Photo Courtesy the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

I’ll never forget the day.

It was hot and bright, the sun warm enough to leave no doubt that summer was here but not hot enough to melt the makeup clear off your face. I had been back from vacation for about a week. School was out. I had time to enjoy long walks and read.

My husband came to me with a look of curiosity on his face. He had just received an email from the school district superintendent. She asked if we would lead the school’s bond issue campaign.

“She knows we have no political experience, right?” I said.

“Yes,” replied my husband. “But she also knows we’re both in marketing and actively involved in the school. Anyway, I can’t do it. I’m too busy. Can you do it?”

“Okay,” I said. “How hard can it be?”

If you are laughing so hard right now that you are at risk of falling out of your chair, I wouldn’t blame you. I have always been naive. But never more so than in that moment.

I had absolutely no idea how to run a campaign. I only knew that, as long as we had lived in our school district (22 years), we had talked about the day when the district would finally build new schools. They are desperately needed. Our buildings are between 50 and 90 years old and lack the technological capabilities for today’s students.

And that’s how I landed myself the hardest, most stressful, most rewarding, most frustrating volunteer role I’ve ever had. My husband did end up helping me. And the bond issue did pass, with 70 percent of our community voting “yes”.

It’s been one year since I took on this monumental task. I learned a great deal about project management while I was campaign chair. And the other day, I was reflecting on those lessons as I considered the stress libraries are under to reopen or provide service to their communities amid a pandemic.

It’s very clear, in every conversation I have with library staff across the world, that we are in a workplace crisis. Staff are overworked. They don’t feel safe. They worry about budget cuts. They worry about furloughs. They worry about catching COVID-19. They can’t enjoy reading. They feel separated from their peers.

Administrators are suffering too. They are trying to make decisions with incomplete information. They can’t make anyone happy with their decisions. They’re trying to balance the needs of the community and staff. They’re under pressure from donors and lawmakers.

I want to help. So, I’m sharing the four big project management lessons I learned while doing the hardest job I’ve ever had.

You can only do what you can do.

If you lead a project for your library, like a COVID-19 related reopening, or the launch of a new service, this is the most important thing I want you to remember. You are only human. You cannot do all the things, no matter how energetic you are.

There are only so many hours in the day. Give yourself and your coworkers the grace to accept that, in most cases, it’s impossible to accomplish everything by the time your deadline approaches.

I had to repeat this to myself when it came to the canvassing portion of the bond campaign. We had a list of 3000 houses we wanted to canvass. But we were unable to recruit anywhere near the number of volunteers needed to get to that many houses.

I had to make hard choices. I had to prioritize my list and send my volunteers to the neighborhoods where I thought they could do the most good. I set aside a few hours every week to canvass myself. And I had to let the rest go.  It wasn’t easy. But I had to do that to preserve my own sanity.

You can drive yourself to madness thinking about all the things you can’t accomplish. Focus on what you can do. Make a list of tasks that you’ll need to complete to reach your goal. Then, prioritize them. If something doesn’t get finished, no one will die.

People have phases of enthusiasm. Use them to your advantage.

When you’re working with a team, you’ll notice that there will be some people who are willing to dive right in and tackle jobs as soon as the project is announced. Later, they may tire out. Others will pick up the mantle halfway through the project. And still others will jump on your project train as you near the finish line. You need all these people and their varying levels of energy to finish your project.

There was a woman who came to all the campaign meetings starting in July. She never volunteered. She sat quietly in the back, asked a few questions, but mostly seemed to be observing. While everyone else was signing up right away to head up subcommittees and tackle tasks, she did not offer her time. I was annoyed.

And then, in early September, she signed up to do a very easy task. She was clearly not enthusiastic about it. I did not harbor any grand notions that she would turn out to be a super volunteer.

Boy was I wrong. Once she completed her first task, she started volunteering to do the work no one else wanted to do. And before I knew it, she was an unstoppable volunteer. She cheered on other campaign volunteers. She advocated for the bond issue everywhere she went. I truly believe her work played a significant role in the bond issue’s passage.

Don’t begrudge people for joining your project even when it looks like they just waited until the last minute. People have different levels of talents, abilities, and comfort with team interaction. You’ll get more work done and reach your goals if you graciously accept help at all stages of your project.

The middle portion of any project is the hardest.

The weeks from the beginning of September to mid-October in the campaign were torture. I ran into so many hurdles. Time seemed to move so slowly. Nothing was going the way I had planned. The whole campaign team was getting tired.

This is totally normal. It happens with every big project I’ve done, from new email onboarding campaigns to putting together my library’s quarterly content marketing magazine. The transition from planning to completing project tasks is always a slog. Expect that it will happen and devise strategies ahead of time for how you’ll deal with it. Then, keep your eye on the prize. The hard part won’t last forever.

Set boundaries for yourself.

I had one big, unbreakable rule during the campaign. I did not, under any circumstances, look at my email or phone after 9 p.m. This helped ensure that I could take one hour at the end of the night to unwind. It minimized the amount of sleep I lost.

You will have to decide what boundaries to set for yourself, but you must set some. You cannot be open and available for work 24 hours a day. It’s not healthy for you or your organization.

Set your ground rules and stick to them. Encourage your fellow team members to set boundaries as well and lead by example in respecting them. You’ll be a more productive library employee.

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