The Manager and the Expert

We are going through a leadership change at work.  A senior manager moved up to CEO, and a department manager moved up to senior management.  As I prepare for meetings with my new manager, it’s been an opportunity to think about two interfaces of the law library director: one facing outside the library and another as a subject matter expert.

I touched recently on whether hiring a librarian as a library, or library association, director was a necessity.  This is a bit different.  It has more to do with, on the one hand, career advancement outside of libraries but within legal organizations and, on the other, being able to explain the expertise you bring to the table.

It’s also not unique to libraries.  My experience at the American Bar Association with their technology teams makes me think IT directors face something similar, and there are sure to be other roles that involve:

  • starting as a front-line subject matter expert (reference, developer, marketing, &c.), which often requires specialized experience or education
  • lead to managing a team of subject matter experts, which starts to create the tension between using the expertise and managing those who do,
  • lead the managers who lead the teams of experts.

At some point, the subject matter expert manager gets to a position where they decide to stay in contact with their original subject matter expertise, if only at a higher level, so they can support strategic direction with an expert’s understanding.  Or their subject matter expertise morphs from the original context to that of management expertise, or some other field.

That’s not to say that good managers can’t be good reference librarians or web developers.  But that there can be a point at which, for future career advancement, the stream moves away from libraries and a person builds management expertise with an eye to manage a larger scope than a law library.

Manager Up

The management interface tends to be up and out.  Think of a governance board for a courthouse law library, or a library partner in a law firm, or a law school dean.  It is where the interactions with the organization occur that are outside the law library operations, even though they can impact operations.

Most law libraries will eventually report out to someone with a law degree, even if there is a CFO or CIO in between.  Just as with legal research, it means the law library director needs to be able to bridge that person’s knowledge – I know how to do legal research – so that they can make the jump: therefore I understand law libraries.  When a manager makes that jump without you, it may require walking back some assumptions or using data to bolster ideas that challenge them.

I dislike the phrase managing up, which I think is used perjoratively (in Canada it might suggest a keener or, more crudely and perhaps universal, a browner).  But when there is a change in management, one of the law library director’s jobs is to help a new leader stitch together an understanding of what actually happens in the library with what the new manager thinks happens in a law library.

It seems to be rare for a law library director to move up to the senior officer (managing partner at a law firm, law school dean, etc.) even though many have cracked the C-suite.  I don’t know if that is due to law library managers like me who prefer to stay in contact with their subject matter expertise and work with information teams, so we top out in the library structure within the larger organization.  It may say more about who gets to lead organizations that have law libraries.

Either way, it means dialing back assumptions about what a person, who may have a law degree, understands about libraries generally, law libraries more specifically, and your library in particular.

Expert All Around

At the same time, a law library director has some level of subject matter expertise.  I think of subject matter expertise as being omnidirectional for a law library manager.

While I may not need to explain to law library staff how a law library runs, I may use my own law library expertise in interactions with them.  Similarly, I may need to use that expertise to explain why the law library operates in the way it does when I’m speaking to a governance board or other management.

This can be a harder asset to bring to light when dealing with organizational leadership.  One thing I’ve noticed in organizations in which I’ve worked is that a lot of the management are people with law degrees, even if they’re no longer actively using it.  If you’re a law library director with a law degree, they may may make an assumption that, like them, your subject matter expertise is in management, rather than legal information.

This can create a different filter.  For example, a tension we’ve had in our organization is between the library’s preference to share documents and another department’s preference to limit document access.  A law librarian filter might help to understand sharing by default, while the law library director may also get a legal organization’s default alignment to limit access.

When there’s new management, it can be challenging for a law library director to conspicuously highlight that subject matter expertise, and how they use that filter.  One part of that challenge is that the subject matter expertise may clash with organizational norms (which isn’t to say the norms are correct), and at some point, managers want to focus managing.

This experience is new for me.  I’ve tended to change management and organizations at the same time.  By changing jobs, I think I was more conscious of these interactions than I’d anticipated needing to be when management changes above you, while everything else remains the same.