Reflections on RISWS, by Gabrielle Toth

Had I known last July what I know now, I would never have applied to be part of this RISWS project. Back then, I presumed that, just like so many weather reports of summer storms, the threat of a budget crisis might thunder in the background but would ultimately blow over. I was wrong. It’s June 16, there are exactly two weeks left in Fiscal Year 2016, and we have no state budget. Which means we have no state allocation. And there’s no relief in sight for FY2017.

Welcome to Illinois, and greetings from Chicago State University, where for the past three years I have been our first ever Chairperson. I serve and represent six faculty librarians, 10 civil service library staff, and our systems librarian. I report to the Dean of Library and Instruction Services, whose portfolio includes Archives, Faculty Development, and a Tutoring Center along with we faculty librarians and library staff.

That distinction, first-ever chairperson, coupled with the not-uncommon practice in Libraryland of moving people with no supervisory experience into authority with little to no training, made me eager to embark upon this project. I knew why my colleagues had elected me to the position – I’m a quick thinker, a big-picture-seer, and someone who enjoys speaking truth to power politely and loudly – and I’d learned what I’d like to do better – day-to-day personnel management. The RISWS Project looked like a beneficial – and free! – way to enhance that skill.

In September I began to implement RISWS. I asked that each of my direct reports – at the time, 7 faculty librarians, the systems librarian, and two civil service staff, the Documents Clerk and the Circulation Manager – to email me a brief three-points-each list of their accomplishments and their challenges every Friday by noon. I’d like to tell you that they each did so diligently. Such was not the case. I received one to five random reports from four of my faculty and the Circ Manager and regular, nigh-weekly reports from two librarians and from my Documents staffer. Not the robust response I’d hoped for, but ultimately a most excellent one and one that would generate news – or in this case data – I could use. My two regular librarian reporters worked in areas both outside of my bailiwick and areas easily missed by patrons, university administration, assessment types, and the like, so getting regular reports from them was a godsend. It helped me learn about what they did and it provided me information I can, and will, use as I prepare a formal annual report and which I’ve been able to deploy to argue for the protection/swift return of my staff and the maintenance of resources.

I’m no mind reader, but I daresay it also helped them understand that all my questions about their work were not because I doubted that they did anything, were not because I wanted to berate them or overload them, but because I valued their labor and their contribution to student success. And that I needed to know about it so I could crow about it. The weekly reports helped open up lines of communication. Ironically, the more I understood and knew what my staff did, the less they felt the need to ask my “permission” before each and every decision. Finally, all my efforts to let them know that I had their back each and every time they made a good-faith effort, even if it cost me my position, came to fruition. This was such a relief.

Part of the reason this was a relief is because I’m not a fan of supervision, or what I had experienced of personnel management. My concept was that the librarians are professionals trained to manage their workflow processes, the staff are knowledgeable about their duties, and that no one needs or wants to be told what to do they just want to be given the space and trust to do their jobs. Wrong! Some workers at all levels like to check in, run through their to-do list, and have decisions OK’d each and every time. As a “better to ask forgiveness than permission” kind of gal, this was very difficult for me to grasp, let alone implement. It felt like so much wasted time, and so much distrust and disrespect – if I didn’t think they were capable of making the decisions essential to their positions, why would they BE in those positions! The weekly RISWS reports satisfied both of our needs for approval.

The RISWS reports I received from my staff member taught me a different lesson. I think my door’s always open, I think everyone feels comfortable coming to me with problems – and boy oh boy do they ever – but sometimes it’s to come to your supervisor with issues. Through my staff member’s reports I learned of problems I had no idea existed, and which meant we had a small backlog of materials which could not be processed until those problems were solved. Had I been more regularly meeting with this staff member, had I rescheduled meetings promptly when she missed them, I could have helped her solve these problems long before. I learned an important lesson – no matter how smoothly things seem to be going, it’s essential for the manager to check in with the staff on a regular and not-infrequent basis.

Finally, I learned that to be an effective manager, personnel or otherwise, I need to not only collect information, I need to make the time to digest it, analyze it, and strategize about putting it into practice. This is crucial, and it seems to never be possible. But today, with two weeks until the end of the fiscal year, with few of my staff, and more strapped for time than ever, I realize that if I can find three hours out of each day to attend to the bare minimum of my missing staff’s work,  I can carve two hours out of each week to think about our accomplishments, challenges, and how we can continue to move forward.