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?