ALA Annual Conference 2012: Learning, Leading, Engaging, and Transforming

If you were in the right room but weren’t paying attention yesterday at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference here in Anaheim, you easily could have missed one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of experiential and transformative learning and leadership in action.

The set-up was simple. Members of ALA staff, along with members of ALA’s Training, Orientation, and Leadership Development Committee (TOLD) and incoming ALA president Maureen Sullivan, worked together seamlessly to deliver the association’s annual orientation session for volunteers who will be serving as chairs of ALA committees for the next 12 months. The traditional set-up for the session, according to those familiar with it, has been for the incoming president to offer a few words of welcome and then leave others to conduct the session.

Sullivan, as the association’s lead volunteer for 2012-2013, suggested a different model for this year’s offering. And program organizers immediately agreed, she noted at the beginning of the session as an example of how change can sometimes easily be implemented. The standard “orientation” became a “strategic leadership meeting.” We were active participants in determining how we all will work together and with others during the next 12 months. And, by time we left that room three and a half hours later, we had not only become familiar with what was expected of each of us as volunteers, leaders, and potential facilitators of change within an association we very much love and admire, we had been reminded by a master trainer-leader-consultant/change agent that the first step in being effective is believing that we can be effective in the roles we choose to play.

Because I’ve known Sullivan for several years and have had a few opportunities to work with her and see her in action, I wasn’t surprised by any of this. When she facilitated a two-day conference for students who had not yet completed their graduate-level work to enter the library workforce, she completely inspired those participants—and her work has paid off as we’ve seen several of those conference attendees begin working their way into management positions with libraries across the country. And when I was struggling with a less-than-satisfying educational experience, Sullivan was there not only as a willing and sympathetic set of ears, she was among a small and cherished group of people who helped me find a way to turn a bad situation into something full of potential—and tremendous results.

So as I sat with other incoming ALA committee chairs yesterday; was engaged by the energy, dedication, and inspiration that Sullivan, author-consultant-presenter Eli Mina (101 Boardroom Problems [and How to Solve Them]) provided; and saw how my volunteer efforts might effectively make a difference in further supporting ALA and all it serves, I realized how lucky I was to be in that particular windowless room—with the most spectacular view of what a few involved people can accomplish under the tutelage of a trainer-leader-consultant who sets the best example possible through her own efforts as an association volunteer.

Others may have been enjoying quality time by a pool. Or preparing to visit the conference exhibits hall. Or tweeting wonderful (or snarky) observations about the conference. Or frantically trying to decide which sessions they wanted to attend and which ones they reluctantly will miss. Or trying to acquire another ribbon to attach to their conference badges. And I have to admit I hope to make time for all of those activities myself.

But being in that room, with that group of people, with that level of inspiration, reminded me once again of the absolute pleasures and rewards we find through volunteering to support those causes that appeal to us. We all know that it’s easy to make commitments. Set high standards and goals for ourselves, and encourage others to set high standards and goals they believe they too can achieve. And then, with the best of intentions, return to our day-to-day work and lose sight of the essential elements of what we set out to do. This, however, is an opportunity where I don’t think that’s going to happen.

It’s completely possible that the association will, a year from now, look exactly as it does today; and the average member will continue to pay dues, attend conferences, complain about bureaucracy, and wonder why nothing ever changes. But those of us inspired by Sullivan certainly hope that won’t be the case. And if we’re effective in reaching out to foster an even greater sense of engagement than already exists within ALA—remembering to listen and to act—we may actually have a report card well worth taking home when the time for our final exam as learner-leader/change agents is administered a year from now.

N.B.: Sharon Morris and I, on Sunday, June 24, 2012, will be facilitating a 90-minute workshop on how to engage workplace learners and others in libraries. The session, under the auspices of the ALA Learning Round Table, begins at 10:30 am at the ALA Annual Conference here in Anaheim, in Convention Center Room 203B. Hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an engaging discussion.

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