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Career Strategies for Librarians
The Agony and the Ecstasy: The Misunderstandings of Commitment and Expectations of Committee
Leadership
by Nadine M. Flores

Why Do We Join Professional Organizations?
There are many reasons for librarians to become involved in regional and national professional
organizations. For starters, as a budding librarian just fresh out of library school, the advantages of
committee participation are countless: you have the opportunity to network with your peers while gaining
experience necessary for job placement. Seasoned librarians likewise reap the benefits of committee
involvement to ensure professional advancement and keep current within the profession. This is often
more the case for academic librarians than librarians who practice in other areas of librarianship; for
example, a colleague who is an academic librarian once said to me, “We have to serve on a
committee.”  

Level of Commitment
It is abundantly clear how professional organizations benefit the individual librarian, but do we ever
bother to ask, “How do you as a librarian contribute to our organization?” I bring up this touchy subject
based on past experiences not only as a committee member, committee chair, but also as an ALA round
table executive board member. It has always been my assumption when first joining ALA and deciding
that I would become actively involved in a committee of some kind that there would be a level of
“commitment” to the committee on my part. I am a full-time librarian, and was at the time when I first
became involved in three committees. Not knowing what to expect of committees, I geared up mentally
for endless amounts of work and prepared to balance that commitment with my full-time job.

Two types of Committee Participants
I have observed over the past four years that there are two types of committee participants: 1) those who
are very active and fully participate in their committee activities and 2) those who just exist on a
committee roster. Let me stress that most of my committee experiences are and have been positive,
with many participants who made significant future-oriented contributions to the organization. To be fair
and realistic, we information professionals do have lives (i.e., children/spouses, illnesses, and
unexpected events that impact us). Nevertheless, committee supervisors encounter problems that affect
the overall production of the committee and its morale. The main question is: How do we address these
issues as organizational leaders (unit/round table presidents, board members and chairs) in a positive
manner?

Obstacles and Solutions for Supervising Committee Charges

Convey Expectations
One of the prevalent obstacles -- very noticeable but rarely publicly addressed among committee chairs
-- is how to achieve the goals of a unit or round table president via board members, committee chairs
and committee members. You have a set agenda relayed to the committee chair via the board member.
In theory, this appears to be an easy task: you relay the information from top to bottom and the committee
runs like clockwork, correct? Unfortunately, a constant problem faced by those responsible for
supervising a committee/committees involves those members who are unaware of the expectations
entailed in committee participation.  

At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I think most committee members would agree they
should not do most of the work for those who contribute very little or absolutely nothing, yet gain credit
solely because their name is on a committee roster. However, there are varied views among some of my
colleagues who believe minimum participation is more than adequate for those on a committee – after
all, they are volunteering their time.  

Communication
Making a committee member achieve some amount of work is not a great deal to ask. However, when
committee members fail to communicate with their chair regarding situations that may affect their
participation, this often causes a domino effect of overloading the remaining committee members,
thereby producing a negative committee experience. I am referring to those members who, for whatever
reason, cannot accomplish the most basic tasks, such as sending a response to a committee chairs’
introduction to committee members. This is an actual example of perhaps one or two members serving
on an ALA committee who express interest in committee work, only to have the committee chair never to
hear from them again. I would like to stress that this is not indicative of only one unit or round table, but
unfortunately, as explained to me by one of my former committee chairs, is the norm for many
committees within ALA.

Hindsight is 20/20, and quite a few times I have lacked finesse in delivering an instruction to members,
and then later thought to myself, “I can’t believe I said that!” There is a right and wrong way to motivate
members, and the first order of business is to set a positive tone – clearly communicate objectives. A
unit president has an agenda and it is the role of the executive board members to convey the agenda to
chairs to put it in motion.  

Some problems attributed to the lack of or breakdown of communication involve the fact that some
committees are not active immediately, and so there is this feeling of inertia among committee
members as months go by without contact from the committee chair. You will find that committee
members will leave due to committee inactivity. Again this leaves the remaining committee members
and the committee chair to complete the work. A positive approach to maintain committee member
interest until work begins is for chairs to immediately initiate dialog via email or phone to send updates
to their members. This has worked very well for several committee chairs. This in turn produces positive
committee experiences for the members as well as positive results for accomplishing committee
assignments. How they implement goals depends on the management style of both the committee
chairs and board members. Nevertheless, chairs must convey goals in a positive and constructive
manner.

Delegation of Tasks
Delegation of committee assignments is an effective tool for chairs, and many committee chairs have
mastered the art of delegation in order to keep committees on track. Moreover, this serves as a deterrent
for unexpected situations that may affect the committee and gives neophytes the opportunity to take on
leadership roles.  

Management Style: Situational Approach
As board members and committee chairs, we can be creatures of habit and approach every situation the
same way without serious thought about how we interact with different personalities. To one person, a
benign suggestion could be misconstrued as dictatorial and micromanaging. Each committee chair has
a different approach to achieving committee goals and we, as board members, must work to accept
those differences.

Accountability
Another challenge facing committee chairs and officers is how to deal effectively  with accountability. It is
good practice to give committee chairs free reign in managing their committees with the understanding
that supervising board members will be kept in the loop (via copies of relevant correspondence). Board
members managing committee chairs should only step in when the committee chair 1) needs guidance
in directing the committee or 2) is unable to follow through with the agenda set forth. In both instances,
documentation is needed to support the claim for correction (not admonishment). You want chairs to
learn from their mistakes as they gracefully continue with the business of chairing the committee. At the
same time constant encouragement and praise is necessary to thank committee chairs for a job well
done.

Difficult Decision Making
Unfortunately, there are those rare occasions where there is no other choice but to request that a
committee chair relinquish their leadership position. Depending on the situation that initiated problems
within the committee, it is the role of the supervising board member (supported by documentation) to
inform the president or unit head of the problems. There may be times when it is necessary to remove a
committee member or a chair in order for the committee to move forward in a positive direction. It is the
role of the board supervisor to notify the committee of the change in leadership and to assist the new
chair in the transition. Simultaneously the departing chair must be informed as to the mitigating factors
that lead to removal of their leadership role. Likewise, a member who is removed from a committee
must receive encouragement and support to try for a leadership position again so that he or she is not
left feeling dejected.  Leadership sometimes requires making difficult and uncomfortable decisions that
are in the best interest of the committee as a whole.

Conclusion

"Good leaders make people feel that they're at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone
feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When that happens people
feel centered and that gives their work meaning."
-Warren Bennis ( 1925-)

As board members, we must provide strong positive leadership to those committee chairs and
members we supervise. It is our duty to pave the way for them to take the reigns of leadership within ALA
divisions and round tables. Under no circumstances should we delude current or potential members
that committee work is easy, but rather that it is a challenge to embrace and that their contributions not
only count to the organization but also to their professional development.

About the Author:

Nadine M. Flores received her MLIS from UCLA with a specialization in Information Organization. She is
an Adult Librarian II at the Echo Park Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library and has been with LAPL
for 8 years. She has been active in NMRT since 1999, as chair, Outreach Director, 2002-2003, and is the
NMRT Network Director for 2003-2004. With a BA and MA in Art History, Nadine still has a strong passion
for the arts, and is also a member (and former chair for ACRL/ARTS Conference Planning Committee in
2001). She is also active in the International Relations Round Table as a committee member for the
Continuing Education Committee, 2002-2004 and ACRL/IS Conference Planning Program Committee
Member, 2002-2004.

Article published Dec 2003

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