Highway to the Learning Zone

As few weeks ago, one of my Kōtuku colleagues, Katherine Bosworth did a presentation at one of our video meetings about our comfort zones. Katherine explained a concept from George Ambler about the importance of stepping outside our comfort zones.

The idea is that we only learn, grow, and develop our capabilities when we step out of our comfort zone.  In order to accomplish this growth, we need to move into the learning zone (we also need to be careful not to enter the danger zone, that area where we’re over-stretched, stressed, and unable to actually lead.)

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Her presentation was great, and got me thinking about comfort zones, learning zones, and danger zones. (It also got me thinking about the Kenny Loggins song from Top Gun, but that’s another story…)

I think I loved Katherine’s talk so much because I related to quite strongly. The comfort zone is so nice and lovely and well, comfortable, it’s where we might instinctively like to stay. It’s a place where we feel in control, where we feel confident in the set of skills and behaviours we have and depend on. But usually nothing really new happens in the comfort zone, it’s a place of auto-pilot, of going through the motions, maybe a place you’re stuck. It’s hard to learn new things, and even harder to grow and challenge yourself if you stay in your comfort zone.

Katherine’s presentation came back to me again last week when I reflected on a couple conversations I’d had and things that had happened at work.

At work we have a great programme we’ve been doing this year we’ve called “professional curiosity.” Every couple weeks, each team, or person from the team, takes a turn selecting a topic or reading to discuss, then those who are interested come along to a discussion. As someone who enjoys keeping up professionally and hearing what others are thinking I love these sessions. But last week’s was especially interesting because the topic was professional development generally and it attracted a large and engaged group. We discussed the need for funding to travel and meet our colleagues around the country and internationally, opportunities to present our work at conferences, and attend workshops and other trainings that aren’t available in Wellington. But we also discussed the kinds of professional development that aren’t about traveling somewhere, but are about putting yourself out there, and making an effort beyond the business as usual part of doing our jobs. These are often the professional development activities that can have a significant impact on our own growth and development, and they’re usually the kinds of developments that put us outside our comfort zone.

For me, a significant amount of my professional development hasn’t happened at those international travel and training opportunities, but in the work prior to those, where I had to step out of my comfort zone, stretch myself and learn something new. It’s those moments at work when I noticed something I wanted to learn or identified a project I wanted to get involved in and swallowed my fear and asked to get involved, proposed a project, or asked someone I didn’t know that well for help or advice. Ironically, I think it was all that on the job development, that made it easier for me to find support and funding for some of the farther afield professional development opportunities, then those opportunities broadened my horizons further and prepared me for the next steps.

One of the other valuable professional developments for me has been my involvement with professional associations. Over the years I’ve found myself doing everything from designing my first website while in library school for a student group, to organizing and leading a silent auction, helping develop and organize workshops, being on conference programme committees, editing journals, developing projects, to most recently chairing a regional committee and sitting on a national council. None of these were activities where I knew what I was doing when I started. They all required some degree of stepping outside my comfort zone, but they have also been amazing learning and development opportunities. And maybe most importantly over time and with practice I’ve gained some skills and become more comfortable being in an uncomfortable place.

When I was a student and first starting out in the library and archives profession I used to think that all the people who seemed to know each other and were involved in all the activities where in some sort of special club, and that you had to wait until someone invited you to join. But the truth of the matter is that was probably an invention and defense mechanism on my part. As soon as I volunteered to be a member of one committee I was welcomed on board. In almost all of my subsequent opportunities it’s been through putting my hand up in one way or another, even if it was scary asking to be involved, and even if I really didn’t know what I was doing when I started.

That’s one of the things I’ve been thinking more about recently. I think we (or at least I) want things to be easy. We kinda want to wait for someone to invite us to be part of an activity, to tell us we’re ready to step up for the next challenge or opportunity, to explain to us how to go about accomplishing our next goal. Part of growing is being able to step back and figure out the steps you need to take to get where you want to go and not waiting until some magical third party tells you what to do. In many ways once we have been successful at something, once we’ve developed a bit of a track record people will start asking you to be involved, or suggesting you for new opportunities, but if you really want to grow, and you know what capabilities you need to develop, you can’t wait for someone to hand them to you. You’re the only one that can do the learning and growing and it does appear that the only way you can do that is stepping outside your comfort zone.

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This is especially true if we’re trying to lead, or learn how to lead. Hopefully we want to lead because we want to make a difference. We want to lead because we want to make things better, to be effective, and that means to some extent we need to learn how to do something new or differently, something that not everyone will support straight away. The only way we’re going to get comfortable with that is paradoxically learning to be comfortable leaving our comfort zone, testing our edge, and getting used to discomfort.

Sometimes I’m a bit bemused at myself that it’s taken me so long to figure this out. Or that I was so worried about wanting to be completely ready, completely accomplished before I set myself a new challenge. I’m also aware that there are both personal and structural social and cultural reasons for at least some of this, which is one of the reasons that I continue to take inspiration from and connect myself in anyway I can to projects like Tusk and Kōtuku. Being in a place of discomfort is easier if you at least know there are people supporting you. This year so far hasn’t always been comfortable, but I have been growing and learning, and honestly how can we create change without that?

Jess Moran

Figuring out how to get there

For all my ambivalence, outlined in glorious detail in my last column, I have been embracing Kōtuku and the idea of leadership training lately. I decided if I was going to do this I wanted to be all in, learn as much as I can, do the best I can. It can seem quite easy to read the articles, discuss them in a group setting either in our web meetings or online in the forums, think you understand the ideas perfectly well, and carry on with life without anything really changing.

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Formation: Kōtuku 2017

Kōtuku 2017: In which your columnist finds herself in a leadership program while being ambivalent about “leadership.”

Personally and politically I would describe myself as someone who wants a world without leaders, a world where people are empowered and have the tools to control their own destines, make informed decisions, and treat each other with equality. So I have always had an almost allergic reaction to the idea of leadership and leaders. To put it in American terms I have no interest in being either a Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton.

And yet… I found myself last November writing an application for LIANZA’s 2017 Kōtuku emerging leaders program – a ten-month leadership program, with weekly readings, web conference meetings, a mentorship programme, and more. By December I had discovered I had been accepted, and in February the program began with a weekend intensive in the Wellington suburb of Lyall Bay. How did I find myself here?

I’ve been working in libraries in one way or another since 1996 when I got my first student library assistant job while in university. A friend, who knew I was looking for work, told me the library was hiring, and the rest I guess you could say was history. It took me a few more years to officially decide libraries were it for me, but by 2003 I had completed by MLIS and started my first professional role as an archivist. Since then I’ve worked in archives and libraries in non-profits, universities, and local and state government libraries and archives in California before moving, in 2012, to New Zealand to work for the National Library of New Zealand.

But I’d never really thought of myself as a leader. In fact I think I was always suspicious of leaders, or at least ones I didn’t think were authentic or legitimate. Maybe it just took me more time than most to feel comfortable with my own sense of what I wanted or who I was. But a few years ago I began to realise that when it came to my own work, and the larger world of libraries and archives, I cared deeply. I found I had very strongly held core principles about what archives and libraries where for and why I chose to work in them. I enjoyed and was deeply engaged in reading the literature in my specialised subject areas, but I also enjoyed engaging in some of the broader issues and questions of the profession. And most of all I realised that if I didn’t find ways to apply my core principles, and engage with my profession in more meaningful ways, I was going to become frustrated with my work. So I had to get a bit braver. I had to learn to speak out more. I had to learn how to speak effectively in public, how to write professionally, how to become involved in the work of my professional organisations, how to (to use a cliché) be the change I wanted to see. If there were things I wanted to see changed, I would have to get involved in making them happen. So I started figuring out how to do those things. I also asked for advice and help from some of the people I worked with whose work and way of being at work I looked up to and respected.

Which is how I found myself enrolled in the Kōtuku program – and now writing this column. Turns out, if you care about something, and you put in the time and work, if you ask for help, (even if you feel a little ambivalent or unsure or scared about it) we work in the kind of profession where people will go out of their way to help and support you. So that is a long-winded way of saying I have made a little peace with the idea of leadership with the help of the Kōtuku program.

Also helpfully the Kōtoku program had a whole section on leadership styles including consensus or participative leadership, and servant leadership which seem a bit more my style. So I guess this program is already helping me find the language and tools for a kind of “leadership” that feels a bit more authentic to me. This semi-irregular column will give you a little insight into LIANZA's 2017 Kōtuku emerging leaders program, what we’ve been up to, how this program is expanding my understanding of leadership, and how I can bring it to bear on the larger GLAM sector.

Wine and Cheese

The very first day of the Museum and Heritage Studies course is an orientation day. Students embark on an introductory tour around the university campus and some of the highlights of Wellington City. The day ends at the Adam Art Gallery for drinks, nibbles, and an informal first assignment. The task: strike up conversations with professionals from the sector, collect business cards and report back on the people you meet. And so, here is lesson number one: networking. 

I remember the first time I heard the saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” It was a careers advice course in my last year of high school and I despised the saying from the start. I was outraged. I could not believe that 5 years of schooling counted for nothing if I didn’t know the right people. I imagined this elite, rich kids club, where parents swapped children to become managers in their businesses and partners in their law firms. There was hand-shaking and back-patting and it didn’t matter if you had ever put pen to paper, you were connected. 

I learnt the term “networking” when I came to university and the entire concept sent renewed shivers down my spine. Finally a name for this evil. It seemed to be about talking to people only to get something you wanted. Elevator pitches and selling yourself. It was something you could switch on: schmooze and banter, “work the room.” It felt disingenuous, shallow, smarmy, and sleazy. But most of all it terrified me. I consider myself to be a few notches along on the introvert scale and the idea of walking up to a stranger in the middle of a crowded room to initiate a conversation is “my worst nightmare” territory. I have found myself more than once poring over google results for “top 10 networking tips for introverts,” or, “how to not make a fool of yourself at social events where you need to make good impressions and meet people.”

I have tried several different techniques in these situations. The first: don’t make eye contact, hang around the food table, wine glass in hand, trying to muster enough Dutch courage to actually talk to people, leave without talking to anyone. Another good one is approaching a group already deep in conversation, hovering awkwardly at the edge, feeling self-conscious, silly, and rude. At this point you may be able to back away slowly, pretend you were never there, make a run for it. But, if you stick it out for long enough you will be assimilated into the conversation. Hopefully. Otherwise, you can scope out a target, make a beeline for them, hand out ready for a handshake, “hello, my name is…” and suddenly realise that is as far along as you had planned the conversation. 

I can’t imagine there are many people who are natural networkers where the idea fills them with some kind of sick, twisted excitement. There are always going to be awkward moments. So, I have had to do a reshuffle on my attitude towards networking. A re-wiring of what the term and that saying actually mean. Of course, the reality is not as simple as the adage makes it out to be. Who you know often relates to what you know: what you know and how well you know it will lead you to the people you need to know. The two are not mutually exclusive. What you know is important. Who you know can often help in getting your foot in the door. This is a relatively small sector, operating in a small country. Networking means you might hear about contract vacancies and opportunities before they have been advertised, or ones that may never be. Recommendations and referrals play an important part in how projects and roles are filled. 

But there is more to all this than just job-hunting. Sure, it’s going to help, but if that is your only motivation for doing it then you are missing out. “Networking” seems too shallow a term to describe the possibilities. It’s really about building relationships and connecting with people. It opens up the opportunity to meet like-minded, interesting and supportive colleagues. People who can share advice and, most importantly, their own horror stories of terribly embarrassing small talk and schmoozing faux pas. Why wouldn’t I want to meet these people? I look at the contributors to this site, at those “on the level” and the Tuakana and I am excited at the possibility of meeting them all. I mean really, if sitting down at a Wellington bar with the two creators of Tusk, talking about a subject you all love over a glass (or two) of wine is networking? I can deal with that. 

So I’ll keep on collecting those business cards, enjoying the fun networking situations, and toughing out the awkward ones. Keep reminding myself to relax. Take a deep breath. Smile! What’s the worst that could happen?