Success as a pathfinder in archivesland

In May of this year, in a post I said might seem subversive but shouldn’t be in a Transformation environment, I asked here, “Would a Young Ferriero Succeed at NARA now?”  The answer to how he would do if starting out now as a young new hire at NARA is not clear.

I quoted from an American Library Association (ALA) Emerging Leaders interview with David S. Ferriero in 2008, a year before President Obama nominated him to be Archivist of the United States.  I chose two quotes (one about rewards systems, the other about empathy) that appealed to me when I first read them.

Ferriero then was serving as the director of the New York Public Libraries.  The ALA interview headlines this additional observation from David, “Networking is so important. You have to look for opportunities to get involved and it’s absolutely critical to get out of your comfort zone.”

Ferriero now heads a federal agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).   David is a leader in Open Government and is seeking to transform NARA’s culture and the way it handles some parts of its mission.  I included a photo of him at a Wiki event in a post two years earlier in May 2011, “Big Dude Broke Out of Captivity.”

I looked at what I was learning in 2011 about NARA’s Transformation effort in  an earlier post that May, “The Big Dude’s NARA”  I still laugh at the way Ferriero reacted then when he heard my nickname for him is the Big Dude.  (Yes, it’s there in that post.)  That he has a challenging job hasn’t diminished David’s low key sense of humor.

Over two years have passed since I started looking closely at NARA’s much needed Transformation initiatives.  This past week ended quietly for many NARA officials.  They had put in long hours in various work units, doing what it takes to “make access happen.”  Not just the executives, but middle managers and line staff, too. Budgets are tight, the fiscal outlook is grim.  Some reference archivists put in 10 hour days or longer to answer the huge backlog of inquiries from the public about NARA’s holdings.

In some cases, their supervisors within the National Archives reportedly don’t know they’re doing so much unpaid, uncredited overtime.  Much less the public.  Those of us who understand the agency’s complicated culture aren’t surprised that midlevel and line employees are not  talking about their work on Twitter.  That does not mean they are not dependent on how the agency handles strategy, communications, outreach, and engagement.   There are complex and highly sensitive chains of dependency in every enterprise.  The key word?  Dependency.

There is a hiring freeze in place at the National Archives and new job postings to bring outsiders “on board” are rare.  NARA is a bureaucracy, albeit one striving for Transformation.  An intricate freeze exemption process determines which units get permission to hire new staff.

On Friday, I saw @Dominic_MP, a new hire, tweet a shout out to the colleagues he is about to join in a NARA mission support unit (the Office of Innovation).  The Social Media team has been promoting the hiring of Dominic McDevitt-Parks heavily in the @USNatArchives Twitter feed.  As I looked at Twitter Friday evening, I wondered if McDevitt-Parks is going to make it.   The answer is, just as I don’t know whether a young David Ferriero would succeed at NARA now (my blog post explained why), I don’t know if the new Wikipedian will succeed.

You might say that’s silly.  And that my question is irrelevant.  McDevitt-Parks is predestined to succeed, right?  It’s “press release ready” before he even starts.  But it really isn’t.

The new hire is joining a unit many mission employees point to as so elite in the National Archives, to ask questions about the unit’s chief and operations and tactical choices is seen as high risk within the agency.   I’m not saying that is warranted.  But perceptions matter!

And his tweet conformed to what some marketing experts advise, “pound out promotional messages praising social media and web functions and employees will come to accept your value to the enterprise.”  If a new hire is joining a unit perceived as untouchable because “David Ferriero likes it,” how can the n00b not succeed?

But the answer is complicated.  Not just in archivesland.  In libraryland, too.  For starters, Ferriero has great capacity.  I’ve expressed concern about some NARA operational issues here at my blog but still walk confidently in to the building to see David and others.   Ferriero and I even talked last fall about Sanyin Siang’s Huffington Post piece, “Go Get Offended–It’ll Be Good for Us All.”

What he and Siang discussed fits with a blog post Ferriero wrote in 2010 about “Leading an Open Archives.”  You see a tentative step towards trusting AOTUS in the comment I posted under his September 2010 blog post about positive and negative feedback.  As I got to know David in 2011, I gave him my full trust.  He still has it!

Technological change is so rapid, there are no good models yet to study to understand what works, what doesn’t.   While it is easy to focus on the tech part, the managerial part matters too, especially given the new mix in archivesland and libraryland of people from different academic disciplines.  Some in the humanities, some science and tech.   Not only is the Big Dude a former psych tech, he’s unusual in being comfortable with both the humanities and the tech sides.

My view is that staying on-message about social media’s value is hard to do with the necessary sensitivity.  A hard sell can trigger resentment.  Given what I wrote in my last post about Imposter Syndrome, Rockstars, and how nuanced are the conversations I have with Millennials IRL, I’m not even sure that a hard sell is necessary.

It sounds counter intuitive, but the better path is to learn what the different mission components in an enterprise do.  And to show generosity of spirit by giving credit not just to your unit colleagues, but to all whose work makes your success possible.  If the n00b is lucky, he’ll find people willing to walk that harder path with him.  That is the path that may lead to sustainable corporate success rather than ephemeral individual success that is vulnerable to collapsing when Ferriero’s term ends.

True success is linked organically to the mission of an enterprise, as one of many component partners.  Not to whether any one official “likes” a function.  It can’t be sold or marketed internally, not in an agency that employs so many history majors trained in critical thinking.   That’s okay.  Genuine, employee generated buy in, the absorption of the In-Group into the much larger group, is not easy.  But if achieved, it can bring about something so much more valuable than being “elite.”

This applies in archivesland and libraryland, too.  It is critically important to get the people part right, not just the tech part.  That it is about more than the shiny is what makes it all so complicated.  No one is going to admit it, especially not in Washington (“Our Town”) but many whom agency and departmental chiefs have tasked with being change agents are going through a lot of trial and error.

And doing it in Fedland in what for all the talk about shedding risk aversion still can be a very unforgiving environment on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.  Where is NARA?  In the middle–at 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW!

Valerie Forrestal, a New York librarian, recently wrote a post, “The In Crowd:  Fear and Loathing in Libraryland.”  Forrestal describes what happened when the congratulatory email she received was followed by one saying she didn’t make the final cut as a Library Journal Mover and Shaker.  People in the library community rallied around her and she heard from them why her peers respected and valued her:

“My feelings were hurt when I was rejected for the honor, but to know that I was respected among my peers, that I was making an active contribution, that they appreciated me… well, that was worth more than any award given by a magazine. It meant the world to me.”

Respected by peers.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?  But what people look for as regards respect, and even how they define it, differs greatly.  Discussing respect requires consideration of context–and also taking in to account what we don’t know!  By that I mean, what elements shaped people before they accepted the jobs they are in.

Because I worked for NARA as an archival team leader doing disclosure review of the Nixon tapes and files, my blog posts include lessons learned from the Nixon Wars.  I discussed some of those lessons in a blog post I wrote in December 2010 about “Avoiding Embarrassment.”  (I didn’t know yet that David Ferriero reads my blog!)  The advice I then offered on Openness, Sustainability, Morale, Cohesion, and Avoiding Insularity still stands.  Not just for NARA but other organizations, too.

There aren’t many opportunities for internal promotions within mission units in the National Archives these days.  That does not mean people are giving up.  Why would they?  Make that we!  I’m tightly looped in to NARA, I get its culture and ethos.  I worked for the National Archives for 14 years, during a time of similar belt-tightening.  We even went through a Reduction in Force, which led some very bright young new hires whom we liked and valued to be laid off.  To lose their jobs through no fault of their own.

Challenge or opportunity?  It depends.  Some managers faltered, others shone.  I was lucky to work for a unit director who kept up morale and showed great sensitivity and insight in how he handled people issues.  One lesson I learned? Avoid having some components appear elite, filled with untouchable “fair haired” people, perceived “teacher’s pets.” They often are resented no matter how they perform.  Our unit director worked hard to keep that vibe from developing.  The bonds we formed in the unit served us well when we went through adversity later.

The archival ethos many of my friends display despite a difficult environment in Washington is admirable.  You don’t hear from the many people who go the extra mile in many different mission and mission support units at NARA because most of them don’t tweet about their own functions much in individual non-corporate Twitter accounts.  But what they do quietly behind the scenes helps give the National Archives a #win.

Making access happen involves a chain of dependency.   There are so many internal contributors within the National Archives.   Some advise the federal agencies and departments that create the records which, if not preserved and transferred as required by law to NARA, no member of the public could examine.

Maarja's NARS Suitland badge 1977, croppedBut that’s just the small percentage that is “permanently valuable” because it has “enduring value.”  The old National Archives and Records Service badge I wore to a reception in the Archivist’s Reception Room on September 12 once gave me access to the stacks and vaults in the Washington National Records Center.

Federal officials also depend on NARA’s records center employees to retrieve temporary records that agencies still need from time to time.  And to ensure timely disposal of records that fill the centers.

shelving-records  RED # 1837764-NA-3502

Facilities such as the National Personnel Records Center hold the records of service of military veterans.  Ferriero included a video about those records and the staff who work with them (and how the public benefits) in a beautiful post he put up for Veterans’ Day in 2010.

Access cannot “happen” without disclosure review to determine what can be released and what requires restriction under law–and not just for national security classification!   This doesn’t put records in “captivity,” such work to be disparaged as shameful.  It’s something of which NARA can be proud.  And to improve, as needed.  The National Declassification Center began examining its work processes and how better to meet objectives early in Ferriero’s term, even before the “Charter for Change.”

In the 1980s and early 1990s, tight space meant that a declassification review team worked out of the Suitland records center.   Another Declass unit downtown employed as an archivist my late twin sister, Eva.  (She later was the supervisor when he was an archives-technician in Declass to William (Jay) Bosanko, now a Senior Executive at NARA.)  In 1994, she coordinated the move of all civil national security classified records from both facilities to the new Archives II building in College Park.  Eva is pictured with members of the move crew, to whom she quietly awarded cash for Christmas out of her own pocket.

Eva and the aii-move-team-celebration-1994

The Suitland declassification unit turned out to be the source of many future leaders at NARA.  They got the seasoning they needed (I won’t go in to all the details, that process wasn’t always easy!) not just to be proficient, but to become grounded, mission oriented, confident (not arrogant) contributors to NARA.  Many became effective leaders within an enterprise with many complex moving parts.

Eva, Neil, Joe, Jay et al. Dec. 16, 1994

Eva talked to me often about the Suitland archival team as she worked the move in to Archives 2.  She liked the quiet confidence and competence and attractive, low key self assurance of many of its members.  I came to like the same qualities in the group.  I quickly picked out who would rise in rank even when the employees still were archives technicians.

The photo below was taken at the Washington National Records Center before Eva became supervisor of the former Suitland Systematic Review team in the Declassification unit in Archives II.  It was in December 1994 that I first met Neil Carmichael (later a division director in NARA), back row, red and blue striped shirt, Jay Bosanko (now the Chief Operating Officer), next to him in the center, and Joe Scanlon, who went on to become the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act officer for NARA’s operational records.

Suitland Declass group

maarja-and-chuck-hughes-of-ndc-0714111Chuck Hughes, now a supervisor in NARA’s National Declassification Center, was part of the Suitland Declass group, as well.   It was hearing that I had gotten lipstick on Chuck’s white shirt while visiting Archives II in July 2011 that led the Big Dude, aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero, to shoot me an email with tips on how to remove lipstick stains while doing laundry.  I never asked Ferriero if it was okay to write about that, I just did it:  “Wait, AOTUS Did What? (‘Just Like Us'”).

The Archivist’s Reception Room is a great venue to make new friends and to learn about how NARA operates now as compared to when I worked for the agency.   Some senior officials take time out of their busy days to come to receptions, other executives are seen there rarely.  But it isn’t just the top people I enjoy seeing, some of my most interesting conversations have been with people from various work units in the agency.

Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to come to receptions in Room 105 and drink wine and banter with the Big Dude the way I do.  Stopping for a moment to laugh at how Ferriero greeted me with, “Use both hands!” when I came to a reception in December.  I had dropped a glass of wine at an event a few days earlier.

But the Big Dude gets around.  David attends various internal events at the agency in his care–the family history talk that my friend Rod Ross gave earlier this month is just one example.   I am happy in my own reconnection with “my beloved NARA,” the agency I never wanted to leave but felt I had to due to the “Nixon wars.” But my loudest laughter this month was on September 3.  I was so very happy for Rod that he got to share the results of his research the way he did.  It gave me great joy to see Rod banter with AOTUS.

Knowing that Fedland jobs are hard to come by, I congratulate NARA’s newest hire, Dominic McDevitt-Parks.  I hope he’ll “walk around” and get to know the many wonderful people who work hard and with a great sense of mission to “make access happen.”  Not just in the Rockstar unit with the Cool Kids, the In Crowd working on digital strategies.   But the professional staff who work with records throughout their lifecycle for the National Archives.

At my sister’s memorial service, one of her NARA Declass colleagues said, “Eva took pleasure in others’ accomplishments as if they were her own.”  You can succeed in Fedland with the support of the Powers That Be.  I’ve seen that often during my 40 years of federal service.  Doing so while also gaining the respect of your colleagues and peers throughout a federal agency or department isn’t easy.  But it is so worth doing.  Oh yes, so very much worth doing.  That is the much harder to achieve but more precious success I wish, not just for the new Wikipedian, but for all who come to NARA as n00bs.

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