Prince or plebe? Success at all levels of the library hierarchy
Tips – and a webinar – on leveraging your power from The Machiavellian Librarian
By Megan Hodge Posted on 5 November 2014
We introduced the book The Machiavellian Librarian in June with the article "Seven (serious) networking tips from The Machiavellian Librarian." Here, book contributor Megan Hodge offers advice to librarians on how to use the power you have effectively, no matter your level. It's based on her chapter "Prince or plebe? Success at all levels of the library hierarchy."
Hodge is also one of two presenters on a free webinar November 11 titled Insights from The Machiavellian Librarian.
The premise: When one is a middle manager — someone who is not entirely on the front lines, but supervising without the authority to make changes at a system or institutional level — especially as a new professional with lots of enthusiasm and ideas, one can feel frustrated and stuck in a state of stasis. By learning how to leverage the power one does have effectively, as Niccolò Machiavelli did, one can lead from the middle to inspire subordinates, excel as an employee, and create change at the system and institutional level.
Regardless of where you fall in the hierarchy at your library, you probably report to somebody. This somebody may not see eye-to-eye with you on the value of attending conferences, the importance of a devoted teen librarian, or the need for embedded librarians in every department. We are not the ones who have ultimate authority and probably want more power than we currently have.
We do, however, have control over ourselves, our reactions, and our behavior. We exert a quiet influence over the coworkers we interact with, even if we don't formally supervise any of them. And with some Machiavellian foresight and planning, we can successfully advance our own interests—and win the support of the highest members of our library administrations in the process.
No, this doesn't mean that you need to bump off anyone in the chain of command between you and the director.
Although it is true that both beloved leaders and despots have used Machiavelli as a guide, his legacy tends to be thought of as malevolent. ... His political philosophy was not evil in itself. It was just extremely realistic. — Montgomery and Cook (2005)1
Malevolent or realistic: you decide. [divider]
The prince: success as a supervisor
Lead by example
The greatest influence you ever exert may be unconsciously wielded: what are your subordinates taking away from your leadership style? Are they writing notes on what you do right or tweeting about how unfair you are?
I've made it a personal goal to not ask anything of my subordinates that I'm not willing to actually do myself, and I follow through on this so they can see that I mean it.
The end result of leading by example, I feel, is an innate trust and respect that is intrinsically rewarding and practical as well. All managers have been in a situation where only limited pieces of a story can be disseminated to frontline employees, which often causes frustration. Frustration is less likely to occur when your employees know that you have faced the same issues as them by working on the front lines.
Mentor promising employees
While you should, of course, strive to have a positive relationship with all your subordinates and coworkers, special attention should be paid to those who show exceptional interest or drive. They are the ones who have the most potential to advance inside your library and outside in the field, and are also the most likely to be receptive to any advice you may have.
Taking extra care with these employees is a win-win-win: your library benefits from all the wonderful ideas your employees have, they are more likely to advance with your encouragement, and you have happier employees.
Finally, Signor Machiavelli would find me remiss if I neglected to mention the possibility of a current subordinate being promoted above oneself. Inspire loyalty now while you can.
Be passionate about your ideas
You can't expect others to get on board with an idea if you're not excited yourself. What motivation do they have? This is a good guideline for any supervisor to keep in mind, but it is especially a solid guideline for those who would like to lead as well as manage. You will be your own best example of the attitude that is possible for your subordinates to accomplish.[divider]
Webinar: Insights from the Machiavellian Librarian
Do librarians "rock the boat"? Do they challenge those around them to win influence and advantage? Why is it that librarians are seldom found on the "influence" grid of personality assessment tests? The Machiavellian Librarian: Winning Allies, Combating Budget Cuts, and influencing Stakeholders, a popular new book published by Elsevier/Chandos, offers real-life examples of librarians who use their knowledge and skills to project influence and turn the tide in their favor and their library's favor.
This webinar features two of the contributors to the book: Megan Hodge, author of the chapter "Prince or Plebe? Success at all Levels of the Library Hierarchy," and Laura Francabandera, author of the chapter "Mixed Monarchies: Expanding the Library's Sphere of Influence to help Student-Athletes."
Megan Hodge is a Teaching and Learning Librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University. She earned her Master of Science in Library Science from the University of North Texas in 2010 and is the 2014-15 President of the ALA New Members Round Table. In 2011, she was an ALA Emerging Leader and co-founded the Virginia New Members Round Table.
Laura Francabandera is the senior e-learning technology coordinator for Credo Reference, a provider of online reference content and information skills solutions, dedicated to helping students and library patrons build the information skills necessary for academic, professional and personal success. After a decade in corporate management, she received her MLIS from San Jose State University. She has presented at ALA Conferences and Charleston Conferences.
— Cindy Minor, Elsevier Science and Technology Books
- The event: Webinar: Insights from The Machiavellian Librarian
- Date: November 11, 2014
- Time: 2-3 pm EST | 1-2 pm CST | 11 am – 12 pm PST | 7-8 pm BST | 8-9 pm CET
- Registration: The webinar is free. Register here
The politician: success as an employee
Excel in the job that you were hired for
You may have aspirations of becoming a library director one day, or be bursting with great ideas. However, if you do not do the job you were hired for, you will gain very little support for those ideas. It is always a bad idea to come into a job—especially if you're new to the library and weren't hired from within—and immediately to start complaining about how inefficient, uninspired, or nonsensical current services are, or to talk about how great things were at your previous libraries/how you would change things. While all this may be true, your coworkers—and more importantly, your supervisors—will likely feel annoyed that you haven't taken the time to understand the politics and history of your current workplace.
You will be taken much more seriously in all you do if you take the time to establish yourself as not just a competent but an outstanding employee. This will prove to your supervisors and administration that you are aware of what it takes to be successful in your particular institution.
Once you are aware of the politics and history of an idea at your institution, you will be able to propose change in a way that acknowledges these politics and history and demonstrates how your application would be different.
Find a mentor
Be on the lookout for potential institutional mentors as soon as you start a new job. Get the lay of the land first, though. You want to avoid being associated with colleagues who are universally frowned upon or have a questionable history. Ideally, an institutional mentor is someone in a more senior position, who has a good understanding of the political landscape of your particular library.
You don't even have to formally enter a mentoring relationship in order to benefit. Simply finding a role model within your institution and modeling your behavior after that person's can be helpful. Your mentor obviously has some Machiavellian instincts in order to have advanced.
Persevere when told "no"
Just because an idea or request doesn't work right now doesn't mean it won't work in the future. Perhaps the person who received your pitch wasn't in a good mood. Or perhaps you pitched it to the wrong person or not in the right way. Don't lose hope. Do your research. Get the advice of your mentor. Bide your time. Pitch it again, choosing your audience and your moment.
Find the joy in your job and coworkers
When you are bursting with ideas about all of the things you'd like to do for your library but keep getting told "no," it can be frustrating. Don't dwell on the negative, though; that will only cause a downward spiral that won't be good for you personally or professionally.
Focusing on the positive aspects of your job will keep your morale up and make you less vulnerable prey to malcontented gossip. Your supervisors and administrators will also be more willing to listen to your ideas if you are coming from a place of constructiveness rather than discontent.
Develop and maintain a network of like-minded people
Networking can provide another morale-booster. You may feel at times like you are the only person at your library who is interested in speaking at conferences or developing a Teen Advisory Board, for instance. You may be right, but you are definitely not the only librarian in the profession who is interested in these things. Make some professional friends through your outlets: tweet, join the ALA Think Tank, volunteer for your state library association. You are guaranteed to find others who have the same interests as you, and you can commiserate and brainstorm with them.
The civil servant: success as a subordinate
How to propose an idea in a way that will get administrative buy-in
We have all had the experience of receiving a stroke of brilliance, only to have it summarily rejected by a superior, perhaps before it has even been reviewed. What's the roadblock? How can you get your ideas the attention they deserve?
The most important thing to realize is that managers are busy people. They don't necessarily have time to discuss all their concerns with you. Rejecting your proposal out-of-hand is more expedient. If you present your idea in a way that acknowledges the demands on their time, they are more likely to read your proposal and thereby be persuaded. The worst thing you can do is bring up a problem without offering a solution.
Learn and take to heart your library's mission
The most politically astute libraries align their own missions with those of their parent organizations, whether they serve a university or local government. The parent organization will be held responsible for—and therefore cares about—fulfilling its own mission.
He will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful. — Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
Set realistic goals and create a plan for reaching them
Goals keep you motivated. Yet, unrealistic goals just make you frustrated, while goals that are too small are insufficiently inspirational. While it is not impossible, it is extremely improbable that you will be a library director before the age of 30, or that you will change the way libraries lend e-books. Setting your heart on something improbable will only lead to disappointment.
Regardless of how static you may feel your current situation to be, you do have the ability to effect change in your own life, your workplace, and the profession. It does take work, however, as most great things do. Set goals. Find other people who keep you motivated. Hold onto your passion. As Stanley Bing suggests in his book What Would Machiavelli Do?: The Ends Justify the Meanness, "Every day, in every way, ask (yourself) the key question that transforms a middle manager into a CEO: 'What would Machiavelli do?'"
Three tactics to excel at work
1. Be the boss you wish you had
- Don't ask your reports to do anything you aren't willing to do yourself.
- Be active in supporting your employees' professional aspirations.
- Be passionate about your ideas, and support for them will come from the ground up, rather than needing to be mandated from the top down.
2. Don't give up on hoping or trying
- Learn the lay of the land before offering suggestions or criticism.
- Figure out what makes you happy and focus on those aspects of your job.
- Find people you can lean on and others you want to emulate.
3. Act like a star employee, think like your boss
- Be strategic and respect the demands on your supervisor's and administration's time when proposing an idea.
- Understand that even your administrators have to report to someone and go through the same approval process as you "express interest in and be ready to discuss big-picture library issues."3
- Montgomery, JG. & Cook, EI: Conflict Management for Libraries: Strategies for a Positive, Productive Workplace (Chicago: ALA, 2005).
- Braun, L. "Managing the managers," American Libraries Magazine. (May 27, 2013).
Elsevier Connect Contributor
Megan Hodge is a Teaching and Learning Librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. She earned her Master of Science in Library Science from the University of North Texas in 2010 and is the 2014-15 President of the ALA New Members Round Table. In 2011, she was an ALA Emerging Leader and co-founded the Virginia New Members Round Table. In 2012 she was awarded a Virginia Library Presidential Citation and named Chesterfield County Public Library Employee of the Year. She tweets as @mlhodge and blogs at bluestockinglibrarian.wordpress.com.