Some things I learned as SLA President, presented in no particular order

Last week, just before my final meeting as SLA Europe President, I was asked what I had learned in the year. It did not take me an awfully long time to come up with the list below. If I’m claiming to have learned things, but you still think I am rubbish at them – please do tell me; all feedback is useful for learning and improving…

1. Mentor and be mentored
I have been privileged to receive help and guidance from some brilliant, experienced information professionals. I’ve always been a bit rubbish at asking for help, and I expect to get things right first time. So a big learning point for me has been to squash that tendency and take the suggestions when they’re needed.

There have been two or three people who have been the most amazing honest critics – telling me truthfully when I have done good and when I have got it wrong: my inner critic would never admit to the former.

In my own turn, though, I had the opportunity to act as mentor to one of the 2011 ECCA award winners at SLA conference in Philadelphia – helping to encourage and introduce a new member to the chapter. I also hope I have been prepared to pitch in and help where needed in generally.

2. Speaking in public
I’m very fortunate to have had a number of opportunities to present ideas and chair panel sessions this year. In the Spring I was the guest of the American Embassy in Rome, and participated in my first bi-lingual conference. It’s an interesting experience hearing the English speakers laugh at the joke you’ve just made, and then a moment later the Italian speakers laughing (or not, as the case may be). I was part of a panel at SLA conference in Philadelphia and I also spoke about our chapter finances at Leadership in Washington, DC. All three of these were things I’d never have had the opportunity to do had I not stepped up to the role of President; I’d say these were the highlights of my year. I chaired four panel sessions – at the Perfect Information conference, at Internet Librarian and at Online. I’ve learned to not be more nervous than I need to be; to not be afraid of using humour; that it is possible to end a panel session bang on time.

3. Dealing with disagreement
This partly arises from the working-with-volunteers. No-one has any actual authority to wield and people will seek to settle disagreements in their own style and this can cause issues in itself. Some seek complete agreement from everyone and will negotiate until this is either achieved or the project is abandoned. Some will plough on regardless and hope everyone falls in with their plan. Some who disagree will pretend to agree and then just not deliver what they promised. Again, no magic wand – just accepting we are all someone else’s irritating person. And gin.

4. Chairing meetings that end more or less on time
Timed agendas? Check. Meeting papers sent out at least 48 in advance? Mostly (see #2). Two essential elements in ensuring that a meeting does not meander off-point and take up an entire evening. I’m all for socialising over a pint afterwards. I would much prefer to have a brisk and businesslike meeting first, where decisions are decided and actions are allocated. I have a pet hate of meetings that ramble on with no closure and with circular discussions. In a previous job I once copied and pasted a discussion on a topic from a previous set of minutes – both accurately representing the complete waste of time the meeting was. I think in my head I kept a fairly clear idea of what constituted a ‘discussion for the pub’ and what was essential for everyone at the meeting to have a chance to chew over. Adding timings to the agenda tells people how long they’ve got to talk things over and their relative importance.

4.1 My other key learning point was around chairing meetings with various proportions of participants dialling in and others physically present. Sometimes there were more folk dialling in than were meeting in London. Failure highlights here have been the calls dropping off and not noticing; a conversation about directions between two participants when everyone else was thinking quietly; phone participants using last month’s dial-in details and one memorable summer meeting which was abandoned because we had no reliable phoneline at all. I tried to make sure we all knew who was where and that, in the absence of the normal turn taking cues, phone participants had a chance to get a word in edgeways.

5. Managing email – not reading everything
For most of the year I’ve lived with my gmail inbox showing 75+ unread emails. Once or twice I have managed to trim this to near zero – but not often. Partly, I am receiving a lot of mail. Partly, I’m choosing not to read it all – letting others get on with having a conversation and sticking my oar in only occasionally. I’ve tried to be prudent about the amount that I forward on to other people, too.

9. Working with volunteers
In the main, SLA volunteers are a dedicated and passionate bunch of people. Even for the most committed volunteer, though, the day job sometimes gets in the way – and then there are family crises; holidays; bad weather and all the gremlins that public transport can offer to send one’s plans awry. Some folk are just always going to put your request last on their list however much it means other people may be waiting, that’s just how they are. And yet others will assume that because they’re only volunteers that gives them a consequence-free veto on anything that they can’t quite get around to. I’ve no magic wand to wave and no simple solutions to how to tackle this. It’s a complex problem, with many layers bound up in people’s self esteem, expertise, engagement and empathy. Suffice it to say I’ve had plenty of experience of juggling not only mine, but other people’s commitments. I’m not perfect – right this minute I owe the Legal Division an email that has been on my to-do list for weeks. I think in the long run it has taught me several things. Firstly, to be more flexible than I might have wanted to be (a deadline is a deadline, not a moveable concept). Secondly, to have a back-up plan, or at the very least a back-up vague idea. Thirdly, possibly most importantly, to try to ensure that everyone is clear on exactly what they need to do, when to do it by, who to tell they’ve done it and who to raise problems with.

10. Time management
So, I’ve fulfilled the role of President, changed jobs, had commitments elsewhere, run a couple of half marathons, seen friends, blogged a bit and more or less finished the fourth year of my PhD project. And I feel more-or-less unscathed, though there have been a few near misses. I no longer wonder why it feels like 2011 has whizzed past – can it really be 6 months since I was in New York? or nearly a year since Leadership?

In conclusion: I’ve had fun, been to new places, met interesting people, hidden from dull people, been happy, enthusisastic, energised, tired, frustrated and grumpy (sometimes on the same day), and all at the same time as I’ve helped promote my profession and my colleagues. Hurrah.

(I’ve run out of time to write about 8. Working transatlantically; 6. Saying yes to things 7. Networking 11. The worst that can happen is someone says no 12. Overcoming perfectionism 13. Concentrating on the race I am running, not anyone else’s)

One comment

  1. It’s probably bad form to comment rather than edit the article but I realised that I haven’t thanked a lot of people who have been incredibly supportive in the last year… they know who they are, and how they have helped whether it is inventing new words (gavelanting), drinking wine at appropriate moments, drinking wine at inappropriate moments or just generally cheerleading. Thank you…

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