Wednesday, September 07, 2011

How to Leverage your workforce: librarians and the art of the con

"Hire good people."

Writing on the topic of library management, the one and only Will Manley recently evoked the immortal Casey Stengel as an example of how even the best manager in the world is doomed to fail if he doesn't have quality players on his bench:

It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? When he (Casey) managed the Yankees he had Hall of Fame players like Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford. When he managed the Mets he had a motley crew of “has beens” and “never weres” like Marv Thronberry and Choo Choo Coleman.

Any time somebody hands me the latest bestseller by the management genius du jour, I mention two words: Casey Stengel.

Then I mention 3 more words: hire good people.

All right, then. But which people?

I've been in something of a curious situation here at my library, where after being obliged to replace two FTEs (or 2/5's of my support staff) in the first 90 days of my tenure as manager I have not been able to make a new hire since, due to uncertain times and the looming prospect of a University-wide library reorganization. As a result, I've had a lot of time to ruminate upon the kind of people I would hire, if only I were given the nod.

While it is tempting to simply fill whatever holes appear in your org chart, when the panic of "OMG who is going to do X, Y, and Z if Joey leaves!" subsides I encourage you to take a step or two back and think of your office more in terms of the big picture than individual workflows. To paraphrase the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, all workflows flow. Even the very word "workflow" connotes fluidity and change.

In the modern library workplace hiring a person just to perform the tasks that his or her predecessor did is a fool's errand. Instead, you should be thinking in terms that are as broad as possible-- i.e., in archetypes. I've touched on the theme of party balance in gaming and its applicability to library management, but this time I'd like to come at from a slightly different and somewhat less legal angle...


Leverage is a popular television show currently running on TNT. Its premise is quite simple: Nathan Ford (played by Timothy Hutton) is a former insurance investigator turned modern day Robin Hood, leading a gang of semi-reformed criminals who use their unorthodox talents to fight injustice one con at a time. Now why in the name of Melvil Dewey would I compare the library office workplace to a den of thieves? Because in Leverage, every rogue has a different but integral role to play in each week's caper.

First we have the mastermind (the aforementioned Ford, played by Hutton), who is both a skilled planner and an excellent reader of others' motives and intentions. Although the mastermind uses his talents to deploy the resources brought to the team by the other archetypes, it is important to note that the leadership structure in Leverage is not necessarily hierarchical in nature. The mastermind need not always be the boss.

Next is the grifter (Sophie Devereaux, played by Gina Bellman). The grifter is responsible for establishing the suspension of disbelief that makes each con possible, a task which she accomplishes with equal parts social graces and a thorough understanding of human behavior. If the mastermind can predict what a given person will do, the grifter knows what he or she will say-- it is in managing this liminal realm between appearances and actions that the grifter accomplishes her tasks.

Then we come to the hacker (Alec Hardison, played by Aldis Hodge), who lives and breathes in code. The hacker uses technology to circumvent the limits of conventional society, which often put him at odds with the law as well as his fellow man. He is a devotee of the latest in electronics, and is often more attached to his gadgets than he is other people.

After the hacker is the hitter (Eliot Spencer, played by Christian Kane), because sometimes when push comes to shove you'll need someone to do all of that pushing and shoving. Less simply put, whereas the grifter exists to exploit the tension between what seeming and being, the hitter exists to collapse this tension when needed... often with his fists.

Finally you have the thief (Parker, played by Beth Riesgraf). If the mastermind is a cerebral criminal and the grifter a social criminal, the thief is a visceral criminal. She is pure reflex, absent any reckoning of consequence, and delights in what she is able to steal more often than not simply for the sake of stealing it. Unlike the hacker, whose mischief is circumscribes by the limits of his technology, the thief is capable of analyzing and exploiting any system.

Even if you've never watched an episode of Leverage (if you haven't, I strongly suggest you give the show a try!), you can probably already see how well this team meshes. Not only are the archetypes different enough to be complementary in nature, but the team's skill sets are sufficiently overlapping so that they are able to reinforce each other naturally. The mastermind shares skills with the grifter, who shares skills with the thief, who shares skills with the hacker... and so on.

So how do you apply this to the library workplace?

1. Mastermind- This is your Big Picture person, capable of project management and strategic planning. The mastermind also understands the individual strengths and weaknesses of other team members and is able to leverage (no pun intended) these assets accordingly. As I pointed out above, this position is not always the boss. You may in fact have several masterminds in a successful office, each focused on a specific goal or outcome. Not having to rely on a traditional hierarchical organizational structure can be an asset, but it also can present its own managerial challenges. Rather than rely on the arbitrary nature of the org chart, the mastermind secures buy-in by engaging his teammates as per their archetypes.

2. Grifter- Your grifter knows how to Get Things Done by working the system both internally and externally. Libraries are social organizations on multiple levels-- not only does a library depend on the good will of its patron base for harmonious operations, but it also derives its mandate (not to mention its budget allocations) from faculty, deans, corporators, or public officials. At the same time libraries interact with one another, in consortia and other reciprocal arrangements on which we all increasingly depend. The grifter makes sure that you maximize your benefit from these myriad social interactions.

3. Hacker- IT departments are great, but the IT needs of librarians are so peculiar to our profession that there is an increasing need to recruit library staff with developer/programming skills rather than rely on external rosources. Library systems used to be more static, changing every couple years or so; now they are moving targets, thanks to agile development models that reward rapid iteration and field testing by the end users. Living in perpetual Beta can be stressful, but it is also a great opportunity to bend the ear of your vendors and customize their product to your evolving needs. Without your own resident hacker, you are behind the 8-ball in this new synergy.

4. Hitter- No, I'm not advocating violence in the library workplace. The hitter in this context is your throughput muscle, someone on whom you can count to execute and expedite once a given course of action has been decided upon. Hitters are frequently overlooked or dismissed entirely in contemporary management theory, but they are absolutely critical to the operations of any library unit. They may not be the most technically savvy or socially outgoing, nor are they necessarily Big Picture thinkers or natural born troubleshooters, but hitters know how to put their noses to the grindstone, and no library could function adequately without them.

5. Thief- If you haven't figured it out yet, your thief is your troubleshooter. There isn't a problem he or she doesn't delight in trying to solve. Thieves are always testing the limits of your policies and procedures, attempting to find better/faster/cheaper ways of doing things. Sometimes the thief is perceived of as lazy, because unlike the hitter (who is good at following orders, rolling up his/her sleeves, and doing what needs to be done) the thief is constantly thinking of an easier way to do the work at hand. Make no mistake about it- you need thieves as much as you need hitters in your organization, as even the most seemingly efficient of workflows could always stand to be improved in some way, shape, or form.

Okay, so working in a library isn't exactly a criminal enterprise, but the skill set does seem to be disturbingly transferable. "Pimps make the best librarians," says Avi Steinberg in his fabulous Running the Books, detailing his time as a prison librarian in Boston.

Psycho killers, the worst. Ditto con men. Gangsters, gunrunners, bank robbers–adept at crowd control, at collaborating with a small staff, at planning with deliberation and executing with contained fury–all possess the librarian’s basic skill set. Scalpers and loan sharks certainly have a role to play. But even they lack that something, the je ne sais quoi, the elusive it. What would a pimp call it? Yes: the love.

I would beg to differ with Mr. Steinberg about the con men, but otherwise he's right on the money. When putting together the ultimate library team, there's no substitute for proper villains...

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post! In Running the Books, I think Avi was the Mastermind, Fat Kat the Hitter, Coolidge the Thief. Grifter, not sure - it would have to be staff and not an inmate. It wasn't Avi, since he seems to fail at establishing goodwill across all the internal levels and doesn't talk about interacting with other libraries or outside agencies. No Hacker because of the absence of technology. I think you're missing one key team member: Mop-Up. Crucial to a criminal operation, but not glamorous enough for a TV series. In a library this might be a page who keeps the shelves in perfect order. In the book it was Elia. The prison administration is also key; they correspond with a library Board and a ring of bosses who monitor and influence every aspect of a crime, but do it hands-off.

Garrett said...

Just for the record, Casey was quoted as saying, after winning championship #5, "I couldn't have done it without my players." Thanks for a fun and serious post.

Jessica Olin said...

Not sure where I fit in this scheme. I think of myself as an idea person first, other things second. Interesting post, though.

Tom said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments! I enjoyed finally writing this post, as I've been kicking the idea around for a while now.

Anonymous- Good point about the Mop-Up. I was sticking to Leverage's five archetypes, but you're absolutely right that there's room for a position that is less forceful than a Hitter but just as dedicated to the daily grind.

Garrett- I didn't want to quote too much of Will Manley's post, but he also makes it clear that Casey acknowledged his players as the key to his success as a manager. I would hazard that Terry Francona would say exactly the same thing! :)

Jessica- Haha, I know. As much as I'd like to think of myself as the Mastermind, I'm pretty sure that I'm a grifter...