I’ve long been fascinated by the question: How do you know when it’s time to move on?
For example, my dad spent over 20 years—my entire childhood and into my college years—working at a state university. When he decided to leave, I asked him how he knew it was the right time. There were several factors at play but mostly, he said, it was because he didn’t feel like there was anything new to learn there. Every year, there had been something new to do, something new to learn: a new position, a new committee or task force of some kind, a new challenge. But after 20+ years, he’d gone as far in the organization as he could go. There was nothing new.
I thought about this when I made the decision to leave theater. I’d gone to college with the goal of working professionally in theater in a big city. I did that for over a decade. But I knew when it was time to stop. There were several factors at play—the manual labor of tech work was taking a toll on my body, nonunion freelance work meant I had no health insurance or retirement plan—but mostly it was because I’d reached a point where I needed to take the next step on the career ladder, and move up into technical director and production management roles. But I didn’t want to. In truth, I was a few years past the point when I should have made this transition but those jobs had no appeal for me. In part, it was because TDs and PMs don’t typically run shows, and running shows was what I loved. But if I’m honest… The thought of taking on that much responsibility, the idea of being in charge, filled me with dread.
The reason it took me a few years to get out of theater was because knowing I was done was only half the equation: I didn’t know what else I should do, where I should go next. When my dad decided it was time to move on from the state school, he knew what his next step was going to be. I had no ideas. I knew that whatever else I tried to do for living, I would probably need more traditional office experience on my resume, so I ended up doing temp work for a few years.
When I started in library school, I knew right away that this was the right career for me. How? Because I could see myself as a director some day. I could picture myself in administrative positions and that thought didn’t fill me with dread. It excited me. It was something I wanted.
So I’ve known from the beginning that I eventually want to move up into director-level positions. The stumbling block for me was the fact that you need to have experience as a manager in order to qualify for director-level jobs. While I could picture myself as a director, I had no clear picture of myself as a manager. While I’m confident that I’ll be a good director some day, I had no sense of how I’d be as a manager.
I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of taking a job just to check a box on my resume. I’d rather want the job for its own sake. I used to joke that I wish I could jump straight to a director-level position and just skip the management-level stuff entirely.
The work I did as a librarian in the Digital Branch at the Kansas City Public Library was rewarding and meaningful. But I knew I’d gone as far in that role as I could. So there’s the first half of the equation: I knew I was done. The second half—where to go next—fell into place last fall. I saw some Branch Manager positions posted and I wanted them. Not to fill a blank on my resume but because the job itself appealed to me.
I’ve begun to understand why skipping management-level jobs is a horrible idea. I’ve begun to realize how much management has to teach me.
To be a good director, you need to have vision. But to be an effective director, your vision needs to be useful. It’s no good innovating some revolutionary library service if no one needs or wants it. Experience as a manager gives you the perspective to create useful visions for library services.
Directors need to focus on big picture strategy and can’t get bogged down in the day-to-day, frontline details of things. But you also shouldn’t ever forget that every strategic decision you make affects people who work on the frontlines every day. I think experience as a manager can help transition your perspective in a healthy way. My hope is that experience as a manager will ensure that I won’t ever forget frontline staff in my decision-making process.
And I’m sure there are many other lessons to learn of which I’m currently unaware.
My ultimate career goal is still to work up to director-level positions. But for the first time, I find myself eager to take on the role of manager. I’m excited to learn what this experience has to teach me. I’m curious to see how I do.