Radical Candor

radicalBeing a boss is hard.
Being a great boss, even harder.

I wrote recently of being selected for a pilot program at work, where I’ve been invited to join weekly team leadership meetings throughout the year.

While I feel honored, it’s not a promotion, and I’m not earning extra pay. If anything, I’ve dumped more work on myself because I’ve now got to make time for additional meetings and assignments while keeping up with old ones.

It’s as though I’m starring in a new reality tv show: So, You Think You Can Manage?

Last week we reviewed the results of an all-staff survey meant to assess workplace climate and culture. It was intentionally anonymous to promote candid feedback, in which, for better or worse, it succeeded. While things aren’t terrible, the collective grade probably ought to have been ‘N’ for Needs Improvement.

For this reason, I listed Scott’s book as one of my “recommendations” when our director asked how we might respond. Tempting as it might be to downplay others’ troubles – particularly when you’ve got enough of your own – a manager’s primary responsibility is the people he or she manages.  As a colleague once admonished me, “the higher you go, the more it’s about the people.” Scott is more blunt: “It’s your job to care!”

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve been learning since last year, when I stepped into a quasi-management role at a sleepy little branch library.  I’d been hired, in part, to provide “fresh eyes” for the landscape, but at the time, I didn’t realize just how soon the winds of change would start blowing.

Housed in a century-old building slated for HVAC upgrades, I had an unprecedented opportunity to “piggyback” on the project to bring additional improvements to my floor, the ground level of a three-story building. As I suggested to my director, if they were going to tear apart the building to do asbestos abatement and install ductwork, why not add a fresh coat of paint to our hallway? Maybe new carpet, too?

“Ok,” he said. “Send me a proposal.”

I was giddy for the task, but it’s tough to be the new kid and change agent all at once – especially if you’re trying to earn trust and build rapport with new colleagues. As I relayed to a veteran staffer, I thought being the newbie might mitigate at least some of the growing pains due to come. I mean, they hired me to do this, right?

“No,” he chortled. “You were hired because your predecessor’s dead!”

[At least I learned quickly he was a straight-shooter.]

And so it was, nine months later, that I found myself camped out in a temp office shucking CDs from their jewel cases and into Tyvek sleeves. One outcome of my proposal included consolidating portions of our collection from one area of the building to another. This meant finding a creative solution to house 10,000 CDs in an area half the size of their previous storage setup, in addition to gutting parts of a library that hadn’t been thoroughly inventoried for thirty years.  As if that wasn’t enough fun, I also had to figure out how we’d operate with a building closure during the summer months, which meant moving our entire reference collection to another facility in order for faculty and graduate students to continue their research and preparation for doctoral exams.

I felt galvanized by the challenge, but in time, stress started to take its toll. Deadlines got delayed, problems popped up, and at times I wondered, “What did I get myself into?”

It was almost as though Scott had been peeking over my shoulder when she wrote the following:

Think for a moment about hard times at work. You’re stressed out. You’re not sleeping. Your problems at work and at home are compounding each other. Hard times are made much harder when you’re not at your best. And they can make it particularly hard to “care personally” about the people you work with, not to mention those you live with. You’re too busy dealing with your own suffering. But “caring personally” is integral to building the relationships that drive everything else. The essence of leadership is not getting overwhelmed by circumstances.

It wasn’t hard to relate, on account that I was stressed out and I wasn’t sleeping. Not only was I mentally and physically wiped out, but I was barely getting the rest I needed due to an apartment move (see Gilead) and several crises during the settling-in process, including a flood in my dining room. And there seemed to be no rest for the weary. It was particularly hard to concentrate at work the morning contractors showed up to install storefront glass while we also had fire alarm testing, a building demolition across the street, and the Blue Angels shrieking overhead as they rehearsed for a weekend air show.

And that was all before 10AM.

By the time I’d taken a very late lunch at 3 o’clock, I’d also been informed that the glass didn’t fit, one of our book carts was returned to the wrong building, and the newly installed card swipe on our front door was not programmed correctly. To add insult to injury, my director decided to drop by unannounced and see how it was all going.

[I almost asked, “Can you give me a raise?”]

While the problems I’ve described so far have been about physical space, Scott’s book has reminded me that managing isn’t just about outcomes. It’s about people. And one of my biggest challenges was getting buy-in from a colleague who was about to watch the work environment he’d known for the past twenty years be turned upside-down.

It would have been easy for him – and me – to become “overwhelmed by circumstances,” especially when one of the changes meant letting go of a personal project that he’d brought to the library. For several reasons, a decision had been made – above my head – to remove it. But I was the one who had to break the news.

This is where I learned what it meant to rely on emotional intelligence, a concept that’s gained traction in recent decades among experienced managers like Scott and Cowen (whom I referenced in my previous post).  EI, as abbreviated by some, refers to the skillful practice of identifying, understanding, and using emotions to manage your reactions to events – and those of others. It’s not enough to hatch a plan and get all your ducks in a row; part of what it means to lead is being able to respond well during difficult times. In other words, not freak out.

It would have been easy for me to simply say “We’re not doing that anymore. Toss it out.” But not only would that have been callous; it would have damaged trust and possibly jeopardized the entire project. I knew I couldn’t do everything myself. Instead, I broached the subject by explaining how much I valued his experience and expertise, acknowledging I was indebted to him for helping me “learn the ropes” as I became acquainted with the collection and its community.

But then came the hard part. Very gently, I let him know we weren’t going to receive institutional support to continue one of his pet projects. And I wasn’t asking for his input. I was informing him of a decision.

It actually went over better than expected. I was surprised – and relieved – when he accepted the decision without much pushback, but little did we both know, this was a small trial compared to those to come.

For example, as we were getting ready for our highly-anticipated move back to the library, he called to inform me of a problem:

“We’re so screwed.”
“What’s going on?”
“Our reference books don’t fit. We don’t have enough shelving.”

What he didn’t know was that I’d anticipated this problem, and though I didn’t have a solution just yet, I knew what not to do.

“Ok. Yes, that’s a problem. But we’re not going to panic.”
Dubious laughter.
“I’m serious. We are NOT going to panic.”

Turns out, we had something bigger to panic about a few days later: a surprise furniture delivery. One that conveniently happened during the library info fair, a full-blown, all-hands-on-deck event that easily constituted our busiest event of the year. We’re talking hundreds of people streaming in and out of the library, elbow-to-elbow as they canvas the building for door prizes and freebie giveaways. It’s tantamount to hosting a circus.

We were supposed to have twenty-four hours’ notice from the cabinet company, but as I was getting ready to don a t-shirt and station a table, the delivery driver called to let me know he was about an hour away, asking where we could receive two 500-lb. media cabinets, and could someone please be available to help unload them from the truck?

I can still recall the graceful, emotionally intelligent response that I spluttered into the phone: “Wait… [gasp, choke, gulp]…you mean TODAY?”

Yes, actually, he did.

It’s all a bit comical now, but in the heat of the moment – literally, a hot, sticky August afternoon – it was not a laughing matter. I scrambled into action, a bit like Jake from The Rescuers Down Under attempting to manage Wilbur’s big landing: “Quick, Sparky – we’ve gotta find a way to extend the runway!”

Or, in our case: get these fixtures off a fifty-foot trailer illegally parked on a busy street without a loading dock nearby.

I enlisted my long-suffering colleague to help, but turns out, getting them off the truck was the least of our concerns. Once we rolled them down the street to our building ramp, we had another problem.

We looked at the fixtures.
Then at the ramp.
And exchanged glances.

We realized there was no way they were going to clear the ramp unless hoisted up on end. I’m no shrinking violet, but we both knew full well that neither of us were strong enough to safely maneuver a 500-lb. cabinet up a ramp sideways and through the doorway. We’d have to leave the cabinets outside, which normally would have been a fine short-term solution, except the forecast showed a 100% chance of strong thunderstorms headed our way.


Even my “we’re not going to panic” self  couldn’t deflect visions of doom as I imagined our expensive, custom-made cabinets about to be destroyed by torrential rain. As I embarked on a desperate quest to locate tarps, I placed a few frantic phone calls, including one to the cabinet company, pleading for help.

Unfortunately, all they could offer was insufficient sympathy. “We’ve had other customers tell us that their cabinets have survived natural disasters, including floods.”

Not helpful.

Just as we’d started to unroll tarps, I got a call back from a campus mover. They didn’t have the manpower to get our cabinets inside at the moment, but they could let us into a  nearby building, whereby we could roll them into the protective shelter of a basement.

It was nothing short of a miracle. But I’m pretty sure I’ve grown a few more gray hairs because of those cabinets.

photo by Corina Chang

So. Do I think I can manage?
After assessing my work from the past year, here’s what one colleague had to say.

“During her brief tenure, she’s demonstrated technical and conceptual skills and the required emotional intelligence that are essential for a successful librarian and manager. Last summer, she took on the task of vacating her library while the facility underwent needed renovations. Throughout the four months the library remained unavailable, she demonstrated patience, expertise, and excellent program management skills. She minimized, to the extent possible, service disruptions by offering her users clear and reliable information on how to access content and find assistance during the library’s closure. The library reopened on schedule and is back in business.”

I’d take that as a vote for “yes.”

Oh. And that raise I’d almost asked for?
Turns out, I didn’t need to. I got a bonus instead.