Level Up Your Leadership Skills: When You Don’t Know What You’re Doing

A friend of mine just accepted a promotion. When I asked her why she accepted it and what she was looking forward to, she said, “I’m really looking forward to working for my new boss; I really respect him and he’s indicated he trusts me. But what he doesn’t know is that lots of time I don’t know what I’m doing.”

She said this jokingly, but it struck a chord with me as I’ve been in a new role in my library since January. On my first day, another colleague advised, “Fake it ‘till you make it!” Each day, I never really know exactly what to do or how to respond to dilemmas – but I have a plan, some strategies, some good instinct and I ask good questions. So far it’s working.

People have three psychological needs: autonomy — a perception that we have some choices that are ours to make; relatedness – a connection to something or someone – beyond ourselves; and competence — a feeling of effectiveness and success. We need these in our personal lives, and also in our workplaces.

One of the hardest things I’ve seen library staff (including myself) struggle with is when our own personal levels of competence are not where we want them to be–it’s true for everyone, but feels especially relevant in libraries, where we highly value our expertise and knowledge–and get to demonstrate it almost every day if we work directly with the public.

When we’re in a new role at our library–a promotion, a change in responsibilities or location–especially one in which we’re not regularly called on to demonstrate our excellent information-seeking and finding skills, this change from “I know how to answer your question” to “I don’t know what to do next” can feel especially unsettling.

I’ve been in a new role since January — and it’s a stretch. For the first time in my library career, my work is not directly connected to youth services or to staff delivering services to children, youth and families. I’m leading staff working in areas critical to the library’s success, but know very little about those areas.

Despite feeling like I’m not always competent, I like my new role because of the talented staff I’m working with — who ARE subject matter experts in their areas and who need a leader, not another expert in their area of work. These staff, too, made the leap from the comfort of direct service to patrons, to areas that were very new to them.

Some of the most intensive learning we can do as individuals is through stretch assignments — projects or assignments or tasks that sometimes feel physically painful to us as we’re going through them — we might not automatically know what to do, we may need to try something that doesn’t work, reach out to others for support, or delegate the work completely.

As I’ve worked with individual staff members on stretch assignments or development opportunities, many will say, “I have no idea what I’m doing” or “I don’t think I can do this work.” I have felt like that many times, myself — and feel it regularly in my new work.

These new roles of project manager, supervisor, community organizer, advocate, and facilitator are ones we must step into. It may mean moving out of our comfort zone and taking on new new roles in our organization. Stretch assignments test our feelings of competence, but they are necessary to further and advance service to teen patrons in our libraries.

It’s amazing to me that we’re often so impatient with our own learning, but so supportive of teens as they learn new skills — supporting them in leading a planning meeting, encouraging them to share their crazy idea with the group, and leading the group in reflective conversations when there is conflict. Stretch into a new role or assignment – and be patient with our own learning and development.

Some ideas for YALSA resources to support your next opportunity to stretch:

Apply to be the next member manager of the Hub

Read YALSA’s Future of Library Services for and with Teens: a Call to Action report again – this time for an eye on areas where your current role might evolve.

About Maureen Hartman

I am the Division Manager for Strategic Services at the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota and a former Board member for YALSA.
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