Reflections of a Department Head

By Christina Zamon

Providing feedback at a staff meeting at Georgia State University. Photo courtesy the author.

One year ago I accepted the position of the Head of Special Collections and Archives at Georgia State University. Although the title was similar to the one I held at the time, Head of Archives and Special Collections at Emerson College, the differences in duties and responsibilities were vast. Emerson College is a small liberal arts college in Boston with a total student body of 4,100 and two satellite locations, while Georgia State University is an R1 research institution boasting 52,000 students and six campuses. At Emerson College, I started as a lone arranger for six of my nine years there, but gained two staff employees and a student worker by the time I left. However, we were all considered staff in the Archives and Special Collections department. At Georgia State University, I am a non-tenured faculty member, my six direct reports are also faculty; I supervise an additional five staff employees and a multitude of student workers, GRAs, interns, and volunteers. Despite being well aware of the differences not only in the institutions and regional culture, I was most nervous about taking that leap from big fish in a small pond to becoming a tiny fish in a very large ocean. How was I going to be successful making such a big leap?

Upon reflection on this last year I found that I have used the following keys to success.

  1. Know your limits. I find this one difficult sometimes but I have gotten better over the years and learned this lesson the hard way being a “lone arranger” for many years. I came into a department that needed a total refresh in many aspects and in my quest to prove my worth jumped headlong into many new projects and initiatives. I had to work to both slow myself down and manage this self-imposed workload in conjunction with my daily administrative duties.
  2. Relate to Your Employees. One thing that has helped me tremendously is my ability to relate to my faculty and staff. As I came up through the profession I held many of the positions that my faculty and staff currently hold. When talking to them about performance, initiatives, goals, etc. I use my experience to relate to their daily workload and any issues or struggles they may have. Sometimes they just need to be reassured that the task at hand is not impossible or that you really do understand the issue they are facing. This provides them with confidence in your leadership and helps you both to push past any barriers.
  3. Make Your Expectations Clear. Say what you mean and mean what you say. This also goes back to the issue of confidence and trust in your leadership ability. It is difficult but you need to hold yourself accountable for what you say to your employees. If you say, “we are going to take on x initiative,” then make sure that you set the wheels in motion and work with everyone on your team to complete the task. Be sure to do the same when speaking on an individual level about performance issues or goals.
  4. Include Everyone. Every department has one or more employees that are not the greatest team players, those who say “why can’t we just do it the way we’ve always done it?”, or“it works fine the way it is, why do we need to change it?” This can be frustrating but sometimes the employee(s) aren’t always wrong. Drastic change may not be needed, and instead you may just need to tweak it, or even should leave it alone. The most important thing is to listen to those folks and find a way to either incorporate their ideas or help them to adjust to the changes. Steamrolling through doesn’t address the underlying issues, and only creates more problems down the line.
  5. Make Friends with Building/Facilities Managers. This has always been a critical relationship in any archival facility, but it is just as critical if not more critical as the head of the department. Although your employees may have established connections, it is best that you establish your own relationships, particularly at higher levels. This is essential not only for the maintenance of your own spaces and facilities, but also when it comes to organizing events and activities across a campus or campuses.
  6. Look at Every Challenge as an Opportunity. This one can be very difficult but it has always paid off for me. If an employee leaves, whether they were your best or worst employee, this gives you an opportunity to review and restructure the position if necessary. It may even give you the opportunity to restructure the department. That leak or flood that just waterlogged 12 boxes of records? Maybe this gives you some leverage in getting a new space or takes care of the quarantined records because now insurance will pay for the document cleaning.
  7. Create Documentation. As archivists, we know how important documentation is, but sometimes we forget how important it is in the administration of our own departments. I have instituted quarterly reviews for my employees for two reasons. First, it forces us to sit down and review their progress on a quarterly basis rather than once or twice a year. Second, it allows the employees to reflect on the last three months and to keep track of their own progress. By collecting these quarterly reviews over the course of the year, it is much easier for your employees to hold themselves accountable for their goals and remember all of the things that they have done over the course of the year. It also helps you to write a more accurate annual review without the extra effort. Documenting your own work helps you to hold yourself accountable for your actions (or inaction).
  8. Keep It Fun and Say Thanks. We do serious work but we can’t always take ourselves so seriously. I try to reward my employees with something fun every once in a while just to boost morale. This doesn’t mean going all out and spending tons of money. Simple gestures such as providing coffee and donuts one day, or taking an hour or two on a quiet day before a holiday to watch a movie (archives appropriate, of course!). Creating a positive and collegial atmosphere goes a long way to improving morale and productivity.
  9. Understand What Your Employees Do. This is similar to what I wrote under “relatability,” but in this case, keep on top of current trends in the archives world.  Just because you are a manager doesn’t mean you don’t need to know how to do the daily work of an archivist. Archives in the 21st century are rapidly changing due to changes in technology and laws. There is a lot to keep up on and you need to be responsible for understanding the latest trends and the ins and outs of how a variety of processes work. If you don’t understand them then how can you truly measure the success and progress of your employees who are engaged with or should be engaged with the latest developments in the field?
  10. Take Time for Yourself. We all have weeks where we get so wrapped up in our work that we fail to take time out for ourselves. Find something that will take your mind away from work on a semi-regular basis throughout the year. Maybe take a day trip, or even a day to do something that you’ve always wanted to do that is non-archives related. I schedule a day off once every other month and plan an activity with one of my children so that I can get some one-on-one time with each of them, and do an activity they like to do and don’t have to share with a sibling.  It gives me some time off and it provides them with a lifelong memory.

Of course there are other key elements that are necessary to the job. The usual suspects such as time management, personnel management, and budgeting, but these are all expected skills of management and the things we learn about in school or management seminars. I hope that what I have shared here will inspire confidence in those seeking management positions and for those who may be managers who would like to look beyond the textbooks. I would love to hear your comments. What makes you a successful manager?

Christina Zamon is the Head of Special Collections and University Archives at Georgia State University, a position she has held since September 2016. Prior to that time, she served as Head of Archives and Special Collections at Emerson College. She is the author of The Lone Arranger: Succeeding in a Small Repository. She is currently a member of the College and University Archives Section’s Steering Committee and previously served as chair of the section (2014-2015).


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