. But it does get easier as time goes by. So, small changes quickly add up. People become more attuned to making changes that positively affect them or impact an organization. In our case, that’s our users. So, we talked about it, Jessica and I did. It’s always a process. And, learn from the process, or you do end up like this Sisyphus.

Jessica Hayes: [00:05:13]

… and being frustrated and angry and, yeah.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:05:21]

And, nobody wants to come to work feeling frustrated and angry.

Jessica Hayes: [00:05:24]

Some people might, maybe, but not us.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:05:28]

So, that really points to why this topic is important. Can you tell me a little bit about this change and why we should engage in this?

Phil Johnson: [00:05:39]

In today’s environment, it’s especially important to recognize the failure to adapt can lead to obsolescence. So thinking about that, we also have to realize it’s important that changes can be small and still have significant impact. When you think about it, we are in competition. And, for us, being an academic institution that means against other institutions for a shrinking pool of students. So, we promote change in a number of ways. And, I’m going to let Jessica talk about some of those ways.

Jessica Hayes: [00:06:13]

To piggyback on what Phil said yes, in the academic community we are trying to recruit and get more students just in general. But then in the academic library, particularly, we were a living organism as well, all libraries are. But, in the academic world we have to compete with, oh, I can find that on Google. I can find that on Wikipedia. Why do I need the library, those kinds of things. So, why organizational change is so important is because, for academic libraries and libraries in general to survive, we must adapt. We must change. We must make changes in terms of technological advancements, customer service improvement, understanding that it’s not necessarily that customer service has in the past been bad, it’s just things are changing and the user’s expectations are changing.

Jessica Hayes: [00:07:19]

For example, I never would have made a comment about the temperature in my college’s library to the librarians. But, that is something that students do voice their concerns about. We can’t necessarily fix that but we must address it somehow. I was only in college about 10, 15 years ago now. I think about how much the user’s needs have changed, and how we need to change to meet that.

Jessica Hayes: [00:07:56]

Some of the things that we’ve done here is we’ve done more personal library consultations, one-on-one, as opposed to the reference desk librarians. You sit down for a one-on-one consultation so that you get service. Because students are so, not intimidated, but they are concerned to approach a reference desk and just talk to what they would consider, a stranger.

Jessica Hayes: [00:08:24]

Also, introducing virtual reference, modernizing the layout – still has been an amazing source of movement on that, moving us forward. No longer having VHS, DVD’S lining the library. It’s now a soft seating area. It’s one of our highly, most used areas in the library, by far. We see people out there watching videos, DVD’s all the time. And basically, we just know that we have to evolve every day to survive.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:09:08]

We definitely do.

Jessica Hayes: [00:09:09]

That’s why organizational change is such a necessity. However, then there’s the problem of organizational culture as the hardest thing to change.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:09:22]

Right, we’ve become such a 24/7, on-demand, personalized, customized society. And, that’s coming into our libraries. We’re dealing with new technologies. Things are changing rapidly. We’re learning continuously. So change is not going to go away anytime soon in libraries and this is our way to help adapt ourselves, and the people we work with, to be the best libraries we can be. Which is fantastic.

Jessica Hayes: [00:09:48]

And, that might actually be the hardest part for ourselves and for those that we manage.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:10:00]

Right, you say in your webinar that the biggest threat to change can sometimes be us. We become entrenched in our ways of thinking, what we’ve always done. It’s always been done this way. So, how do we talk about this? Tell us a little bit about that part of things.

Phil Johnson: [00:10:18]

People have long said the phrase, that’s the way we’ve always done, is the biggest hindrance there is to enacting positive change. There’s a plethora of things that can be a threat to change. We’ve talked about some of those things, such as personalities, past experiences, failures, unreceptive administration, and burnout. There’s a number of reasons that happens. For instance, I found out that we kept $20 worth of change at the search desk for people that make change but it was all in dimes. So, if you came up and wanted change for a $20 bill you got $20 in dimes. When I asked about it, it was well, that’s just what we’ve always done. So, you know you learn from that and you go for it and make those positive impacts.

Jessica Hayes: [00:11:16]

That was definitely one of those – there’s some personalities involved that were very much, this is how we’ve done it. When we implemented chat in summer 2016, there were several people who conveyed to us that, yes, we tried this before, but the environment wasn’t right, the reception from the administration wasn’t right. It turned into, well in their words, ‘a failure.’ They encouraged us by giving us feedback, when we tried to implement the change, about things that had happened in the past.

Jessica Hayes: [00:12:00]

Past experiences in that situation, led some of them to be a little bit hesitant. They’re like, yeah, we tried this before. It didn’t work. But now, we’ve been successfully doing it for almost three years and it’s now ingrained, this is what we do. This is who we are. It’s as if there was never a, now this is how we used to do it, how we’ve always done it.

Phil Johnson: [00:12:33]

Part of this is the fear of change. People get comfortable with things being a certain way, they like their predictability. We all do. Yeah, so that’s where it’s important to understand that resistance to change does not equate to irrationality or anything like that. People just like predictability.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:12:54]

Right and you can hardly blame anybody as we look around in our world. It feels good to have a few things that stay the same. So, what does this look like and how does this lead to needing to manage change more effectively?

Jessica Hayes: [00:13:09]

What we were just referencing, when we say the words, ‘entrenched’ or, ‘fear of change’, as Phil said we think, Oh, you’re irrational. But, we all think about it in our personal life, it’s not. As he said, it’s not irrational to fear change. We want that. And so, entrenched library culture isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes for self-preservation.

Jessica Hayes: [00:13:43]

The term came around during World War I. That’s how millions of soldiers tried to survive, was in trenches – it became entrenched warfare. But, also like World War I. If you stay in the trenches and you don’t ever try to go up above the ground, it becomes a stalemate and it becomes like World War I, which was a prolonged bloody, just loss of life. Not that that is actually what happens in libraries, but the thing to know now is that entrenchment, for a temporary time can sometimes be the right decision. But as leaders, you have to be always aware of when it’s time to move forward when to make those small changes or big changes.

Jessica Hayes: [00:14:46]

As far as what does it look like, entrenchment can look like anything because it will vary from organization to organization. Some of the main things that we’ve identified – discouragement, lack of forward motion, people becoming complacent, or feeling as if what they do doesn’t matter.

Jessica Hayes: [00:15:16]

So, those are some of the things that we have identified. Whatever you call it, infringement, stagnation, a library is in trouble when it is not achieving the high standards that it could be, especially when it comes to students and users.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:15:34]


Phil Johnson: [00:15:35]

Go-getters and forward thinkers can have a real impact on an entrenched culture. Truth is, most of the time those types of people are already part of your organization and they’re just waiting for a chance to effect change.

Jessica Hayes: [00:15:52]

Finding the right motivation for those people and the triggers to move them along might be some of the most unlikely suspects. And, all of a sudden, you’ve motivated them or you’ve hit something that is motivating them and you have to be aware enough to say, ok, that is something that you moved forward fast on. I’m going to remember that. It’s being aware as a leader.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:16:21]

That’s fantastic encouraging those kinds of behaviors. What are some of the techniques that those of us out in the field can use to help manage organizational change in our libraries?

Jessica Hayes: [00:16:33]

Well, first thing is to sit down and ask questions. Anybody, even if you’re a new leader coming into a situation, or if you’ve been there forever, if you’re noticing that your library is not achieving those high standards, just sit down and talk, and listen, and ask questions, and reflect on what has been told to you. Try to read between the lines, and then ask if that is accurate. Try to understand the personalities involved.

Jessica Hayes: [00:17:13]

Also, start small. I think we might get overwhelmed, I know I do. You start small. It can be the fact that you come in and well, like what Phil has done, is been really motivated to have customer service be an improved aspect of the library. You come in, that can be just as simple as welcoming people with a smile, or being gracious in yourself. So, that’s a small step. Phil?

Phil Johnson: [00:17:54]

Thinking of it at its most basic level, we have this process of planning and implementing change. We try to do it in a manner that minimizes resistance but also maximizes the long-term impact for our users. Just be open and honest about what you want to do and ask for input throughout the entire process. Don’t let naysayers get you down. But, at the same time, you need to actively listen to what they have to say because their opinion may prove that you’re wrong, and you want to be in tune with that. And, if there is resistance to your idea, accept it. However, ask them. Say, hey, if you’ve got a better alternative. Bring it. Let’s talk about it.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:18:40]

That’s fantastic. So, we’re listening, we’re encouraging, trying new things, or letting people who get excited about an idea run with them. I’m imagining your students don’t have dimes just jingling in their pockets anymore as they’re walking out the door with all their change. So, what happens if you’re getting some momentum but then a boulder rolls back down the hill? What do you do to overcome when you started some great momentum but then there’s some backsliding?

Phil Johnson: [00:19:09]

Talking about techniques and practices, I say that can be interpreted in a number of ways. When someone says process, I tend to think of a sequence of steps that librarians are going to follow to affect change so that we have the intended outcome of our plans. I can lay this out in steps necessary to implement something. So, define the change and demonstrate why it’s good for the library. Identify the expected goals and an expected impact. Implement a plan and the necessary support structure for it so that it can be successful, and then complete the project and measure the final impact. Sometimes it’s not what you’d hoped for, but you know you learn from those mistakes and you go forward with it.

Jessica Hayes: [00:20:01]

And, as far as what happens when the boulder starts rolling back down, what inspired this entire conversation in the webinar that we did a year and a half ago, don’t let that discourage you. Remember that you are in a way, Sisyphus, and that’s going to happen. That’s actually, maybe that’s what the gods were trying to teach him, that this is going to happen and you’re going to push, and it’s going to fall back. You just have to sometimes, stand back and look at it. You take a big breath and you then just go back at it. It’s daunting. I’m not going to say it’s easy when a boulder falls back down and you’re just like, where have we gone wrong? Why has this happened? You just start back at square one, like what Bill said, you just start back at that process. Start back by defining, ok, this is what we wanted to change. This isn’t change. Let’s do this. Just starting back at square one sometimes.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:21:09]

I like that a lot and I think that inspires people to know, hey, even if this rolls back down a little bit, we’re still in this. We’re behind you. We’re going to keep pushing. We’ve got this.

Jessica Hayes: [00:21:20]

It may fall back and roll back on top of you. But, you have people around you that will help push it off. Just make sure you have that support there.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:21:30]

Absolutely, and I bet as you’ve been doing this you have some fabulous real-life examples of how this has worked.

Jessica Hayes: [00:21:39]

I know personnel-wise, I’ve had some challenges and, well not challenges, but I was a newcomer to a situation that had had lots of different changes, my position hadn’t been filled when I got here, it had been five or six years. So, all my direct reports didn’t know what to expect from a former head of public services and they just had been entrenched, and it wasn’t their fault because that was what they had to do to survive.

Jessica Hayes: [00:22:26]

They had deans surveying them but they didn’t have that immediate person. It took a while for them to come and trust me. At first, it was, ok, sure. You’re saying this, this, this. But then, you have to show them, especially a couple of them, I had to show them that I actually am going to do what I say. And, I am here to work and walk beside you.

Jessica Hayes: [00:23:00]

It was actually one of those people that inspired the boulder analogy because I encountered something with them, I was like, I thought we’d already gone over this. But, they didn’t remember, or they hadn’t recalled. You know what I did? I went and talked to Phil. We came up with this webinar.

Jessica Hayes: [00:23:26]

He encouraged me, and I just kept at it. What I mean by kept at it was in this particular situation I kept communicating. It took a lot of self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, not, unfortunately, but it took self-sacrifice. I had to demonstrate through practical, tangible ways for this person to come to trust me but I can say now from what it was even in mid-2017, the dynamic has changed considerably. There were many people outside of the library who mentioned the improvement in this individual and the department that they work within.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:24:18]

That’s fantastic.

Phil Johnson: [00:24:20]

Most certainly these, I guess we could call them organizational boulders, will absolutely be different from library to library, that’s just the case…

Jessica Hayes: [00:24:30]

…from day to day.

Phil Johnson: [00:24:32]

Yeah, absolutely, so you may be dealing with institutional history, which goes back to the way it’s always been done, kind of issue. It can be things like fear of change, and that goes back to talking about the predictability, earlier. Personalities can be another issue, can be strong personalities, can be weak personalities. But, what Jessica and I have really worked hard on is finding people’s motivators, and making sure that it’s not an organizational boulder. Of course, then, there’s always time. Time is always our enemy, right?

Jessica Hayes: [00:25:11]

And, I think that would be the one common thing for all of us is that time is the boulder, and it’s what will stand in the way because we also have lives. We’re also faculty members, we have to publish, we have to do our service on top of leading and managing people, it all takes time. So, that can be a boulder in and of itself.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:25:41]

So true. So Phil, I just want to ask you as leader of the organization did you ever have one moment where you saw something happen and you were like, Oh my gosh, that’s it. That was so positive, this worked.

Phil Johnson: [00:25:55]

It is a great feeling when you feel that, you know. You see these things come together. At first, you kind of do feel like Sisyphus, that you’re pushing that boulder uphill. But then, you see people start to get on board. They come together and everything just comes together, and you realize how great of an impact this is going to have on our users.

Phil Johnson: [00:26:22]

The truth is that there’s big things and there’s little things. You delight in every positive impact that you make on your students or your library users – whatever library you’re in. And so, yeah, it is great to see those moments and to have them and be able to sit back for a brief moment and enjoy it. And then, we start on the next project pushing that boulder up the hill.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:26:51]

Right, right, but you celebrate those positives when they come, that’s fantastic. As you developed this work, and this webinar, and the change instruments in your own agency making things happen, did you come across any favorite books or resources you’d like to share about leadership, and why?

Jessica Hayes: [00:27:11]

You, and your listeners might laugh but, just in general about leadership and even organizational change, I draw a lot of inspiration and leadership inspiration from the series A Song of Ice and Fire. Forbes actually has written many articles about the key leadership lessons that can be learned from A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire). One of them is, ‘Kill the boy and let the man be born’, when John Snow is having to make decisions that are hard decisions. That is something that leaders, especially in organizational change – you have to ‘kill the boy’, that’s the self-sacrifice that sometimes is required when you’re leading an organizational cultural change. And then, of course, that infamous line, ‘He who passes the sentence must swing the sword’. Meaning, if you’re going to require somebody be punished or even if you require something of somebody, then you must be able to implement it yourself or you must carry it through.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:28:43]

I can honestly say this is a first on this show, Game of Thrones. I love it.

Jessica Hayes: [00:28:47]

Well, there you go. I could also use Harry Potter. But, I’ll let Phil talk about his real leadership book.

Phil Johnson: [00:28:58]

I have to go back to Simon Sinek, Start with Why, because at its most basic, this book’s all about providing leaders with the skills needed to inspire cooperative environments, to develop trust, and to incorporate positive change. So, it’s a great book. There’s a ton of other books out there, but it’s a great read and I think a lot of people could benefit from it.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:29:23]

Fantastic. Thank you for sharing those resources, I like them. Anything else you’d like to share?

Jessica Hayes: [00:29:29]

Be patient with yourself. It will take time and sometimes the best change is the one that you make in yourself. You set the example for what you want to change and that again, takes time and self-sacrifice, but sometimes that is what is needed more than anything. Phil?

Phil Johnson: [00:29:54]

I’ll go back to my earlier answer about no matter how big or small the change is it does have an impact. Even if it’s a small thing, delight in that and be thrilled about it because you do build that momentum as Jessica was saying. That’s the key. Sometimes, maybe it is that you start off with a lot of small changes so that you get people accustomed to change and get them out of that, loving their predictability mode.

Jessica Hayes: [00:30:29]

And, they trust you, and the small changes help them trust you to say, ok, this person has guided me through the dime, the $20 dime change of 2015. So, I think I can trust them with this change, too. So, it helps build that trust that past experiences might have wounded them on.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:30:58]

Trust is important and it all makes an impact, even the small changes. So, that’s great advice. So Phil, and Jessica, in closing, will you share with me what being a librarian means to you each personally?

Phil Johnson: [00:31:12]

Well, every single day I get up early and I cannot wait to go to work. So, why is that? I get to hang out with an amazing group of people who work in this library. Every single day we get to see the impact we have on our students and our other users. When I think we’re on the front lines with so many different things, such as promoting access to information, helping people expand their horizons, providing safe space, there’s just so many different things that we get to do in our jobs. It’s a pretty amazing experience.

Jessica Hayes: [00:31:55]

What being a librarian means to me is, ten years ago, actually this summer, I realized for the first time I wanted to be a librarian. The reason was I wanted to help people learn, and learn how to access information, and learn how to discover new things. Just being that person that I had when I was in college, that person – they might never come to me for library help at all, but they stop and say, hey, I just wanted to give you a hug because you’re awesome and I like you. I think I’ve probably bugged Phil, daily. So, the students come in, they’re not quiet but they’re very passionate and they’re very excited to say, Hi, Miss Jessica, or Hi, Dr. Johnson. They’re always excited to see us. So, I think that’s something that we both share for sure.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:33:04]

Thank you for those thoughts and thank you for all you’re doing in the profession. It sounds like you’re having a lot of fun while you’re also doing some great things and managing change. So, thanks for sharing this content with us. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you today on Library Leadership Podcast.

Jessica Hayes: [00:33:18]

Well, thank you so much. We really appreciate it.

Phil Johnson: [00:33:21]

Thank you. We are really happy to be with you today.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:33:25]

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adrian Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at, 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.

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