Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa
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Encouraged To Lead

Library Life Article: 22 Apr 13

Feature article by: Cath Sheard RLIANZA

An interview with Fiona Kerr - Looking at Leadership in New Zealand Libraries

This is the second in a series of articles on leadership from Cath Sheard on behalf of the Emerging Leaders Working Group - Editor

First interview  Hidden in plain sight - with Sally Pewhairangi
Third interview Responsible for our own learning - with Sarah Gallagher

Fourth interview Leading In A Secondary School Library - with Bridget Schaumann
Image of Fiona Kerr

Fiona Kerr is a former secondary school languages teacher, now working as Youth Librarian at Waitaki District Libraries. Her passion is making young people, and their community, feel connected to their library and other cultural/heritage facilities in their town. Collaborating with like-minded people inspires Fiona and supports her passions.

Cath: Who do you look up to as a leader and why?

Fiona: I am very lucky to be working in an organisation where the manager encourages everyone in the team to lead: most recently Lorraine Weston-Webb (now Manager at Gore Library) and Philip van Zijl (Manager of Waitaki District Libraries). I also see Chloe Searle: Acting-director and Curator (Collections and Exhibitions), Eva Garbutt: Curator of Archives at North Otago Museum and Alice Lake-Hammond: Exhibitions Curator at Forrester Gallery/ The Art Bank as leaders. These three have ‘can-do’ attitudes to absolutely everything, are always supportive of ideas and look after everyone working with them.

Cath: You say they ‘look after’ their staff. So I guess for you a good manager cares for the whole person, not just the one they see 9-5. I’ve been reading about today's “economy of job-hopping and nanosecond loyalty” (Patrick Lencioni - President, The Table Group). In ‘Encouraging the heart’ (Kouzes and Posner, 2003) they talk about holistic care and leadership building a loyal workforce. Do you think this more holistic approach is likely to appeal to workers often seen as job-hoppers, Gen X and Gen Y?

Fiona: I have been very lucky to have always worked with managers and teams that care about 'the whole person'. I would say that the holistic approach appeals to most people: not just Gen X and Gen Y. In the team I work with from the library, museum/archives and art gallery that I work we, we are all face similar challenges and 'get' the stresses and issues so can empathise and support each other. Not sure that the group I work with would be seen as job-hoppers: we're all pretty loyal and give our all to the roles we're in.

Cath: It’s great that you are supportive of each other and loyal to your organisation, yet there is such a common perception that Gen X & Y don’t stick round. Do you think it’s simply untrue, or is there something else at work here?

Fiona: Maybe the perception is wrong. There are so many people that would be described as Gen Y and Gen X who struggle to find positions that match their qualification and skills. I saw this amongst secondary teachers I studied with. They trained under the information that there was a shortage of teachers, then couldn't find permanent work after graduating (10 years ago) and continue to be given relieving positions. In my opinion, in libraries, museums and galleries, there aren't a lot of positions available that match the qualifications, experience or the passions of Gen Y/ Gen X-ers so when a role is found, they hold onto it & give it their all.

Cath: Can you see ways in which you are emulating some of their skills? How does that feel?  

Fiona: I wouldn’t describe myself as an ambitious person: I just love to see people getting the most out of what is offered to them in the world. I feel that I am in an ideal position to foster this in the young people and their community that I encounter in my role. Growing passion for being involved in the world is what sparks a fire in me each day. Having been a teacher for a number of years, I know that people in general look to others for encouragement and support. Therefore, I try to be a ‘cheerleader’ for everyone in my path: be it colleagues, library visitors or just people in the street.

Cath: It interests me that you say you’re not ambitious. I’ve been hearing that a lot from people since joining the ELWG. Long term, the profession needs people who want the top jobs, the top committee roles, the high profile positions. Do you think people just grow into those roles over time, or is there something we should be doing as a profession to make management and leadership ‘sexier’?

Fiona: Maybe it's a NZ thing or maybe it's just me but I've never met many 'ambitious' people. There may be some out there but it's just not something I see myself as. I was the same in my previous career as a teacher. For me, the idea of being away from what I love, which is working hands-on with people in the community, stops me from wanting to get more into management. It seems to me that management involves budgets and systems and takes leaders away from the community aspects of the role. It's challenging to do both well in my opinion: something's gotta give!

If management could be shared between people more, I'd consider throwing my hat in that ring. Having never been a manager, it's the unknown element of how much support is out there from other managers. I know that library managers meet up and come up with plans together but as I'm not in that position, I'm not sure if it's the type of support I'd need. To me management and leadership shouldn't need to be made 'sexier' but should be 'realistic' and 'supported'.

Cath: You’re right Fiona, often mangers do end up with much less people customer contact and it can be hard to know what’s really happening at the counter. Do you think if there was some sort of ‘peer support’ system you’d be more likely to try a management role? Mind you, part of what we’re saying is just that; that you can lead without managing, which leads on nicely to my next question.

Fiona: I agree that it is possible to 'lead' without being a manager but at some point there is a need for people to enter traditional management positions and I feel that I'd need lots of support with this for me to consider it. Having a support person, be it a 'peer' or someone who has been in a library management role for some time, would make a difference to me personally.

Cath: Do you think it's hard to lead in NZ libraries without being a manager and if it is, why? What can we change? What opportunities do you need?

Fiona: I think this depends on the individual organisation. In my current position I have been encouraged from the beginning to lead. In my role of sole-charge Youth Librarian, I make a lot of decisions by myself: which I sometimes remember to run past my manager. However, it can be lonely sometimes, so when my colleague Julia de Ruiter (Library Assistant: Waitaki District Libraries) showed an interest in us offering Wriggle & Rhyme, I was keen to jump in there boots and all with her. At first, Julia felt out of her comfort zone dealing with the adults in these sessions but I have tried to support her by letting her know that once the parents/ caregivers understand that what we do is important and special for the children, we’ll have them eating out of our hands! I see this as a way that I have been encouraged to lead and I’m pretty sure Julia feels supported and encouraged to be involved.

Julia supports me so much too! She is always keen to bounce ideas around and manages me when I'm feeling overwhelmed. There are times when some staff may be used to the idea that the person who makes the decisions or is the traditional leader needs to have that title. That can be a difficult adjustment for some and can be a challenge for the person trying to just get things done and changes started. I think it would be great to be able to attend a ‘management strategies’ type of course even if you are beginning your careers in libraries.  

Cath: How do you think we can encourage people to become leaders?

Fiona: I think it’s important to let people know often that everyone can lead. Also communicating as much as possible with people in management/ leadership positions or even those who lead without a title is something I’d like to see supported in groups or through LIANZA for example.

Cath: I hear what you’re saying, so how do you think we should be communicating? Is email dead? Are newsletters so old they’re museum relics? Is social media the only away to go, or .... we’d love to hear your thoughts on best ways to get information out there.

Fiona: I find social media a great way to communicate but at times it can result in total overload and get in the way of my own ideas germinating because I see so many other people's ones. For some people, social media is not their thing. I know a particular person who uses Facebook a bit but otherwise doesn't really engage in it (we message each other a lot when working on assignments). She is someone who is a fantastic young person to have in libraries who could potentially be a future manager. So how do we communicate with these types of people? I met her at LIANZA 2012 and we clicked and made the effort to continue the connection.

I still believe in the power of meeting face-to-face and like to take any opportunity to do this. This is the reason I put my hand up to be involved in the NewProfNZ group and volunteer to be a South Island regional administrator/coordinator so I can support face-to-face meet-ups. I don't think it really matters which way we communicate but that we do: heaps and heaps and by a variety of ways even if to some people they seem outdated. It's the communication that is important not the medium.

Thanks Fiona, it’s been interesting chatting with you and good luck with all you have on at the moment.

Thanks Cath. I've really enjoyed it too :) Good luck to you too.

Feature article by: Cath Sheard RLIANZA
Member of the Emerging Leaders Working Group

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