The most challenging employee: Managing a team of one

by Joy M. Banks

My Life Collage

Clockwise from top left: My husband, Jeff, showing his support at the 2016 SLA IT Dance Party; My own personal #teamawesome; Tabby, always willing to help; Enjoying the view from my former office

I had a revelation recently: Sometimes, I impede my own path to success.

I’ve had the great fortune of attending each SLA Annual Meeting since 2010. Each year, I review the conference schedule for sessions relevant to my current position and future goals. That has usually been relatively easy. I started my career as a catalog librarian at a medium sized private college. I later transitioned to a solo librarian overseeing a music library and historical archive in a garden/museum setting. Both were pretty standard positions with clear institutional goals and expectations.

This year was the first year I attended SLA as an independent information professional (IIP), and I found myself at a loss during many time slots, looking for something that seemed relevant to my current career path and goals. Invariably, though, when a time slot had one thing I found interesting, the same time slot held two (or three) things of interest. During one such time slot, I found myself walking what felt like a mile to arrive quite late to a session by Dr. Shelley Reciniello, author of The Conscious Leader.

As I tried (unsuccessfully) to enter the room quietly, I happened to sit near an unconnected group of recently and nearly retired professionals. Dr. Reciniello had just started discussing self-doubt and negative self-talk and how this can affect us as leaders. I hadn’t been in the room five minutes before she suggested an activity. Bemoaning the fact that I had NOT missed a group activity, I was soon thrown into a social situation that had us reflecting on this question: “What is the quality and/or behavior you need to change to write your new story?”

In pairs, we were asked to listen deeply to each other, offering no feedback, no response, no comment for what seemed like an eternity. (My partner and I failed at the listen deeply part, but we did try!) During my turn, as I uncomfortably rambled on to this stranger sitting next to me, I realized that sometimes my own self-doubts impede my individual path to success. After we both spoke and listened, we then gathered in groups to talk about our conversations. I was not prepared for the depth of discovery or the truths that we shared. Several of us (including me) were raw from family loss and all of us were looking to a future that was completely different than our past. We had no choice but to look forward and change.

Dr. Reciniello went on to share some wonderful insight on leadership, management, and the process of moving a group of individuals through change. It was a fantastic session that confirmed many of the practices I have used in my professional past. A leader must always be conscious of the team as both a group and as individuals. I have always tried to build up my employees’ enjoyment of work, helping them achieve the goals they have. I have encouraged taking pleasure in tasks that may seem mundane and been willing to get my hands dirty when required (quite literally, at times, since collections can be messy). What stuck with me the most, though, was confronting the fact that I am now managing a team of one and my own unwillingness to encounter possible failure is preventing me from setting higher goals.

I am still sorting through this realization. Never one to back down from a challenge in the past, I am suddenly finding that as an IIP, even the mere notion of failure causes me to second guess setting higher goals. Perhaps it’s a desire for perfection. As an employee, I always worked to achieve excellent performance reviews. As a team member, I never hesitated to lead or volunteer for committee work. For as long as I can remember, participation and success in clubs, organizations, and projects are the things in my personal and professional life that drove my goals. In making the move to the IIP world, though, I never realized how difficult managing a team of one would be. No longer can I exercise the beauty of delegation unless my afternoon self is delegating some aspect of a project to my tomorrow self. (Scarlet O’Hara comes to mind: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”)

My move to the IIP world was one of necessity more than a result of long range planning. Late in 2014, my husband and I found ourselves packing up our three-bedroom home to move in with my grandmother to care for her after her husband suddenly died. There was no thought of sacrifice for us. Making this move was exactly what we needed to do, and the eight months we shared with her blessed our lives more than we ever dreamed. What was unexpected to me, though, was how these eight months changed who I am and challenged me as I tried to reenter the professional world as an independent worker.

Before starting this article, I looked up “management” in the dictionary. I was actually a bit surprised with the results; I never considered that the word could have such varied and nuanced meanings. Of course, the first definition detailed the normal process of supervision or direction. I also liked an obsolete definition used from the mid 1600’s to the late 1800’s: “Cunning, manipulation, trickery; the use of scheming, intrigue, prudence, etc., to achieve something.” That really put a whole new meaning to management. What I want to focus on, though, is the horticultural definition of the word in which management refers to the working or cultivation of land [1].

If I consider my current management responsibilities as a plot of land, the possibilities are endless. How I cultivate my goals, dreams, time, and actual client projects is completely up to me. I could plant anything, divide the land as I wish, be as varied and creative with this land as my imagination allows. Whatever I plant would then require work and nourishment, with time planned for pruning, harvesting, and replanting. There would likely be seasons that require a special focus on one crop and seasons that allow endless variety. What I absolutely should not do in this thought experiment is allow my land to lie fallow for extended periods of time, yielding no crops, no possibilities, no potential.

In seeking a balance between faith, family, friends, and work, I’ve sometimes found myself paralyzed by the possibilities. Doubt seeps into my mind about the potential success (or possible failure) of my current endeavor, and I allow any distraction to take me away from my goals (did anyone else watch Stranger Things in one sitting?). Redefining my professional identity forced me to confront how much value I had placed on my prior professional identities. Without those titles, though, I am still me. A librarian who loves to catalog, write policy, and bring collections more visibility. A crafter who enjoys sewing, knitting, crocheting, cross-stitching, and coloring, mostly to make gifts for others. A person who finds strength in her faith, love in her husband and family, and warmth from her cat (well, when the cat isn’t begging for food anyway). These three parts of me are the seeds of my current harvest.

The greatest lesson learned for me during my brief but intense foray into the IIP world is that while I still have a wonderful network of support in my professional colleagues, I must find my own work/life balance and set my own goals outside of any formal structure. I never thought I had difficulty setting goals until the possibilities were endless. When I worked in a college setting, I set my goals on promotion. When I started my work part-time as the first professional librarian in a non-profit setting, I set my goals on building the library up to current professional standards and achieving a permanent, full-time position. If there was a project, I made a plan and accomplished the task. I really made these things as easy as one, two, three (I love writing step-by-step documentation).

In a perfect world, my dive into IIP work would have been preceded by its own step-by-step plan (often called a business plan). While I do have a business plan in the works thanks to the encouragement of our local SCORE group, I would also like to share with you a few things I’ve learned to get my goal management and self-talk on the right track.

  1. Recognize that the first year of business may actually last longer than 12 months. My “first year” as an IIP, I was a full-time caregiver for my grandmother. While technically I had arranged a few projects, I did not realize the depth of the commitment I had made to my grandmother and the extent of care she needed. After her passing, the grieving process was much more complex than I had anticipated, drawing my “first year” into a second. I have come to accept that my “first year” is now pushing three, but that is ok. (If you are dealing with grief, consider the resources found here and here).
  2. Build a support network. My husband is my biggest support right now. He sees my highs and lows in a way no one else ever will. He also knows that I need other people that are not him supporting me in my work and life. My biggest adjustment to IIP work has been grasping what a long-distance support network looks like. I never realized how much I valued the little water-cooler talks that naturally occur in an office setting until I no longer had a communal water-cooler. Finding ways to create your own water-cooler environment is important whether with other professionals or just friends.
  3. Establish a routine that allows productive working and healthy living. This is the most challenging step of my plan. Every morning I wake up with the best of intentions only to have the unexpected thwart my to-do list for work. (Just as one example, while writing this article, I stopped to fix the garbage disposal.) Working from home gives others the sense of endless flexibility when the reality is I have real deadlines and goals to meet. Communicating this to your support network will help them hold you accountable and encourage you to stand firm when necessary.

Can I call these three easy steps? Not really. Learning these three things has been like tilling the rockiest soil. As I start to see the fruits of my labor, however, doubts of my IIP abilities slowly subside. While I am still working to regain some of the confidence I lost during this huge life transition, I rely on faith and the support of those around me who continue to offer encouragement and motivation. This added strength is what helps me manage what I have been given, recognizing my team is so much greater than me. Through responsible management of what I have, I know I can thrive.

 

[1] “management, n.”. OED Online. September 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/113218?redirectedFrom=management (accessed September 13, 2016).

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One thought on “The most challenging employee: Managing a team of one

  1. pigbitinmad

    What you are going through is what everyone over 40 is experiencing, namely a very deliberate economic genocide and the elimination of even things that should be run by government (and I think Libraries fit this mold). The Silicon Valley model (which is obsessed with putting all but a few programmers out of work) is now considered the ideal model that everyone must conform to….except that it is all BS.

    It’s totally inefficient for everyone top be a business of ONE. Everyone is an accountant, marketer, office manager, data scientist and social media person for their business of one. It really is a stupid way to be running things except that you cannot pound the simple common sense of this simple idea through the thick skulls of people who have drunk the Kool Aid.

    And I don’t see it getting better….only worse.

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