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Mission Bell Media publishes print and digital media for the library market with a focus on leadership. Publishing authoritative and empowering leadership content for libraries worldwide.

On Leadership

Leading Voices: Steven Bell

Rolf Janke

Our goal for On Leadership is to highlight relevant issues around leadership in the library. Today, we’re thrilled to feature Steven Bell and find out his take on the future of the library. Steven writes two popular columns for Library Journal, Leading from the Library and From the Bell Tower, as well as serving as a librarian at Temple University. Read on to find out about Steven’s philosophy of merging business leadership with librarian leadership and how he’s arrived at a place where his real passion is giving back

Steven Bell

Steven Bell

Name: Steven Bell

Professional Title: Associate University Librarian

Organization: Temple University

Website: stevenbell.info

Columns: Leading from the Library, From the Bell Tower

 

Steven, you are recognized by many as a popular resource on the topic of leadership in your profession. Can you share with us some of the steps/highlights of your journey?

When great leaders in the world of librarianship come to mind, I feel that I am still learning to understand and working to acquire the leadership skills and qualities I admire in those individuals. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that others might consider me a resource on the topic of leadership. I’d like to think that other librarians, in formal and informal positions of leadership, are joining me on a journey of discovery in which we learning together how to be better leaders for our colleagues and communities. While I’ve learned a great deal about leadership during my career, I still aspire to be a student of leadership. I take to heart what Kouzes and Posner have said about the best leaders realizing it’s a process of endless learning.

I’ve held different leadership positions over the last 25 years, including middle management and library director – and a few things in between. Those years include attendance at a variety of leadership training programs, such as a two-week stint at the Harvard Leadership program for academic administrators. Yet the most important things I’ve learned about leading evolve from crucible moments. These are the events that test us as leaders and force us to really live our values, make the tough choices or work through difficult conversations. Readers can learn more by consulting the seminal article on this topic by Bennis and Thomas or get a copy of Thomas’ book based on the article, Crucible of Leadership. I realized I experienced these crucibles in every leadership position I worked, and that each one contributed to my growth as a leader. It was truly a learning process.

Earlier in my career, like many academic librarians, I published articles and did presentations that were based on library projects (e.g. “how we did it good”), sharing information about a program, technology innovation or research results. It was a more academic style of communication. Around 1995 I decided that I wanted to do more than just write these technical pieces. I was looking for new challenges, and decided to move in the direction of writing thought essays or opinion pieces and designing presentations around topics that would be less technical and more inspirational. This transition took quite a few years. There were more than a few rejections. I believed that expressing my thoughts and opinions was a form of leadership in that I was articulating, on a small scale, a position that readers could choose to follow or reject. It also seemed more valuable to get beyond just sharing information and instead try to make a real difference for other librarians by challenging them to take action, think differently or try something new.

Starting ACRL’s ACRLog blog in 2005 was an important step in helping me find my voice as a leader.  As an academic librarian writing about higher education, I wanted to bring the issues of the day to the attention of my academic library colleagues and get them thinking more deeply about how it affected their library practice. The experience strengthened my confidence in communicating what was on my mind. It was an opportunity to take some risks with provocative topics, and then have readers take me to task with their comments. While that definitely helped sharpen my writing, I also learned to not take myself so seriously. Sometimes it’s better to write with spontaneity and worry less about getting it just right. If I get it wrong, the readers will let everyone know.

Fast forward to 2011 when I decided to do more writing and speaking specifically about leadership. In part I wanted to challenge myself to try something totally new to see if I could succeed, but I also believed I had something to contribute to the profession. I wanted to make it clear that I was not presenting myself as a leadership guru, an expert who would tell everyone else what they should do or believe. My aspiration in delving into the world of leadership communication was to share ideas, discuss leadership fundamentals and point to good resources to help other aspiring library leaders, at any career level, learn to become a better leader with a cause – to make the library a better place for community and staff members.

I’m incredibly appreciative of the editors at Library Journal who responded positively to my proposal for a new monthly column called Leading From the Library. In my first column, which appeared in April of 2012, I shared my rationale for why I wanted to write about leadership and what I hoped to accomplish with the column. So far I think the response is mostly positive, and I hope the column has been of benefit to library leaders at all levels of the profession. I’ve been fortunate to give a few talks and lead some webinars on leadership topics. It’s an entirely new challenge for me, and I get great questions and ideas from librarians in the audience – which sometimes leads to a new column. 

If, as you state in your question, I am a resource for others to learn about leadership, the philosophy I bring to this role is that it is a shared journey. Id like to think that those who read my columns or attend a talk are learning about leadership right along with me as part of their personal leadership journey. And speaking of journeys, Im definitely closer to the end of my own than I am at the beginning. Looking ahead, Im hoping to leverage more opportunities to share what I know with early and mid-career colleagues - to practice some giveback librarianship and make the rest of the journey about creating learning experiences for the next generation.

You focus often on the connection between "business leadership and librarian leadership." How can librarians learn from today’s business leaders? Vice versa?

If you’re a reader of my leadership columns, you know I make references to business leaders and make use of examples from the world of business. Expect mentions of new ideas from the world of business as well. My experience is that business and librarianship tend to clash. There is a reason many of us went into librarianship and not real estate, or left retail bookstores for libraries. Many librarians have a natural distrust of the corporate world, and it’s not uncommon for librarians, when taking an anti-business stance, to emphatically state that libraries are not a business. Perusing a recent issue of Library Journal, I was not surprised to read a letter to the editor expressing a negative reaction to an article that referred to libraries as an “industry” and advocated marketing. The letter writer found it “disturbing”. Fortunately, another letter writer, shared a completely different perspective on why it’s important for libraries to practice marketing.

One thing you need to know about me, to better understand why I connect with lessons from the world of business, is that I was a business librarian for many years. Initially I worked in a consulting firm – a really fast-paced office environment - where I’d be doing research on different industries and business practices on any given day. It was a great learning experience, and I leveraged my business research expertise to land a job in academia. I worked at the Lippincott Library at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School for nearly a dozen years. It could be a high pressure environment because the students and faculty are reluctant to take no for an answer, and they really push you to be exhaustive. Excelling in that situation requires you to have real passion for business and a desire to constantly improve your knowledge of finance, management and leadership, marketing, entrepreneurship and more. This may help you to understand why I want to share my passion for business with my library colleagues. If you are going to promote the value of taking advice and learning from the lessons of business – and that means learning from the mistakes as well – you can expect some pushback from librarians. I’ve come to anticipate that.

I don’t believe I’ve ever claimed that libraries and higher education should be run like businesses, or corporatized as some like to say. As organizations, we have different priorities. That said, I do believe there are things we can learn from the world of business, practices that we can adopt or emulate, theories we can apply to our own organizations that could allow our libraries to better serve community members. That also applies to how we function as leaders, and there are good lessons library leaders can take away from business. To the librarians who say we have nothing in common with business, I ask, have you looked around your library lately? Do you have self-check machines? Thank the success of ATMs for that. Do you use virtual chat service to provide online help? Where do you think that practice and technology originated? Corporate call centers. Are you using e-commerce solutions to allow for online payments? Those are just a few examples of how libraries borrow from business and adapt the practices to their environment. It’s shortsighted to deny there is value in learning from the world of business.

When I discover a business leader who I think librarians can learn from, I’m likely to share that in a Leading From the Library column. For example, I went to a lecture on my campus given by Karol Wasylyshyn (pronounced WA-SA-LISH-IN) in which she was sharing her experiences in coaching corporate executives. Wasylyshyn’s professional expertise is psychology and I thought her research blending it with leadership analysis was really fascinating. Based on her studies of corporate leaders she developed some useful knowledge on the characteristics of what she calls the remarkable leader. Since I thought it was worth sharing I wrote a column about it, and I think her advice for leaders would be applicable to any library environment. But if you immediately wrote off any idea coming out of business as something to avoid or ignore, you’d truly be denying yourself a good opportunity to learn how to be a better leader.

Librarians can learn lessons of value from the world of business, but they need to be open to the possibilities – and they need to delve further into the literature of business. Give it a start by subscribing to the RSS feed for the Harvard Business Review blogs. Many of the blogs cover workplace interaction, human resources, work-life balance and many other good topics all leaders need to know. Pick up a copy of BusinessWeek or Fortune. Discover a new trend. Once you get past thinking that business is solely about greed, exploitation and destruction, you might learn something new.

Vice-versa? That’s a bit trickier. But if we can modify that slightly to say “How could higher education leaders (or civic leaders…or school leaders) learn from librarians, I think there are definitely some librarianship lessons we could offer. Quite simply, we’re masters of resource sharing, and when business, political and non-profits leaders are looking for new efficiencies for the new normal, I think they could learn more from librarians. One of the ideas I’ve promoted is the value librarians bring to their organizations as grassroots leaders. In this capacity, librarians are proactive about leading change on their campus or in their community. Grassroots leaders don’t wait to be asked to get involved, they see a need and take action. The opportunities to lead lie where there are gaps between what people want or need and what they currently have. Non-library leaders could learn a great deal from our grassroots movement to reform scholarly publishing. Are corporate CEOs likely to start paying attention to academic librarians? Probably not, but I suspect we can do better in taking our message out to politicians, college presidents and other non-profit leaders. There are so many smart, hardworking people in this profession who have great things to share with their communities. Good leaders should always be looking for new and different places to learn about leadership. Why not libraries?

If you had five minutes to describe the importance of leadership to a roomful of recent MLS graduates, what would you say?

I would definitely advise them to become students of leadership, even if they currently are averse to that possibility. If they entered this profession believing it to be a safe haven from critical decision making, the challenges of managing and leading others, and the need to have a voice for taking positions on different issues, I would portray that as a misperception and establish a rationale for the need to lead.

The problem with learning about leadership and management in library school is that we typically enter the profession with a position that offers no or little opportunity for leadership responsibility. By the time you find yourself in that position, what you learned in library school is probably going to be of little use. But if they are self-motivated to learn about leadership, the necessary resources are out there.

I’d encourage them to express an interest in exploring leadership opportunities, so that when opportunities arise to attend a local leadership institute or webinar their supervisor will be better positioned to support it. I’d tell them not to underestimate the value of joining professional associations for the leadership opportunities they offer.

My message would emphasize the significant challenges facing librarians working in all sectors of the profession. As we have observed and learned repeatedly, we only advance as a profession and in our ability to advocate for our community members when courageous leaders step forward as idea champions to create change in their libraries and communities. Newcomers to our profession need to know it’s not too early in their library careers to start grooming themselves for leadership roles, both for their own advancement and the advancement of our profession.

For all this I might need six minutes.

What leader/s are you keeping your eye on right now? Why?

Two in particular, Roger Martin and Tony Schwartz.

Martin is the Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. I’ve been following his work since I read his 2009 book The Design of Business. His theories about how mysteries evolve into heuristics and then algorithms – and why settling into algorithms can be problematic and that we must continually explore new mysteries – really resonated with me. It’s also a great book about design thinking which is topic I’ve been interested in since co-authoring a book about it in 2007. The reason I’m keeping an eye on Martin now are the ideas generated by his more recent book on strategy. I really like how he takes a much more simplified approach to developing an organization strategy, and the ways he explains the differences between strategy and planning. There’s much to learn here about moving away from more traditional approaches to strategic planning, such as streamlining the process and focusing on where you want to improve or create new services and determining how you get there. When the pace of change is greatly accelerated, the value of a 3-year or 5-year plan is diminished. I think Martin’s approach to developing strategy makes much more sense for positioning the library to take an “emergent” approach in order to take advantage of opportunities and new technologies that fit into the strategy.

One area of leadership where my own practices could use improvement is work-life balance. My position as an AUL at a research library already requires many hours, and I tend to make things harder by writing columns, taking on speaking engagements, serving on professional committees, serving as a journal editor (portal), answering requests for advice or participation from library colleagues and more. It all adds up and more often than not the scale tips in favor of work instead of life. Schwartz is the CEO and founder of The Energy Project. I first started reading his HBR blog columns, but more recently he is writing longer pieces for the New York Times and other publications. His area of expertise is helping leaders improve their work-life balance and creating better work environments for their staff. Schwartz is a firm believer in the importance of creating and sustaining a healthy work place where employees want to be. His range of topics includes pieces about getting enough sleep, eliminating distractions in life or understanding why people hate their jobs. While I may struggle in this area, I always look forward to new columns and posts from Schwartz because they always inspire me – and I think any librarian will learn good lessons from Schwartz.

Many thanks to Mission Bell Media for inviting me to answer these questions. I greatly appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts as a student of leadership.

Follow Steven on Twitter at blendedlib

Want more? Check out a round-up of all our leaders and innovators here.