How to pick your Emerging Leaders project

The 2012 class of ALA Emerging Leaders has been announced. I’m super-excited by some of the names on the list (you all get to work with Jo Alcock and John Jackson and Coral Sheldon-Hess?! lucky you), and I trust I will be excited by the others when I get to meet them, too.

One of the things past years’ ELs told me when I was researching the program, and that proved to be true, is that the networking will be great no matter what, but the project experience varies wildly. ELs who were dissatisfied with the program generally cited a bad project or poor mentoring. I took this very much to heart when selecting my project and was extremely happy with our result, my team, our sponsoring unit (ITTS), and our completely amazing mentors Aaron Dobbs and Jenny Levine.

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than about thirty seconds, you know I have Opinions on this, so here is my advice on project selection:

Look for real deliverables. Yeah, this is ALA, which as we all know stands for “let’s join committees and do lots of navel-gazing”, which means a lot of the projects are just that — do some research and come up with a report that will be presented to another committee and filed away and never acted upon — and this is super lame. You’ll do lots of work and have no impact. Look for a project whose deliverable is more than a report; whose audience is larger than its sponsor; and whose mandate includes the power not merely to recommend, but to act on your recommendations.

A major reason I picked my project was that the deliverable could be a real, useful site on the web that anyone could see and use. We could build a thing. Our audience could be the entire membership. This is way more fun than writing a report. (Even if you like to write.)

Look for committed sponsors. Another major reason I picked my project was that ITTS had been an EL sponsor before, and in fact the 2011 project was designed based on the recommendations of the previous year’s team. This meant that I could ask prior years’ ELs how ITTS was as a sponsor (I heard great things). I could also see from the project design that ITTS listened to their teams and was invested in their success and wanted their work to have meaning. Excellent.

Look for the mentors you want to work with. The big win of EL is the networking and that doesn’t just mean your teammates — it also means your mentors and sponsors. You know: the people with loads of experience in ALA that now you get to just…hang out with…even though you’re pretty new. Win! And their names are right there in the project descriptions! If they’re people you’ve heard of and know you want to know better, that’s a good thing, but don’t just limit yourself to the people you’ve heard of. Ask around; see if they’ve worked with previous years’ ELs or what sorts of things they’re involved in with ALA. Look for people who do interesting work, who care about your success, and who will be involved if you need them to be. Our mentors were tremendously useful for helping us define the scope and structure of our project (which could have been impossibly unwieldy otherwise) and for helping us navigate ALA and find the information we needed. Mentors can also be useful for helping you navigate the conflict that (naturally and healthily!) arises in many teams.

Don’t just pick the sexy project. You know what I mean. Everyone will want to pick the sexy project. But having a good project experience isn’t so much about the topic; it’s about the support you get from your mentors and sponsors and the kind of deliverable you produce and the quality of your teammates. I may well have picked the project with the driest description of all — but it had a real deliverable, a top-notch sponsor, and hugely exciting mentors. In fact I think the dryness worked to my advantage, because the only people who were interested in this project were serious, drama-free people who wanted to work. I ended up with completely amazing teammates and now I look for excuses to work with them again.

Any other EL alumni have suggestions for this year’s class?

3 thoughts on “How to pick your Emerging Leaders project

    1. Anyone who hasn’t follow this link yet should — Justin was definitely one of the people I learned a lot from when I was applying for EL.


  1. Thanks for the advice, Andromeda! (And the shout-out. :))

    I’m excited to see the project list. And I agree: I’d rather work on something with a deliverable.


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