Organisational leadership: He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

I was inspired by Kim’s discussion on leadership this week, but a little discomforted by some of the Twitter conversation that followed, in which it was identified (not, if I recall by Kim herself) that change was great, but people could be a barrier.

Don’t get me wrong. I know people, I work with them and I know just how wrong they can be, particularly those who don’t see things the way I do. The problem is, we can’t change people and more to the point, we shouldn’t. My response is informed by one of my favourite Māori proverbs:

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world? The people! The people! The people!

We don’t want people to change; we want the people, our colleagues, staff, organisational seniors and users to help us realise the change we see as the path to the future. I propose combining three complementary strategies with this in mind.

Identify your allies

This is the one we’re all good at. This is the point of Blogjune – we discuss our ideas and influences so we can connect with others who see the world the same way. There’s been plenty written about personal learning networks and flocks. These are a great emotional and intellectual support when the process of facilitating change gets us down but it’s important to have those conversations within our organisations too.

Anyone can teach us. I’d developed a solid line of expansion in my practice as Librarian, Digital Outreach for Auckland Libraries when I met a colleague I’d assumed to be typical of a manager of a country town library. I’d target retirement communities with a view to explaining the health benefits for ereading (text size plus lightweight reading device) and linking them back to the digital library. I’d always contact the relevant manager and was used to being given a polite hearing before being left to do my job. Not in this case. Within weeks of my first contact, I received an invite to speak to a support group for sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis. Perfect for the scope of my activity and inclusive of people not findable in my initially defined user group. Someone got it, and was willing to push me in a direction which helped me do what I was doing better.

Create allies

Auckland Libraries was a brand new organisation when I worked for it. Due to staffing gaps, at some point my activity as an outreach librarian started to include activity as a project manager for technological upgrades.

My first major project was an upgrade for one subregions computer suites. I was facilitating an early meeting between my manager, our contractor and the local team of learning centre librarians who were necessary to help steer the activity through.

When it came time for the locals to present their request list, I was surprised to find their representative in a frame of mind to take these big city folks (note: I lived in one country town and worked from another, as did my manager) to task for their high handed ways. He insulted me, my manager, our contractor, the project and proceeded to dramatically overexplain his list with the assumption that none of the three of us knew the slightest thing about technical services provision. I was aghast.

Calming him down and reminding him of the purpose of the meeting – to work together productively – didn’t work either. I made the reluctant decision to play hardball. Noting the length of his list, I let him talk to his pleasure for twenty-five minutes (!!!) which allowed him to finish discussing the first point on his group’s list of 20 or so. I then interjected to clarify that as all of the project team had commitments, we had five minutes left to discuss the remaining points. Suddenly the performance ended. Points were worked through, and almost uniformly agreed to with the assent of the contractor. There was no time for argument, so none happened. Damage done to the organisation’s relationship with our contractor was repaired as he saw his contact wouldn’t allow him to be disrespected.

Later, I had reason to contact my disruptive colleague. As I was going to have to work with him into the future, I let him know the truth – that I’d allowed him to run his mouth in order to demonstrate a point. I let him know it wasn’t by choice, but his behaviour demanded it, and that my preference would be to cooperate in future. He became my staunchest ally on his side of the project, delivering analysis and insight that supported me greatly. Together with his team, my contractor and a number of helpers across the organisation I believe we delivered not only a successful project but one with a large amount of value added to the existing model. The new template we’d steered through the process was being rolled out across the wider organisation at the time I left it. My one-time foe is a firm friend even now.

Treat everone as an ally

If you’re going to place people at the centre of your change process, the minute you start defining people as “outside the box” you’ve failed. It’s easy to look at the reluctant, the frustrated, the burnt out and say – well there is toxicity here. I’ll side step it and find success without them.

Change has a rubber band effect. The more people you leave behind, the more they’ll push against your accomplishment. It’s not possible to inspire everybody or be everybody’s best friend but it’s wise to respect everybody and work hard to find out where they’re coming from and what they need.

Auckland Libraries was a large organisation – the largest public library system in the Southern Hemisphere. With fifty-five branches and more than a thousand staff, the task of “getting to know everyone” was, to be frank, impossible. As mentioned above, I was working a role with two completely incongruous aspects (friendly salesman/dervishlike project manager and technical liaison). I had too much to do and no time to do it in.

I was given the task of completing an informational spreadsheet about each site so that our council-side colleagues in customer services could effectively respond to customer queries about our locations and services. The no-brainer solution would have been to email out copies of the spreadsheet to site managers and respond to queries as they arose. No-brainers don’t work in scaled environments. I’m in the habit of pondering strategies before I put them in place, and I realised I was likely to spend a week dealing with followup queries. My fifty-five libraries were amalgamated from eight organisational cultures, and I’d found previously that statements that made sense in one part of the organisation were unexplainable elsewhere.

I took the radical step of reserving a week for calling each site. Without impacting greatly on their day or workflows, I took a few minutes to connect with each manager, inquire about their challenges, talk a little bit about myself and work through their responses to the spreadsheet. At the end of the week, I was exhausted and nearly mute but I was on a first name conversational basis with fifty-five of the key players in the organisation. Given I was already well known at head office, I viewed this as a success.

That work came to fruition some months later. It had become clear I was leaving the organisation, and I needed to know that the learning I’d developed around communicating our digital product – particularly the then-emerging elibrary collections – would continue to be useful after I left. It was part of a plan I’d had all along; a single outreach specialist cannot cater to a population of one and a half million.

I pulled together my notes into a training plan which described how to communicate the benefits of ereading to customers in need and codified the experience I’d garnered working on the digital helpdesk to bolster my colleagues’ ability to act as a first line of problem resolution. My manager gave me permission to publicise this training, and I basically treated it as a fire sale; going out of business, take advantage before this product is gone. I’m proud to say that based on the socialising I’d done I received invitiations from approximately two thirds of the sites and was given the opportunity to communicate to a majority of the front-facing staff.

What happened next? I don’t know. Working in a huge organisation in a state of chaotic change was exhilarating, challenging and ultimately overwhelming and destructive for me personally. I walked out the door, moved country, started over and had a daughter with Fi. I’m allowing my career in Australia to very quietly build, but am mainly interested in earning enough to help support my family while giving myself plenty of time to hear the laughter of my little girl.

That being said, I’m still doing all of the steps above. One never knows when one will be in a position to help some good take place in the world.


About seanmurgatroyd
Library (Shared blog): Personal including infoculture, book reviews: Music: band page: @seanfish

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