Monday, March 14, 2016

Breaking in the new kid

Starting a new job is humbling. I used to be the founder of a well-respected library district where I knew (almost) everybody and everything. Now I'm the new guy in an association where I sometimes forget which floor my boss is on.

The late Missy Shock, a very insightful training coordinator I hired for Douglas County Libraries many years ago, told it like this: we go from unconsciously incompetent (we don't know that we don't know), to consciously incompetent (OMG, I know NOTHING), to consciously competent (OK, I need to do this, then that), to unconsciously competent (you're done with the task before you realize you started).

My own phases as the new director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) have gone more like this:
  • exhilaration. What fun to learn! New city, new building, new people, new issues. It was thrilling. This lasted about four weeks.
  • humiliation. "I know I've asked this before, possibly twice, but how do I..." "In the 293 emails I got in the last hour, you asked me, and I meant to respond, but ..." This painfully conscious incompetence lasted another three weeks. And has not gone away entirely. ALA is a complex organization, and the OIF deals with a LOT of stuff.
  • modest achievement. I did something right today. I did three things right this week. I begin to grasp a larger pattern... And that brings me up to the 10th week, today.
One of the continuing issues is something I'll call the OIF "house style." I work with some very smart people. As they zoom through their days, they copy me in on our business. A vital piece of that is member support: sometimes librarians find themselves in a tight spot. They holler for help. We help them.

At other times, we respond to other constituents: Intellectual Freedom Committee members, Freedom to Read Foundation board members, internal ALA colleagues, external media. Consistently, my staff follows a format something like this:
  • here are the relevant links to definitive legal cases.
  • here are the relevant links to previous ALA/OIF policy decisions.
  • here are the best practices for folks in your situation.
My small staff (5 people!) cranks all this out in great volume, with great focus, and on often very tight deadlines. It really is impressive, and exemplifies the best kind of academic rigor. We at the OIF cite our sources, remember precedent, gather the good, and give it back to our members and communities.

I find that this does differ from my own style. As a newspaper columnist for a quarter of a century, I tried to be a little more approachable, more ruminative, more conversational.

As is the case with most relationships, I suspect both of us (me and OIF) will adjust. I'll work to get smarter about the extraordinary depth of resources in our office, and point to them with precision. My staff will maybe get a little less formal, and a little more emotionally nuanced.

But I suspect that I need to do more changing than they do. I have been given the chance to look at a much larger world than I knew. I have a lot to learn. The good news: I have good teachers.


Beth Wrenn-Estes said...

If anyone can succeed it is you.

James LaRue said...

Thanks, Beth. The work is so important! - Welcome

In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'...