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?

answering Andy about ALA

(Can I resist the alliterative title? No.)

Andy Woodworth asks the entirely reasonable questions about ALA reformation:

But on this point, I have questions for my fellow young librarians. How is it slow? How is it bloated? How is it not meeting your expectations or needs? What should it be doing?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As one of the current class of Emerging Leaders, it’s important to me not only to maintain an enthusiasm for the organization and to learn as much as I can about how it works, but also to maintain a critical perspective: enough independence of thought that, even as I become acculturated, I don’t end up blinded to things that need to change. The thoughts I have in re Andy’s specific questions:

What should it be doing? Well, I’m not entirely sure of that yet, which I suppose prevents me from successfully advocating for change, eh? I do admire work like ACRL’s Value of Academic Libraries Toolkit — things that members might not have the time or resources to put together on their own, that let them do their jobs better. Force multipliers. But I’m still looking for my professional footing (obligatory reminder: I’m on the job market; hire me?) so I’m not entirely clear what ALA could be doing to better support practicing librarians.

How is it slow? How is it bloated? This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the context of virtual participation, LITA board streaming, and all that parliamentary procedure I have yet to read. The information-profession landscape is changing constantly. My husband is busy at his information-profession (software) job lately because they have a release coming out this week. Just like they did last month. And the month before that. And, you know, perpetual beta: it’s not just a catchy phrase.

Meanwhile ALA has face-to-face committee meetings twice a year, and can’t seem to make important decisions between them? (Maybe I’m wrong on this. Please tell me I’m wrong.) When the issues are changing that fast, how can a six-month lag time in every major conversation be anything other than — not just cumbersome — but not even credible?

I appreciate that politics moves slower than technology, and ALA needs to operate in a way that allows for discussion and input and transparency, and sometimes that’s messy and slow. But its operational infrastructure seems to outright prevent it from addressing fast-moving issues. And a lot of the issues I’m interested in move very fast.

There’s another question he verged on asking, which is what’s stopping you from being the change you want to see? And to that I would say…there is a lot of institutional knowledge it seems you have to get a handle on before you can do anything. ALA is enormous and sprawling — my mother gasped in horror at its org chart — and that was just the org chart of the central offices and so forth; it didn’t begin to touch the committees. (Oy vey, the committees.) I’ve gone to the last three conferences and have been remarkably lucky in getting to meet insiders; I chose my Emerging Leaders project specifically because it was the one that seemed most likely to get me deep into the guts of the organization, figuring out how it works; and seriously, it’s just so big. It seems like it will take years to build up enough knowledge of the organization that I would have enough leverage to do anything interesting with it.

Partly this is something ALA could rectify by doing a better job of reaching out to new members, making it easier to figure out the unwritten rules of getting involved, et cetera (so maybe that’s something else I’d like to see from the organization — and I should mention that groups like NMRT and ACRL NMDG do well at that — once you find them in the sprawling vastness). But partly, it’s just hard to get a grip on an organization with tens of thousands of members and a well over a century of history. And more committees than a school of hypertrophic squid has tentacles.

four leadership lessons (and three questions) from ALA Midwinter

My head is racing with thoughts from ALA — you know, “my brain is full, may I be excused?” Little to no hope of ever digesting them all but, in the spirit of reflective participation in the Emerging Leaders program, I’d like to make a spirited attempt to write down thoughts on leadership: as Maureen Sullivan advised us, to be “aware and intentional” about developing this skill. So, in no particular order:

1)Be scared every day and have a drink in your hand: Peter Bromberg‘s distillation of Leslie Burger‘s talk to the ELs, capably (and quickly!) blogged by EL Lessa Pelayo-Lozada. The scared: throw yourself into situations where you don’t know what you’re doing but you need to succeed, and the crucible makes you learn how. The drink: is not actually to counteract the scared; it’s to force open body language while you go to the happy hours where all the real work happens.

Me on drinks: My ALA, for the record — my relationship to it, my involvement in it, the successes I’ve had in it so far — all started at the LITA happy hour at ALA Midwinter 2010 in Boston.

Me on scared: I keep gaining appreciation for how much the capacity to be scared, the ability to walk into ambiguity and not freeze or run away or give up, is a real skill, and matters.

2) Be generous. ALA leadership seems to be a gift economy, and I can’t count all the people who have been incredibly generous to me as I learn the ropes (though I have to mention Peter, Jason Griffey, and Janie Hermann). I am keen to be in a place in my career where I can pay it forward.

There’s some other lessons in there that I’ve elided, because I’m not sure I’m ready to commit them to a blog. But you might be able to get them out of me in other channels. (Particularly if you’re generous at happy hours. 😉

3) There is no spoon. I got this from Andy Woodworth’s blog a few weeks ago and keep coming back to it. The world is really, truly full of opportunities just waiting for you to notice and ask, or notice and do it. “Carpe diem” doesn’t mean “ask permission”. Which is why fellow EL Kate Kosturski is running for ALA Council (vote for Kate!). Which is how Jan Holmquist, Ned Potter, Justin Hoenke, and I — and a whole world of incredibly generous people on the internet — have raised almost half the money we need to buy India a library. Since Friday.

(Seriously: check that link out. There’s a box for our Facebook page in my sidebar now, too.)

4) Relationships. Meeting Brett Bonfield alone was worth the price of admission this weekend. Among the many reasons: during our panel on personal branding he talks about how he hates the term; for him, what it’s about is relationships: which people does he want to know? to collaborate with? And what can he do to make that happen? A moment when something clicked into place, right there.

And this, all this — barely even scratches the surface of my notes; is not the much longer list of things I know I don’t know about leadership. But at least gives me a fighting chance of capturing important parts of the experience while they’re still in my head.

And you, fellow travelers? What did you learn about leadership this weekend? What do you know you don’t know? What would you tell me today, or yesterday’s you?