Leadership Training at CUNY

June 7, 2010 | News

In most academic libraries, promoting library faculty based on the usual formulas for tenure is matter of course. But finding ways to encourage an innovative culture of leadership often resists an easy solution. CUNY, however, has answered this challenge. In partnership with the Metropolitan New York Librarian Council (METRO), it has created a leadership program called “CUNY Librarians Learn to Envision Alternative Directions” (L.E.A.D) to help librarians thrive in this economy by adopting an MBA mindset. 

            In the first phase of the L.E.A.D. training program, CUNY introduced 30 of its most promising librarians to a two-day course, which concentrated on topics identified by the CUNY chief librarians in response to a leadership training needs survey. Among the topics covered were leadership in libraries today, principles and practices of effective leadership, improving your effectiveness and emotional intelligence.

            In his welcoming remarks at the Graduate School of Journalism on May 6-7, University Librarian Curtis Kendrick told participants that the L.E.A.D. training program is unlike any other because it has been created with CUNY librarians in mind. “You have been hand-picked to attend this workshop because you have already demonstrated leadership and the potential for more.” said Kendrick. “The investment we are making in your future is really an investment in CUNY’s future.”

            Kendrick added that he expects participants to gain “a broader understanding of the university” from the training and that this new perspective will enable them to work “even more effectively at their local campuses and with one another.” 

            The L.E.A.D. workshop grew out of a Council of Chief Librarians retreat two years ago, which identified leadership training as a strategic initiative and formed a committee to develop the programming. Chief Librarian Consuella Askew, Graduate School of Journalism, was elected to chair it. Committee members (University Librarian Curtis Kendrick and CUNY chief librarians Arthur Downing, Baruch College; Julie Lim, CUNY School of Law at Queens College; and Larry Sullivan, John Jay College) shared their vision for the leadership training and together with METRO Executive Director Dottie Hiebing and Maureen Sullivan, METRO trainer, developed the workshop. The Office of Library Services provided the funding to launch the first of the seminar series.

            The pilot program was open to all CUNY faculty librarians. Program candidates were nominated by their Chief Librarian based on three criteria: an interest in assuming leadership roles in their libraries, a willingness to risk and be accountable, and prior experience in a leadership role.   

            Maureen Sullivan, a popular organizational development consultant and the 2010 Academic/Research Librarian of the Year, conducted the training. She explained that the impetus for the course came out of a recognition that the library world is undergoing tremendous changes and there’s a greater need than ever for libraries to keep up with the ever-widening array of technologies and constituent needs.  That and increasing pressure for return on investment means that more librarians must take initiative for leadership in order to sustain their library’s future. “Leadership comes from opportunity taken,” said Sullivan. “I believe that every supervisor, administrator and manager has to become an effective leader.”

            Participants were exposed to a number of key management principles and asked to develop a personal action plan utilizing the new concepts they had learned.  A key lesson was how to capitalize on their core competencies. Librarians have been contributing to undergraduate learning for decades, without getting much credit for it.  “Short of writing the paper, librarians have always been a key resource to students,” Sullivan said. In the digital age, when their expertise in finding critical information is invaluable to many professional disciplines, it is particularly important for librarians to market themselves more effectively. “As librarians we must learn to be effective in describing what we do and communicate our value,” said Sullivan.

            Dr. Askew would agree. Librarians must begin seeing their work from a consumer perspective and consider new ways of providing services. “We need to continue placing ourselves in the middle of things,” said Dr. Askew. “We’re competing with the Starbucks age. Users are coming in to browse books in the library, like in cafés. So one solution is for libraries to provide more spots where students can come in and read a book comfortably.”

             While the L.E.A.D. training program is still in its early stages, feedback from workshop participants indicates they find the workshop content to be highly relevant to the performance of their jobs.  “What was most valuable to me was that leaders in CUNY libraries showed that they value each of us enough to invest in each of us,” said Beth Evans, librarian at Brooklyn College, who completed the workshop. “I find that there is always one moment, sometimes more, when I remember something that was said at the training that serves as a reminder of how to move ahead.”  Adds LaRoi Lawton, librarian at Bronx Community College: “This was the first time in my experience at CUNY that the Office of Library Services, the Council of Chief Librarians and METRO teamed up to invest in librarians who have exhibited leadership. A job well done across the board!”

            Another benefit of a leadership workshop, of course, is in bringing participants together, and getting them to share their best practices and war stories with a small cadre of colleagues. “CUNY has its own way of doing things,” said Dr. Askew, and after taking this workshop, librarians will have learnt “to place themselves in the university system.” She hopes that the graduates of this workshop, as well as future ones, will create “a community of practice” at CUNY, where librarians can come together for support and share practical advice on leadership. 

            Ultimately, she hopes to see a shift in organizational culture, where senior leaders learn, cross-fertilize and share ideas with everyone on their staff, regardless of ranking. “My hidden agenda is to see an organizational culture shift where we as librarians become open to new ideas and trends in terms of providing service to our users,” said Dr. Askew. “Leadership is a learned behavior and leaders come from bottom and middle. That’s my personal philosophy. That’s the whole new mindset for the 21st and 22nd centuries.”

–Irene Gashurov