Even though it only arrived a matter of months ago, much has already been written about the impact of COVID-19 on universities and their libraries. There is still no end in sight after which we might have opportunity to reflect on the experience in a more detached way. At time of writing it remains a very serious situation indeed, and universities are under much scrutiny as they respond to outbreaks within their student communities at the start of the new academic year.
My thinking here will focus less on the practical challenges and changes to services, and instead consider what it means to have a leadership role at the moment and offer some thoughts in the hope that they might be useful to others, or at least prompt further thinking and discussion. For an excellent overview of the impact on what academic libraries do, and their response to the changes needed of their buildings, services and digital collections, see the recent excellent blog in this same series by David Wright of Solent University.
I offer, as food for thought, the following reflections:
1. Return to your core values
When I took up my post at the University of Aberdeen (only last year but it now feels so long ago!), I did what all new leaders do, and introduced myself to everyone as soon as I could. At that time I made a point of explaining the core values that drive me as a leader, and when the world is going crazy around you it’s really helpful to bring these values to the fore. Events and environments will change, but your values remain constant and support your decision-making at times of crisis. I explained to my colleagues that being open is important to me and I have tried to show it through the way I’ve communicated through all of this. I also value empowerment and this has guided the way I’ve trusted colleagues to find the right solutions to new challenges and to be working as best they can without supervision in the circumstances.
2. Be available and approachable
It can be difficult, even in ‘normal times’, to find time to be available to your colleagues. There are so many meetings, so many papers to write, so many urgent issues and so little time in the day. ‘Management by walking about’ is often recommended as a way of keeping in touch with people, hearing how they are and understanding the challenges they face. I have tried to keep this up during lockdown. That is far from easy when we are all in our own homes (and my home is a long way from my University – East Lancashire!) but I have tried my best to do it ‘virtually’. I have held regular ‘open hours’ via Microsoft Teams, run staff meetings using Blackboard Collaborate and reinforced how available I am. I think this has helped me stay connected, and helped my colleagues feel that they are being listened to, and that they remain part of an organisation even while we have all been so dispersed.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate…
We all know the importance of good communication, but it can be very hard to do it well. There isn’t a week goes by without the realisation that I have forgotten to tell someone something, and I know how frustrating this can be and how much work it can cause as people try to catch up with events. Of course, information overload is the converse and a balance needs to be struck. I have tried to send regular updates to all Library staff, and rather than repeat all the messages they received from the University, I’ve tailored them to the Library and have often tried to include a human touch; something personal about me, or an admission that I’m finding it tough too. And very importantly, to be genuine in how much I care about how they are feeling and acknowledging how difficult it has been.
On that subject, I always try to emphasise how much it matters to me that my team are OK. I’m very conscious of the anxiety associated with the pandemic, and that many of my colleagues may have health issues, be caring for vulnerable family members or be struggling to manage families as well as their work. Early on I adopted the mantra (for which I don’t claim credit – I read it on Twitter!) ‘You are not working at home; you are at home, trying to work, during a pandemic’. It’s very hard to demand so much of people as we have had to do in order to prepare for a very different academic session, and ask them to take care of themselves, take breaks, focus on families etc. I hope I’ve done my best to get this balance right. Taking time to thank people for their work is so important, even more so when they are so isolated from one another. I’m very mindful that thanks are most likely to come direct to me from senior University colleagues and that my colleagues need to hear them, as it’s due to their efforts. I also try to be understanding of other teams in the University when things don’t necessarily go right first time. Everyone is under pressure, and new to these challenges. Passing thanks to other departments and being patient are also great practices.
5. Be resilient
This is much easier said than done, and a quality that comes with training and experience. Although all good leaders are able to be resilient in difficult times, very few were born that way. It requires you to work at it. This last few months have reinforced for me the value of having taken time to develop my resilience as part of my training and development; it has been the most challenging period of my professional career (although I’m very aware that in other organisations it will have been far more difficult). If you are considering a career path that will take you into leadership positions, think now about how you will develop your ability to be resilient in difficult times. It might not be a global pandemic, but there will always be challenging events to test you. There have been times since March where it has been easy to feel overwhelmed, but I have been able to draw on my experience and a toolkit that mentors and trainers have helped me to develop over the years and these things have helped enormously.
6. Build and use your networks
Nothing has helped me more since March than the support of my peers. Librarians are natural collaborators and have always had strong networks and a willingness to share experiences, but oh my goodness has the value of these communities shone through like never before in recent months. I can think of weeks when I’m not sure how I’d have made it to the end without the chance to share with colleagues in a massively supportive environment. These networks have been essential for learning what others are doing, and how they are doing it, but have also been a source of reassurance, morale boosting and humour in the face of adversity.
Last, but by no means least! If anything, I end on the most important one. Working from home has challenged many organisations for whom having staff in offices has contributed to a management culture where close oversight of their work has been assumed to be an important part of measuring and monitoring performance. An organisational culture which embeds trust in one another does not require this. My approach has been to assume my colleagues are working hard and to engage with them if they need my support, more resources, or direction. If anything, my worry is not that they are not working when I can’t see them, but that they are working too hard (see Care, above). Organisations which will thrive in the ‘new normal’ are those that trust their colleagues to do what is required of them, and measure success by achievements, not by when and how people choose to do the work that delivers those achievements. It concerns me to read news of greater use of online surveillance and monitoring tools by management. If you need to do that, something is deeply wrong with your organisational culture.
This is not an exhaustive list and there is no single right way to be a leader, let alone one in a crisis. If only there were clear arrows guiding every decision towards the right answer, away from the wrong ones and with warnings about the dangers. I can think of other qualities I could have added and so will readers. People may not necessarily think these are the most important things. That’s fine; there is no one way to lead, no single ‘right answer’ and no sense in my mind that I’m in any way a perfect leader (number 8 in my list could easily have been ‘humility’, another vital quality of a good leader). If these reflections raise the profile of good leadership and prompt others to reflect, it will have done its job.
About the Author
Simon is University Librarian and Head of Library Services. He arrived at Aberdeen in 2019 from the University of Manchester, where he had been Deputy Librarian and Head of Research Services since 2011. Simon has 25 years of experience working in academic and research libraries, including leadership roles at the University of Edinburgh and the National Library of Scotland.
Simon is an active member of national and international academic library networks, with a particular interest in how libraries support researchers and develop effective scholarly communications and digital research services. He has led work for Research Libraries UK on Open Access publishing and has represented the academic library sector in national policy discussions on open research.