Library Management Skills Institute – The Learning Organization

Just the phrase ‘Management Skills’ makes me feel a bit flustered. I remember clearly being a Faculty of Arts freshman at McGill and learning that right next door to the library was a school of management. A School of Management! There was a school where people chose to go to learn how to manage other people. To my roommate and I this seemed like the most arrogant, preposterous, and unnecessary discipline that had ever existed. We felt a mixture of contempt and embarrassment for all enrolled. How could they profess to want such a thing??


I’m six and a half years out of library school now, which I’m pretty sure makes me mid-career, and suddenly the idea of studying how to manage seems like a pretty excellent idea. Yes, eighteen year olds deciding they want to go to school to be managers is still kind of an embarrassing idea…but years of working in complex systems, juggling complicated relationships, and trying to negotiate all sorts of different partnerships has left me very convinced that everyone could use some help with this.*


photo of a printed journal article with notes and highlights scattered throughout the page.

Pre-course reading: Peter M. Senge. “The Leader’s New Work: Building Learning Organizations.” In Sloan Management Review 32(1), 1990

Anyone who’s had a conversation with me in the last three months knows that I’ve become a bit obsessed with the intertwined hot topics of mindfulness and intentionality. I think a lot of this comes from the panic I feel at the speed with which my tiny newborn son has turned into a robust, chunky, mobile human.  Was I standing on the sidelines as that time whizzed by? I know I was there for literally all of it, but now it’s gone, and I’m honestly frightened by the feeling of ephemerality I have around his literal whole life. And, of course, once I start thinking about his life I start thinking about my own: am I doing what I want to be doing? Am I building a life I will look back on proudly? Am I contributing to the kind of world I want to live in?

Intentionality in the workplace is hard, y’all. The deluge of email and metaphorical small fires and side conversations and meetings to plan meetings can quickly engulf whole days and weeks, and when you do manage to pull yourself up out of it, it’s 3 PM and you’re tired, right? And there’s some great ranting going on on Twitter against someone you always suspected was up to no good.  If I don’t have a plan, I can get lost. And now I have a kid to rush home to, I’m especially uninterested in staying late because of my own procrastination. A lot of things have coalesced for me recently around the idea of intentionality, of deciding purposefully how I want to live and work. Among the many bits and pieces that have helped are Cal Newport’s Deep Work, the Self Journal, a Mindfulness Without Borders course and, most recently, the Library Management Skills Institute.

I was fortunate enough to take LMSI1 last January, and to participate in LMSI2 two weeks ago, sponsored by OCUL and hosted by the University of Toronto. For those who haven’t heard of the course, each half of the institute is a three-day workshop facilitated by DeEtta Jones, of DeEtta Jones & Associates. In both cases when I took it, the course was co-facilitated by Trevor Dawes, vice provost at the University of Delaware, who brought a really useful boots-on-the-ground perspective to the scenarios and teachings. LMSI1 is focused on looking inward as a manager, while LMSI2 draws on the idea of the Learning Organization as a model for organizational success. The framework of the institute is a movement through each of these Peter Senge’s five disciplines (from The Fifth Discipline, which was references heavily, but which I have not read).

DeEtta and Trevor offered so much wisdom that was actionable. When discussing developing a Shared Vision, she emphasized: “It’s not just ‘what do we want to become?’ but ‘what are the behaviours and practices that will move us to where we want to be?’” This discussion was followed by a personal exercise where we laid out explicitly what those behaviours might look like in our own work environment. I came away with not just a list of big ideas, but a list of small things I could implement in meetings, phone calls, or just general office work.

DeEtta and Trevor also had us work through a series of personal and group exercises around our goals and aspirations, as well as current personal or organizational struggles. Again, these questions were broken down in such a way as to be exceptionally useful. I started a number of exercises thinking, “oh, this is a really hard problem and I don’t think I’ll be able to come to any breakthrough on a sheet of paper,” but I often did!

I frantically scribbled down a number of turns of phrase that DeEtta offered up. The phrase “be explicit” came up over and over again, and I really appreciated how much wording she put on the table. Some of my favourites include:

  • Be explicit about the values that are driving your position: “Here are some of the things that are guiding me right now. Here are the values behind my views.”
  • Give your group some working norms: “Let’s talk about how we want to work together.”
  • Be generous, because equity often lives in the process.
  • Don’t wait to give feedback: “Reinforce behaviours and articulate why they are helpful and valuable.” There was a lot of discussion about encouraging feedback from everyone, often, and on creating easy channels for people to do this, both formally and informally. “Feedback” didn’t mean “the following things are wrong,” and positive feedback was strongly emphasized as an essential component of healthy organizational culture.

But the biggest take-away for me was simply: “Discuss your values.”

DeEtta and Trevor emphasized how important it was for people to explore their values, and to think about how those might look, behaviourally, in the workplace. And the first step in encouraging this in a team is to make your own values explicit, and to make sure your own behaviour reflects those values. It sounds like something that would happen naturally (if I believe X, I’ll act like this…), but my own reflections made it clear to me that I had a lot of work to do in this area, and it was the same for every colleague I spoke to who attended the three days.

I came away recognizing that the most important things to me in an organization were trust and mutual respect, a shared sense of responsibility, and clarity of purpose to the fullest extent possible.

It was a most excellent three days, and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity. As a challenge to myself, I’m going to blog the way I put these values into action over the next few months. And if I fail, I’m going to write about that too.

* To be clear, I use ‘manager’ loosely, and the Institute is not limited to people in a supervisory role.


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