Comparing and Contrasting Leadership Programs

I’ve been very fortunate, in my nearly three years as a librarian, to have had the opportunity to participate in two library leadership programs: PNLA Leads and ALA Emerging Leaders. The programs have different methodologies and different goals, so, unsurprisingly, my experiences and takeaways were very different.

I should acknowledge, it’s possible that trying to write up a comparison, when I am only a month “emerged” from ALA’s leadership program, but almost two years after PNLA’s, isn’t entirely fair. I’m giving it a shot, though, because Alaska is talking about whether or not to participate in ALA Emerging Leaders (via yearly sponsorship of an individual), and I feel like my having been through both programs means I should probably take part in the conversation—if not with an opinion on which way we should go, then at least with more information about the benefits of ALA’s program, versus the program we already support. (I’m writing this more to organize my thoughts, for when this discussion happens, than because I think that many Alaskan librarians read my blog. I’m not even sure half of my coworkers know this blog is here. But maybe my comparison of the programs will also help other people, who are thinking of participating in one or the other, to decide.)

Even in structure, the programs are visibly different: ALA’s is every year for either two days or six months, depending how you count, with 50-150 participants per year (77 this year); whereas PNLA’s is roughly* every other year, for a week, with (I had to look this up) 64 participants per year. EL is for people who are either under 35 or in their first five years of librarianship; Leads is, according to one spot on the website, intended for people who have worked in libraries for at least 5 years. In 2010 there were four Leads participants from Alaska—actually, five, when you count our inimitable mentor. In contrast, there have been approximately four ELs from Alaska, total (though if Alaska started sponsoring one EL a year, that number would probably increase fairly quickly).

Format aside, the two programs have very different stated goals. I found the following set of outcomes for PNLA (on a several year old .doc file posted online, interestingly):

1) All 64 participants will examine their personal leadership style and clarify personal and professional goals; 2) All 64 participants, along with their mentors, will assess the environment, construct a vision for the future of the library community as a whole and publicly express this vision; 3) A network of peers coming from all levels of library work, urban and rural, will feel empowered to work together to build collaborative relationships and address common issues within the profession and the region; 4) Participants will feel confident in taking leadership action in one form or another e.g. publishing, assuming association or committee leadership roles, mentoring another library worker, or moving into increasingly responsible library positions; 5) All participating urban and rural library employees will feel connected to one another and to their state/provincial and regional peers via a support network intended to continue throughout their careers in the region; 6) The greater library community will learn more about the efficacy of PNLA’s inclusive leadership institute and multilayered leadership efforts through publication and presentation of our continuing study of participant responses to the institute.

It’s very “the whole big wide world of librarianship,” while it is also very personal. I like it. I can’t say whether or not they’ve changed the goals of the program, over time, but I’d say we made a lot of progress on a lot of these points, in the 2010 class.

I didn’t have much luck finding a list of goals or outcomes for the Emerging Leaders program. The main goal seems to be, as Maureen Sullivan said, to “create an opportunity for people who are new to the profession to fast-track their contributions to the association in meaningful ways.” Emphasis is mine. But it’s very ALA-focused, for sure. At least half of the first day-long session and the entirety of the one web conference we had, between conferences, were focused on ALA: its structure, its leadership, how to get involved. There was much exhortation, aimed at the ELs, to participate in ALA. And that’s probably a good thing and probably needed: I’ve found, in working with librarians—especially new ones—that folks can be very timid and not feel like their contribution would be valued. But I was already pretty sold on ALA’s value, pretty comfortable with its basic structure (the difference between associations, roundtables, committees, etc.), and pretty sure I knew how to go about contributing to the association. I mean, I had self-selected by applying for Emerging Leaders in the first place; clearly, I thought I could contribute. So that part wasn’t as useful for me. To admit some bias, this may have struck me more than it did the other participants, because I had already decided that I needed to take a couple of years to attend other conferences (Internet Librarian, Computers in Libraries, SXSW) and that I would focus my energies on local and regional projects, while keeping my fingers in ALA NMRT via distance committee work—and I’d said as much in my application. So the very “ALAness” of the program was jarring, to me, where other people probably really appreciated it.

That said, my ALA work will benefit from my having been an Emerging Leader, both because I understand the organization a little better and also because I will probably have an easier time getting through certain doors. I think that’s valuable—I know I just said I was going to take a break, but it’s not going to be a very long break, in the scheme of things. Or even a very good break: NMRT can keep me busy, all by itself, while I’m “focusing elsewhere.” So I’ll be back, and I’ll be better at all things ALA because of Emerging Leaders.

I can’t really say that about Leads. As a critique, I guess I could actually say that a little more of that wouldn’t have hurt. I don’t feel like I know who PNLA is, as an organization, even after attending their fantastic leadership institute. I’m going to my first PNLA conference in August, and I’m excited about it—but I don’t feel like Leads has been any kind of fast-track to anything, PNLA-wise. They encouraged us to get involved, but they didn’t give us a lot of specifics—possibly because PNLA is a lot simpler of an organization than ALA?

But where PNLA really shined, in my opinion, was in its applicability to my daily life. It was much more intensive, much more focused on finding out who we were as leaders and how we could be effective within our organizations—from our workplaces to our library associations. We talked about SWOT analysis, effective techniques for making decisions with groups, and the wants and needs of different personality types, just to name some things off the top of my head. We had time dedicated to hearing the mentors’ stories about their careers. We had group work and brainstorming and lecture. We even talked about how not to overwhelm our colleagues with plans and ideas, after the institute.

We all got a lot out of Leads. Although we spent the whole program with one group and two mentors, much like Emerging Leaders (though Leads had larger groups), it was structured in such a way that everyone in every group was exposed to more or less the same information. The group work was planned so that we got the basics from the moderators, then had room to practice on our own (which varied depending on the specific task, on how good or bad a day the group was having, and on what skills each person had), then came back and shared; there wasn’t room for anyone to not get anything out of it. Leads was a lot less variable than Emerging Leaders, and I really appreciate that about it. To hear some of the ELs talk, there were mentors and ALA staffers who never met their groups, there were projects that were over-proscribed, there were projects that were impossible as written, there were group members who didn’t do their fair share, and there were group members who got totally burnt out by the whole thing. On the positive side, one group went way above and beyond and started what will probably be a very successful ongoing initiative at future conferences; one group got to work pretty closely with the incoming ALA President; some mentors were amazing and will be ongoing professional contacts for their mentees; some groups came out of it as super close friends; and some people feel like Emerging Leaders changed their lives. All of this, positive and negative, happened in 2012—and probably every year before us. The leadership skills you learn vary a lot based on your project, your group, and your mentors. So, while some people got a ton out of Emerging Leaders—possibly more than anyone got out of Leads—others got very little out of it.

From an Alaskan point of view, I wonder about the benefits of supporting an EL every year. Let’s assume the program’s variability can be solved—and I hear it’s being worked on. Even with a consistently strong EL experience, the main point of the program is ALA participation/success. And I can attest that ALA participation is still very expensive, especially for someone outside of the Lower 48. The opportunities for virtual participation are improving, but to really have much of a voice and make much difference in the organization requires attending ALA conferences consistently. I don’t know how many of us are willing and able to commit to that, or whether we should push too many of our members into it. If our goal is improving the Alaska Library Association and Alaska Libraries, Leads probably gives us better bang for our buck, both by delivering a consistently strong experience and by providing skills that participants can utilize in any context. On the other hand, I know it would benefit Alaska to have more voices in ALA, and some of our most reliable ALA voices are starting to look seriously at retirement (or have already retired, but are looking at retiring from ALA, too). We need to get some new people involved, something EL is very well-suited to do.

So I won’t make a hard-line case for or against our supporting an EL each year. I do hope, though, that I can convey to my colleagues what the pros and cons are, so that we can all decide together what the best course of action is.

Note: In looking for some facts about the EL program, I found this really fantastic critique on In the Library with the Lead Pipe. It’s a couple of years old, and they have taken some of the suggestions to heart; for instance, there isn’t a lot of brainstorming about how to change ALA, anymore. Lots of other things still haven’t changed, though, so I would encourage you to read it if you’re thinking of applying for Emerging Leaders. Or if you’re Alaskan and want more detail on its up and down sides. (I skipped the issue of “are the projects all actually used/useful?” while writing this post, for instance, though that’s a concern I’ve heard from a lot of ELs. Also, I would say most of the “leadership” content of EL is still pretty vague. We had a really good half-hour to an hour, the second day, about influence—how to have it, how to let others have it, etc.—but that was the only leadership content delivered during our EL sessions, in 2012, that I really felt I could take back home and use.)

*PNLA is dealing with some challenges, right now, and Leads has had some ongoing competition from a leadership development program in Canada; therefore, 2012′s program was put off until 2013.

About Coral Sheldon-Hess

Web librarian, Alaskan, tech teacher, feminist geek, crafter, former engineer, and Oxford comma apologist. Loves coffee and birds. "Kunoichi"=="female ninja."
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One Response to Comparing and Contrasting Leadership Programs

  1. Mike says:

    Nice write up Coral. I think AkLA will find your observations useful as they make funding decisions.

    SXSW? How about Burning Man?

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