Everything I Know About Library Management I Learned from Watching Restaurant: Impossible

Well, maybe not everything.  Let’s back up.

I have a special type of ADD that kicks in whenever I’m asked to read management literature.  I find most of it deadly dull, if not irrelevant.  (Next time someone recommends you read Good to Great, gently point out that it’s fifteen years old now and that one of the ten companies held up for our organizations to emulate eventually went from good to great to bankrupt.)   So I have to take my lessons on management from other sources.  Why not tap into the rich vein of popular culture we’re inundated with day in, day out?

Which brings me to Restaurant: Impossible.  If you’ve never seen it, it’s a show on Food Network.  The premise is simple.  Robert Irvine, British chef and restauranteur, visits a failing restaurant armed with $10,000, a designer, and a small cadre of builders, and in 48 hours he gives not only the restaurant a complete physical makeover (including new menus) but also the owners and staff a 180-degree attitude adjustment that puts everyone on the road toward harmony and profitability.  Hmm.  Limited resources … squabbling staff … dowdy surroundings … untapped potential … certainly sounds like there could be lessons somewhere in there for running a library.

I’ve been watching R:I for a few seasons now, and while each restaurant featured is unique, they tend to fail for the same reasons.  These are the problems I’ve been seeing repeatedly:

Poor communication.  Probably the most common problem—and among the easiest to fix, if you can isolate the reasons for it.  While the reasons may be many and varied, they tend to be rooted in the owners simply not making their expectations of employees known.

Bad attitudes.  Some employees don’t care and don’t want to be there.  Some employees do care and want to be there but don’t like the work environment and don’t feel they can speak up about problems without jeopardizing their jobs (basically another communication problem).

Management setting bad examples.  For example, owners who are often absent or, equally bad, present but disengaged from everyday details; also, owners who aren’t willing to work hard but expect hard work from their employees.

Not knowing what works and what doesn’t.  Examples include a failure to understand and contain costs, or continuing to carry menu items (services for us library folk) that no one wants anymore (or, conversely, failing to add anything new and potentially popular).

The show’s lessons are intended for the restaurant owners, with a large dollop of entertainment value for the rest of us.  (With his huge arms and barely contained temperament, Robert Irvine looks as if he’s going to pound someone into the ground at any moment; I keep tuning in hoping to see that happen, so far to no avail.)  And for the owners, many of whom have put their homes and savings on the line and are months or weeks away from losing everything, the lessons come with a very high price tag.  Nevertheless, each episode tells a failure-to-success story, and if you pay attention, there are lessons to be learned that can be applied to other situations.  Among the lessons I’ve learned:

Set a good example.  Employees take their cues from the people at the top—and when looking for cues, they don’t miss much.  They will, for example, notice if you’re consistently early, on time, or late, or if you do the minimum required as opposed to going the extra mile.  So don’t be late, and don’t hesitate to pitch in when and where you’re needed, especially if that’s not what people expect.  Leadership means being proactive.  Remember, it’s easier to lead by pulling from the front than by pushing from the rear.

It’s okay to ask for help, but don’t expect anyone to save you.  A fresh set of eyes can see what you’ve been missing (librarians in academe know that’s one of the principles behind the accreditation process), but no one, not even you, can change years of ingrained bad habits overnight.  Renewed success requires humility, patience, persistence, and time.

You don’t have to love what you do, but it helps.  Everyone has heard the saying that if you choose a job you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.  That may not always be the best advice (a new bestseller is titled Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness); and let’s face it, sometimes work just feels like work no matter how much you love it.  Still, aren’t you better motivated to do something you love than something you hate, or even just dislike?  Besides, if you don’t love it, perhaps you have some serious thinking to do.

Pay attention to small details.  Big, flashy, splashy projects are great, but we are at heart a helping profession, and our daily interactions with people, while seemingly small, are what matter the most.  Be aware of how you’re handling yourself in those one-on-one situations, and stay on the alert for ways you can handle things better.

Make sure employees have a stake in success.  Not always easy to do, especially since libraries don’t have the incentives or rewards for success (e.g., flexibility about pay) that private companies do.  But we have our ways.  One thing that can be done is to make sure employees know that honest feedback and suggestions are valued, not scorned or punished.

Carpet does not belong where food is served.  Ever.  Okay, that doesn’t really have anything to do with libraries.  Still, it’s an important lesson to note.  You can thank me later.

Now if I can just find someone to finish my library renovation project in two days for $10,000 …
Lonnie Beene, M.L.S., M.A. is an Acquisitions Librarian, Frazar Memorial Library, McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana.