By Kim Leeder
If you want to start a passionate conversation, ask a past Emerging Leader (EL) about their experience in the ALA Emerging Leaders program. Created by former ALA President Leslie Burger as one of her presidential initiatives in 2007, Emerging Leaders was initiated to put new librarians “on the fast track to ALA and professional leadership” (learn more on the wiki). If you talk to any of the roughly three hundred participants in Emerging Leaders so far, you are likely to find that they have a powerful opinion on the subject. Some loved it, some hated it, and some express profoundly mixed feelings. A very few are neutral. In this blog post I will be exploring those differing responses from past Emerging Leaders as part of a critique of the high-profile program.
Emerging Leaders is intended to recognize and train approximately one hundred outstanding new librarians each year and guide them toward becoming leaders within ALA and the profession. Participants are selected in part by their accomplishments and leadership potential, and in part by the desire to have a geographically and culturally diverse class. The program involves a one-year commitment and requires attendance at that year’s Midwinter and Annual Conferences (a full day workshop takes place at each), plus unmeasured time working on a group project in the interim. ELs spend the six months between conferences working in small groups on an ALA-related project. The EL projects vary widely and are introduced into the program by individuals or committees from across ALA.
Disclaimer and admission of bias: I was an EL in 2008 so my experience serves as the impetus for and subtle bias of this post. I’m writing from a blend of personal experience, anecdotal evidence, and survey data. Though I strive in this post to maintain an objective distance, my own Emerging Leaders experience is best described as a roller coaster ride full of high points and deep frustrations. I applaud the program’s goals but I believe that there is a significant gap between the inspiring, boundless encouragement given to ELs to reenvision ALA and the reality of how change might actually happen within the organization. I am proud to have been an Emerging Leader and I hope that this post may be the start of some small movement to improve what is, at its heart, a truly impressive initiative.
While the talented new librarians you will meet in Emerging Leaders are generally very willing to say what they think, I was unable to locate even one written critique — either positive or negative — of the program by a participant (if you know of any, please post them in the comments below). Very few have written about their experiences except to post the occasional non-evaluative summary of the program events and workshops. In fact, other than a tongue-in-cheek blog post by The Annoyed Librarian (who has not been an EL) and a well-rounded slideshow report by Rachel Vacek, there is little in any published medium other than PR and related announcements.
From this we may draw one of several conclusions: (1) Past ELs don’t have any opinions about the program one way or the other; (2) Past ELs don’t write much or aren’t interested in writing about the program; or (3) Past ELs are, for some reason, uncomfortable about critiquing their experience in the program. Based upon a variety of personal email exchanges and in-person conversations, I am going to immediately rule out the first possibility. I have met ELs from every year of the program and all have been vocal about what they see as its strengths and weaknesses. In truth, their energetic praise and criticism played a large part in my decision to tackle this topic in a blog post. As for the second possibility above, a few quick searches will show that many past ELs are prolific writers and bloggers. While it is possible that they simply don’t have any interest in discussing their EL experiences in their writing, I find that unlikely.
I find the third possibility above to be the most plausible, and offer my own feelings as evidence here. First of all, this is a high-profile program that is quite attractive on resumes and CVs, and the library world is very small. Writing a critique about Emerging Leaders, and being willing to accept any potential negative feedback from such a critique, takes courage. On the other hand, among those I know who have been through the program, I have heard more than one admit to feeling too emotional about the experience to put their thoughts on paper. Personally it took me nearly a year to gain the distance and perspective required to approach this post, and even after much encouragement and feedback from others, I still offer it with some hesitation.
Survey of Past Emerging Leaders
In order to write about the Emerging Leaders program with some authority, I gathered feedback and opinions from as many past ELs as possible. Accordingly, this post is based not merely upon my own experience, but upon the insights of nearly fifty past ELs who took the time to complete a survey about their experiences in the program. Admittedly this is a self-selected sample, and it is likely that ELs who had strong feelings about the program were more likely to respond. I conducted the survey in Google Forms and distributed it to the listservs for the 2007 and 2008 ELs, a pool of approximately 220 librarians. I omitted 2009 ELs from the survey because they have not yet completed their program.
The survey was composed of eleven questions, six of which were open-ended with a box for unlimited text responses. The remaining questions were multiple choice or ratings (see Appendix below for the list of questions). None of the questions in the survey were required, and respondents were encouraged to pick and choose those they preferred to answer.
There were 46 respondents, divided roughly by year with 57% of respondents identifying as members of the 2008 Emerging Leaders class, and 43% from the 2007 class. Overall, the results to the ratings questions were positive. When asked to rate the value of their experience on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being highest, 60% of respondents rated the program as a 4 or 5. When rating their experience based upon how much they enjoyed it the ratings were slightly lower, with 43% rating the program as a 4 or 5. However, an additional 41% rated the program at the midpoint level of 3. As an additional indicator of the perceived overall value of the program, 61% of respondents indicated that they would recommend Emerging Leaders to others. 78% (36 respondents) felt that the program made a difference in the trajectory of their career and/or ALA involvement. The great majority described a positive impact; only 3 of those respondents indicated a negative impact in that the program discouraged them from continuing in ALA.
The responses to the open-ended questions were far more mixed, and will be described in the following sections of this post.
Overwhelmingly, survey respondents pointed to networking as the most rewarding part of their Emerging Leaders experience. Out of 38 who answered the question, “What aspects of the program did you find worthwhile, if any?,” twenty-five referred to “networking,” “making new friends,” and/or “meeting people” as a positive result of their participation. One respondent described “meeting other enthusiastic librarians” as a worthwhile part of their experience. Another simply answered, “Networking, networking, networking.”
Similarly, an additional seven respondents pointed to their group work, in terms of having the opportunity to work with and get to know a small group of people, as a worthwhile aspect of the program. One respondent explained it this way: “Working in small groups was a real plus. I probably would never have met my groupmates through any other channel, and it is great to see them at conferences and catch up.”
Eleven respondents indicated that the most worthwhile part of Emerging Leaders was the doors the program opened for them in terms of committee work, recognition, and resulting presentation and publication opportunities. In the words of one respondent, “The recognition I received from other conference attendees because of my EL ribbon on my name badge was surprising to me…. Just wearing the ribbon served as a conversation starter and the networking opportunities are there for the taking. The opportunity to continue working at the national level upon the completion of the program is the greatest benefit.”
Another respondent commented that it was “a great way to become more involved when getting your foot in the door seems intimidating.”
I agree strongly with these assessments. Being handed the opportunity to meet so many like-minded librarians who share my passion and desire to make positive contributions to the field was a stunning experience. Granted not every EL was quite that driven — I do know that a few dropped out along the way — but the vast majority of the librarians I met through Emerging Leaders are impressive individuals, and I have continued to stay in touch with many of them through email, Facebook, and this blog. I cannot overstate the value of the Emerging Leaders networking experience.
Out of 39 who responded to the question, “What aspects of the program did you find disappointing, if any?,” eighteen indicated some aspect of the conference workshops, and another fourteen pointed to their group projects. Specific comments about the workshops varied, although many expressed the wish that there had been less lecture, more interactive sessions, and more advanced leadership training. “Really expected to have more ‘leadership’ training,” said one respondent, “similar to ARL’s leadership workshops, with in-depth discussion and activities around aspects of leadership in a library organization. Found that it was little more than ‘here are 5 qualities of good leaders.’” Others described the content of the leadership training workshops as “rudimentary,” “weak,” or “trite.”
Additionally, several respondents felt that those facilitating the workshops were not responsive to their ideas and feedback. As one respondent explained, “The ALA leadership that spoke to us regarding what can ALA do to enhance or encourage more participation by newer librarians – when we provided feedback and comments in an open forum – I got the distinct impression that there was not an interest in new ideas. Rather they were looking for confirmation that what steps they were already taking were satisfactory. There wasn’t an opportunity for a free exchange of ideas between the old guard and the new guard.”
Another observed, “You have a room full of folks who are energized and the energy didn’t go anywhere.” This sentiment was repeated throughout the survey responses.
A large number of respondents felt that their group projects were “busy work” and did not see that their efforts were providing any results. “Emerging leaders participants do a lot of good work for the projects,” said one respondent. “I was disappointed that the work was not used more within the ALA system. While doing the project for project’s sake provides good training experience, the outcomes can be useful for the organization.” Others compared the projects to “another library school assignment” or evaluated them as “not all that engaging or useful.”
Overall, my own greatest disappointment in the program was being encouraged to offer creative ideas and feedback in the interests of effecting change within ALA, and then watching the bubble burst over and over again. Whether it was a conversation about how to make ALA more responsive to new librarians, or the “World Cafe” events in which we brainstormed what the ideal organization would look like, our collective vision was praised, collected, and (I imagine) filed away at the end of the session, with no opportunities to further develop or pursue it.
In response to the question, “If you were asked to take over the Emerging Leaders program, or to create a new program to foster leadership among new librarians, what would it look like?,” past ELs had a variety of relevant ideas and suggestions. Regarding the content of Emerging Leaders workshops, respondent comments generally focused on three primary issues they would address. First, they would emphasize interactive leadership training as the program’s primary goal and reduce the emphasis on generating greater ALA participation. As one respondent stated, “it would have a larger goal than putting participants ‘on the fast track to ALA leadership.’ I think it should focus on helping participants attain their personal and professional best and how ALA can help them get there.”
Second, respondents disliked the current lecture-based format and many indicated that they would incorporate active learning exercises and guided small group discussions moderated by experienced ALA members. Third, many would add a variety of inspirational and “Mover and Shaker”-type guest speakers from within and outside of ALA whose experiences and knowledge would be relevant to ELs. Several suggested creating venues to facilitate free and open discussion among and between Emerging Leaders and those at various levels of ALA leadership. One respondent had a clear vision of a potential format they would institute: “Instead of posing organizational change questions to the group as a whole I would offer Issues Discussion Tables, letting participants choose the issues most important to them and to which they feel they can offer definite courses for change. Issues Tables might include: ALA Structure, ALA Student Chapter Solutions, Virtual Membership, etc. A 1.5 hour session with a mentor/moderator could provide real, progressive ideas.”
In terms of program format, many respondents would develop intensive training programs that included week-long retreats or a year-long, involved program with multiple meetings at each conference and ongoing virtual participation. One respondent summed it up, “It would have to be more involved. More than just 2 meetings. More virtual participation, discussion.” Many respondents thought an ideal class size for a leadership program would be small (one suggested a class size of 50 participants). Consistent with this, many felt that such a program should be highly selective, accepting only candidates with the clearest leadership potential.
Some respondents favored incorporating a mentoring program, possibly by having past ELs mentor subsequent participants or groups, or by holding “tours” of high-level ALA meetings for participants. Many emphasized the need for communication and community building activities among EL participants and alumni, such as an online community and/or regional meetups for ELs (or projects assigned by region) that provide networking and development benefits without required conference attendance.
Among those who would include group projects, respondents indicated that those projects would be designed to have clear relevance, impact, and purpose within ALA, and provide room for innovation. “I’d give the young/new librarians more room to innovate in their projects instead of assigning them grunt work from the various divisions,” said one respondent. Some suggested models in which ELs identify and design their own projects, are fully integrated into existing committees, or are employed as interns at high levels of ALA structure. Others believed that group work interfered with the leadership training goals, and could be omitted altogether in favor of other activities.
An alternative vision proposed that differed somewhat from the others was stated thus, “Why have the program if the only benefit is to get a committee appointment? Just have a program to get people on committees.” Others mentioned BIGWIG and an unspecified AASL program (perhaps the Collaborative Leadership Institute?) as models they would draw on.
From my experience in the program, I can attest that there was quite a bit of grumbling amongst the ELs during the full-day sessions at each conference. The majority of ELs are borderline or full-fledged Millennials, and being “talked at” is not a way we effectively learn. And while we can learn through lecture if we must, the content in our sessions assumed that we knew very little about leadership or interpersonal skills in general, which was largely untrue. A higher level of content and more skill-based activities would have greatly enriched the sessions for many of us.
Clearly Emerging Leaders is generating widely differing reactions among participants. Some of the responses are extremely positive, and many past ELs express gratitude and pleasure for having had the opportunity to participate. One respondent asserted, “being an EL has changed my life…. It was a great way for me to get involved in a career that I truly love.” Others made similarly glowing statements. Meanwhile, other past ELs say they have become “embittered” and describe the program as “a waste of time.” My personal response to the experience was mixed; as a whole I found the experience rewarding but like many others I was frustrated by some of the elements of the program that didn’t fulfill my hopes for what it could be.
At its root, much of my own and the survey respondents’ frustration with Emerging Leaders may derive from a discrepancy between our expectations and the reality of the program. Comments from many of the respondents indicate that they began the program with the hope of making a difference by bringing their new ideas and energy to ALA, but felt that they were not offered an effective venue to do so. One respondent acknowledged that discrepancy, saying, “I would recommend the program with a huge qualification regarding expectations and outcomes.” Implicit in this comment is an indication that their expectations for the program were too high, at least compared to the reality of the experience.
From what I have seen, there is a direct connection between those individuals who are most passionate about making a positive difference in libraries and those who are most frustrated by the Emerging Leaders program. The frustration is a product of feeling that their EL experience was something akin to standing in a doorway, enjoying a spectacular vision of the future, and having the door slammed in their faces. Said one respondent, “I felt a great disconnect with the leadership of ALA and have concerns for the professional organization and what current leadership is doing to pave the way for new ideas.” Another respondent echoed those concerns and took a step further: “I am not sure…that we are making much of a difference within ALA. We had many ideas, but nothing has been done with them. Perhaps we need to extend the program to a post piece that deals with the ideas that we’ve come up with and creating a strategic plan on how to implement them.”
If one were to make change to the Emerging Leaders program based upon this feedback, there are two potential paths that could lead to a more satisfying experience for participants. The first is to simply remove the elements of the program that give participants the impression that their creative ideas for remaking ALA are welcome and to focus on the skills specific to leadership instead. Discussions and brainstorming sessions about how to improve the organization could be removed from the program in favor of an increased focus on leadership overall. This approach would eliminate the disappointment caused by ELs feeling that their creative ideas were invited and then discarded.
The alternative path is far more complex but arguably more exciting. It would require the organizers of Emerging Leaders, and the ELs by extension, to become more aggressive in seeking out opportunities in which ELs might share their creative ideas with those in ALA who are best positioned to consider and respond to them. It might involve having a group of ELs write a proposal to ALA Council on some pressing issue. It could tie certain ELs to current ALA presidential initiatives, or other high-level committees and task forces. Or perhaps at the end of each program year, it would involve ELs presenting a list of ideas and/or proposals to representatives of current ALA leadership. Perhaps ELs could work on more meaningful, longer-term projects they would hand off each year to the next group of participants. Above all, it demands enabling ELs to begin putting into motion some of the creative ideas they are generating in workshop sessions. There are many potential ways to offer ELs the sort of exposure and feedback that survey respondents indicate they are seeking; the point is to start building those bridges.
What do you think? I invite my fellow ELs to add your insights and comments below. In this post I am only beginning to dig toward the root of the issue, and maybe with your help we can bring it out into the light. Perhaps the true movement toward change that comes out of Emerging Leaders doesn’t have anything to do with the program at all — perhaps it is made by those of us who have come together out of the program inspired, furious, motivated, and passionate with a network of colleagues who feel the same way. After all, that is the spirit behind In the Library with the Lead Pipe; it is not a coincidence that five members of our blogging team are past ELs. And as we move forward in our careers we carry with us that nearly religious belief in change, and the knowledge we need to make it happen. Perhaps, in the end, we are the change we wish to see.
Appendix: Survey Questions
- What year were you an Emerging Leader? (multiple choice)
- Please describe your overall experience in the Emerging Leaders program. (open-ended)
- Please rate your experience in the program, in terms of how valuable it was to you. (rating, 1-5)
- Please rate your experience in the program, in terms of how enjoyable you found it to be. (rating, 1-5)
- What aspects of the program did you find worthwhile, if any? (open-ended)
- What aspects of the program did you find disappointing, if any? (open-ended)
- Has the Emerging Leaders program made a difference in the trajectory of your ALA participation and/or your career? (multiple choice)
- If you answered “yes” to the previous question, how has it made a difference? (open-ended)
- If you were asked to take over the Emerging Leaders program, or to create a new program to foster leadership among new librarians, what would it look like? (open-ended)
- How likely are you to recommend the Emerging Leaders program to others? (rating, 1-5)
- Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding your experience as an Emerging Leader? (open-ended)
Many thanks to everyone on ItLwtLP for help in crafting the survey and drafting this post, to the many ELs who took the time to respond to the survey, to Latanya Jenkins for her thoughtful feedback on a draft, and to Derik Badman for reviewing multiple drafts and providing me with some small (but needed) kicks in the butt.