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Pearls of Wisdom

by Larry Neal, 2014-2015 PLA President on July 15, 2015

They say that good things come in small packages and I have often found that the advice and wisdom of others that best stick in my brain come in small phrases and sound bites. Over the years I have accumulated many of these and thought I would share a few of my favorites below.

Mess up. Fess up. Dress up. This came from a “how to deal with the media” workshop led by Detroit-area consultant and former broadcast news director Mort Meisner. Bed bugs, flashers, fraud, or controversial weeding of collections? While libraries are often held in the same high regard as baseball and apple pie, they are not immune to the scrutiny of the media especially if it will capture eyeballs or sell papers. The bottom line is that we are human beings serving other human beings and while we often cannot control what others do we can control how we react and respond. Further, while we may not have been the ones to “mess up,” we need to be straightforward about what happened, develop a consistent message about the facts and the plan to move on. To this day I still carry Meisner’s ragged business card in my wallet with basic interview reminders and the key words, “brevity, emo-tion, positive points, preparation.”

No surprises. Shortly after becoming a new director, Donald W. Green, the “senior” member of my library board in terms of influence and life experience (double my own) kindly provided a multiple-page sheet of tips and suggestions for my future career success. At the top, centered and in bold type was quite simply, “NO SURPRISES.” The message was clear and simple but easy to forget. My board members should never be asked about something major going on at the library—good, bad, or otherwise—about which they are unaware. While trustees are busy people and have their own lives and do not need a detailed account of the day’s events, regular communication and a heads up have always served me well. I have provided this advice, in turn, to my management team and staff. If they’ve had to call the police, if a customer has had a meltdown, or if they hear a community leader make a comment about the library good or bad, a quick heads up can make a huge difference in how I can respond.

Always be polite. As the senior administrator, I’m often the last in line for the most challenging of customers after even my most seasoned of staff members has done everything humanly possible to ease the situation. I’m also the lightning rod for the hotheads who want to speak to the person in charge right before the next call to the President of the United States. How to deal with such cases as the library director was one of the questions I asked several of my fellow directors shortly after I started in the position. I’ll never forget the basic, straightforward advice I received from Josie Parker, “always be polite.” She went on to say that taking a breath and remaining calm and focused will help avoid further escalating the situation. And, if after listening patiently and professionally, the customer is still out of control, it is fully acceptable to tell the customer that (s)he will need to call back or return when, “we can engage in a civil and productive conversation.” The four-way test. For those of you who are fellow Rotarians, this ethics code is probably at the tip of your tongue and my plaque with this inscription faces me when I look up from my computer. It asks quite simply, “Of the things we think, say or do . . . Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build good will and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” You don’t have to be a Rotarian to use the four-way test but it always causes me to stop and think when I’m facing a tough decision, deciding on how to deal with a problem customer or conflict between staff members.

Always say “thank you.” If this sounds like something a mother would say you are right. Early in life, whether it was a few dollars inserted in a birthday card from a distant relative I had never met or a gift of a hand knit sweater with a neck that barely stretched over my fat head, my mother always made sure that I sent a written thank-you note in return. I have tried to carry this lesson into adult-hood, whether it is to thank my board for a raise or to drop a quick email to a legislator for taking the time to talk to me about a library issue. So as my term as PLA president comes to an end, I would like to take this opportunity to extend my sincere appreciation and gratitude to:

• PLA’s Executive Director Barbara Macikas and her amazingly talented and hard-working staff;

• my outstanding colleagues on the PLA Board: Carolyn Anthony (Past President), Vailey Oehlke (President Elect), Melinda Cer-vantes, Melanie Huggins, Rivkah Sass, Manya Shorr, Pam Sandlian Smith, Felton Thomas, Jr. and Jay Turner;

• our 200+ member volunteers who carry forward the work of the association, in particular those who said “YES” when receiving my request to be appointed this year;

• Deborah Jacobs and her team at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the career highlight of being involved with the Global Libraries Legacy Partner Initiative;

• and members like you!

You are the reason PLA exists and your membership and active involvement in our association are the most effective way to keep this the best profession for making a living making a difference. Thank you for the honor and privilege to serve as your president over the past year. I look forward to a great year ahead under the leadership of Vailey Oehlke.

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