As far as I know, when a plane takes off, it eventually has to land. Sometimes managers forget that. I was struck by this [paywall] piece in the Globe and Mail. The article touches on visionary leadership, disruptive innovation and employee engagement. The impression I got is that the 30,000 foot initiative happens but the results never reach the employees on the ground. Now more than ever, it’s important that what managers do makes sense for our staff.

Doing the wrong thing well doesn’t get us too far.

Harvey Schachter, 9/19/2020

The writer looks at a couple of popular leadership topics and points out that, when your organization lacks alignment. In particular, if you have a disconnect between the top and bottom of the organization, things get lost in translation.

To be frank, this piece appealed to me because it poked at some trendy management issues that I think are a bit washed out. But the pandemic has given managers an opportunity to rethink what we do. We have people operating in new and different ways, ways that may make us uncomfortable, and that offer new ways of doing our jobs.

One of area is the alignment between management and staff. Alignment has arisen as a law library management topic in the past. In particular, it was a common refrain in the 2007-2009 period when Special Libraries Association was looking at its branding. It more commonly refers to whether what the law library doing is aligned with the strategic goals of its funder (law firm management, government management, etc.).

Strategy and Vision

For example, visionary leadership only works when the strategy is understood by the staff. That requires communication and trust. When the strategy isn’t clear, when there is uncertainty, staff revert to focusing on what they can control.

This seems to mostly manifest itself in law libraries as strategic plans. They can be so vague as to undermine the purpose, other than to check the box “we have a strategic plan”. I worked with one organization who redid their plan every three years. (Five is the other common approach, like there’s a magic number).

They frequently missed their strategic goals. But they didn’t keep them past three years. Once missed, they were dropped. It made me realize that some governance boards don’t really understand strategy. If it was something that could be dropped, it may not have been strategic. To be frank, it was clear from the day of adoption that some of what they wanted to achieve in their strategic plans was impossible unless they fundamentally changed their organization. The misalignment was substantial.

The vision thing is probably worth rethinking. If you aren’t going to put the time and energy into carrying it forward and helping everyone in your organization understand it, then it’s window dressing. I think you can have a vision in a more subtle way, and be a leader, without as much drama.

Engagement

I am hopeful that we may see a revisiting of employee engagement. There seems to be a lot of interest in determining if staff are engaged but not a lot of follow through if they’re not. Our organization has surveyed staff on this topic and I’ve been glad to see high engagement in my information teams.

But I don’t take much credit for it. I’ve got long serving staff who are good at their jobs, like their co-workers and environment, and aren’t looking for job change. In many instances, my job is just to not rock the boat. It does not relieve me of my job duty of moving the library forward. It just means that change and improvement has to really be an improvement for someone: staff or researcher.

Engagement exercises can raise issues that the manager isn’t in a position to solve. It’s not that you shouldn’t ask. But you run the risk of creating disengagement when you ask the same question repeatedly and never respond with a fix to a repeated problem.

Not surprisingly, employee engagement is getting rebranded. Start looking for employee experience as the new trend to chase. One thing I agree about in this post is that top down approaches aren’t very useful without the employee’s input.

When the C-suite asks and is the only one that can answer, it can put the middle manager in a difficult position. If you survey your staff and your reference team have an issue only you – and not the head of reference – can solve, you better focus on it. Otherwise you leave your manager hanging out to dry.

Employee engagement should shift from being an HR metric and C-suite tickbox to being a management goal. Hire strong people. Give them interesting work. Help them be successful. Recognize their value. Help them leave when they’ve outgrown their work with you.

Traditional Management

Another item I’m hoping gets a bit of a rethink is management styles. We have hired managers for a particular style of management. That mode may no longer exist and so we are going to need to figure out how to manage in a new mode. Staff may not be under our visible supervision as they work from home or the manager does.

One challenge in the law library world is that we frequently hire managers who have no management experience. They may come from front line library roles or have a law degree but have little or no experience other than what they saw their own managers do. If their management experience is on the job in one mode, they may struggle to adapt to the new one. They’re going to need help.

I was talking to someone the other day about this. They asked, “should a junior employee who returns to the office have a manager present for accountability?” Let’s put aside the trust issues – that junior employees (hierarchically, not age) can only be trusted when a supervisor is adjacent.

The question I posed back was this: why can’t you have a trust relationship between the staff person and manager no matter where they are? Both staff in the office, both remote, one in one place and one in another. Surely we have worked at least a few months with the managers and staff physically separated.

Whether we have meant to or not, we have created expectations of an increasingly flexible workplace. Law libraries have a lot of roles that need to be in a physical location adjacent to the materials they use. But some of that is now, visibly, optional.

There is a huge opportunity for missed communications. Take the extra time to understand what your people are doing, where they can do it, and what they prefer. It’s a great chance to build flexibility into your staffing.

Employee Assessment

And last, but not least, I’m hoping that we see something of a reset around employee assessment. I thought this approach made a lot of sense:

I stopped doing annual goals in any real way nearly a decade ago. We have periodically received direction on how to engage in performance management, often based on the latest HR trends. The approaches in organizations where I’ve worked have revolved around the annual review.

This is going to be particularly important to the extent staff are out of sight, working from wherever. I was talking to one manager recently and they had been asked to come up with performance measures for their knowledge workers. They had a traditional view of management and their measures were very much “count the widgets“.

I’m a firm believer in counting widgets, just not necessarily for performance purposes. Foot traffic, reference question volume, documents delivered. Metrics help operational assessment. But knowledge workers are not making widgets and I don’t think their performance should be based on widget counting.

As our staff teams become dispersed – alternating shifts in our physical space, for example, or working perpetually from remote locations – we’ll need to adapt. If we weren’t already looking at their performance based on a project perspective, now is a good time to shift. Rather than counting the little things and potentially micro managing the staff, focus on what the end goal is. Help them accomplish that and review their performance against it.

Change is hard at any time. But there are some good things for managers to embrace as we learn new ways of doing our jobs. I am hoping we will see some of the trend chasing go away. I am hoping that fundamentals – like better communication, trust, and autonomy – will get a closer look.