Learning from Library Leaders: Strategies for Coaching and Consulting
Sharon Morris of the Colorado State Library shares her ideas about the art of consulting to create change.
One of the primary goals of our work in the Colorado State Library is to champion local libraries throughout our state, meaning that we want to make them successful by building staff capacity to serve their communities with literacy and learning initiatives. We approach our work in coaching and consultation from an appreciative inquiry perspective, asking questions, giving constructive feedback, affirming strengths, and building on passions, interests, and accomplishments. We are asset-oriented rather than deficit-centered when we are talking with our constituents about what they do. This generous, encouraging spirit is vital to the success of library development. We are always on the side of those working in libraries. We want them to grow and succeed.
Below are five guiding principles we use when doing site visits and talking with library directors, board members, staff, and others. We share these principles so that we in the art of consulting—whether in library development, education, or other fields—can start a conversation to share ideas and experiences and gain new strategies.
Build Trusting Relationships Based on Respect
Throughout my nearly 17 years at the state library, I have observed, and indeed experienced, a lot of communication between state library agency consultants and library staff (in Colorado and other states). These consultations go well when the state library consultants approach the library staff on an equal footing, respectfully recognizing that the consultant has as much if not more to learn from the library staff person as the library staff person has to learn from them. This is a key frame of mind for library development.
I am singularly strident on this point for one simple reason: On many occasions I have witnessed the result of state library personnel negatively judging library staff, talking down to people in condescending tones that they did not even realize they were using, but in which the library director, teacher, librarian, clerk, and board member most definitely did detect. This condescension undermined not just that conversation but the whole relationship between the library staff person and the consultant representing the state library. Even one negative transaction can undermine our whole reputation and the trust people have in us and our leadership. If we find that we are being judgmental about a library staff member, we refrain from talking with them until we have the capacity to find a generous interpretation of their intentions, if not their actions. We want library staff to grow and to succeed, and we are their biggest fans in a world where they may not feel they have many supporters. This is our job.
We approach our conversations with library staff with a number of positive communication strategies in mind. We ask questions first and converse rather than lecture. We convey through words, tone, and demeanor that we are cheering for them to succeed. We listen more than talk. And we are generous, regardless of their specific statements or behavior. We take care to articulate and acknowledge what they are doing well and build on those successes. I often make sure to find three specific, observable actions that library staff are doing well, state those observations, and encourage them on these points. This focus on a growth mindset, encourage, rather than praise, is based on the work of Carol Dweck.
Focus on Goals
During our conversations, we intentionally focus on and continue to come back to the libraries’ overall goals for the impact the staff are trying to make and the outcomes they hope to see from their activities. To determine the libraries’ intentions and goals we might say:
- “I see you are doing ... Tell me more about this service/project/etc.”
- “What are your aspirations for this activity/service/etc.?”
- “What do you ultimately hope to achieve?”
If the intention has aspiration and some meaning for the community, we acknowledge that aspiration with encouragement and appreciation. If the intention is lacking vision or deeper articulation of impact, we ask more questions about the people they serve, what they think these community members need in order to succeed and learn, and what the library does and can do. The focus on outcomes will help library staff and leadership link their actions to the deeper impact they want to have. As we talk about goals and impact, we recognize the importance of looking at incremental growth and maintain that every library is measured against itself rather than against other libraries.
Convey Suggestions Through Stories
When it is time to convey suggestions, we do so through a story of other people’s successes (and we collect those stories along the way in our job and share those with each other). If and when we offer suggestions, we do so in story format. For example, we might say something like, “What are you attempting to accomplish (restate goal) reminds me of (example of way to improve based on a peer library that has done something innovative).”
This acknowledges another library’s great work and conveys that we are experts in noticing and sharing excellence in practice rather than being authorities in telling everyone how to do things. This is a key distinction in providing influence. People are receptive to learning better ways for doing things from knowledgeable peers. They rarely listen to someone who appears to be an authoritative know-it-all, who, by telling them what to do right, is implying they are doing things wrong. Whether we think we are being a peer or not, we work for a state agency, so we are assumed to be an external authority more than a peer. We need to mitigate this “authority” perception as much as possible to enjoy the kind of influence we need to effect change.
Adopt an Empowerment Lens
Typically, as library staff members talk about ideas and change, they often bring up some barrier to innovation. That is when we ask what we can do to assist them, for instance, by offering connections with others who might help. The key here is to have them lead the way to the solution and take responsibility for the change. We offer guidance and provide support rather than fixing it for them. We discuss how they might be informed by others’ work to make improvements at their library. This part of the conversation should be driven by them, not us.
Ultimately, these strategies are designed to build long-term colleague relationships that inspire more than instruct and connect rather than isolate. Through this process we find the best in all in our state and find ways to grow those talents and strengths. In this way we are the rising tide that seeks to raise all boats.