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Jul 5 / Christine Illichmann

SLIS Leader: Lance Werner

Lance Werner (MLIS ’04) is Director of the Kent District Library, an 18 branch library system serving Kent County, Michigan. In 2016, Lance was named a Library Journal Mover and Shaker and in 2017, was named as a Wayne State University Distinguished Alumni. He was also named the recipient of the 2017 Urban Libraries Council Joey Rogers Leadership Award and the 2017 Michigan Library Association Librarian of the Year Award. 

Photo of Lance Werner

Lance Werner speaking at the 2017 Wayne State University Alumni Awards. Photo courtesy of Wayne State University Office of Alumni Relations.

Do you have recommendations for new librarians who want to improve their leadership skills? How can today’s Librarian I or II prepare themselves to be an excellent future Librarian IV or V?

I think it is important to be kind, empathetic, passionate, and fearless in the modern library arena. I think strong consideration should be given to developing communication styles that reflect genuine self are important. I do not think there is any room for intellectual elitism in libraries. Exceptional internal and external customer service should always be sought. We are the people that we serve, no better than the best of them and no worse than the worst of them. If you’re a really good leader you care about what’s best for the organization first, in a selfless way.

I have been saying that the mushy stuff matters a lot lately and I believe it. I think we should be willing to be personally vulnerable. A lot of what we experience is a reflection of our own behavior and when we treat people with genuine kindness and empathy the world will reflect that back. I care deeply about the people that I work with, the people that we help, and the work that we do. I do not consider myself “above” anyone who works or volunteers at KDL. I have always seen my role as a facilitator of greatness in others. I recognize that we all win or lose together. We refer to our coworkers, volunteers, and everyone in the community as our family and treat them accordingly. We have servant’s hearts.

You can do great things where you are at. As long as it’s a good fit for you, and you feel secure there, you can change the world from right where you’re standing. It’s not always the case, but when you find the right position for you, you’ll know.

What aspects of library management do you love? What is, shall we say, “less loveable” about being in library management? 

I am more of a leader than a manager. I establish vision and direction and manage the Leadership Team. They are excellent at their jobs and I let them be. We are extremely collaborative across our entire system. I learned a long time ago that a great game changing idea can come from anyone, anywhere. So what do I love the most? Working with people that I love, on work that we love, for people that we love.

I know at this point you probably think KDL sounds like a hippie commune, it is kind of. We have high, high expectations of our employees. Sometimes things don’t work out, even when the person is giving it their all. Since I am the one to make the determination that someone needs to be terminated, then it should be me who tells them face to face. I have fired many people. While I never have felt guilty or bad about firing someone, I don’t love it.

The libraries you manage seem to become highly innovative and try new technologies and ideas for their communities. What advice do you have for those libraries that might be holding back from going too far outside of the library box?

People that change the world are people that believe they can. I think libraries that are afraid to reach and take risks are holding our entire profession back. Nothing new would ever happen if we didn’t take chances. I think as a group, libraries and librarians need to embrace the notion of being fearless for the people that we serve.

I love being on the bleeding edge and past the bleeding edge. I find it exhilarating. I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie and enjoy pushing the envelope in everything that I endeavor to do. I could care less what other libraries think about it. We don’t do it for anyone except the people that we serve. We are committed to throwing out the status quo and improving what exists. I figure that if I haven’t given it my all, what’s the point? Reach, fall down, reach again, rinse and repeat. When that cycle becomes too much, I think a new profession is in order.

Are there trends or issues that you’re seeing in public libraries that need to be focused on more? 

Next level customer service and user experience (let’s beat Zingerman’s and Disney), communication skills (if you come across like a good bartender, you are heading in the right direction), staying abreast of the latest technologic breakthroughs, and always pushing for convenience and simplicity.

As a Library Director, you have a full calendar and plenty of meetings. Can you share ideas with the SLIS community for managing a busy schedule successfully? Do you have any tips for managing meetings? 

I usually work anywhere from 60-80 hours a week. It is not uncommon for me to attend 5+ meetings a day. I also am involved in 8 different outside groups and visit each of the KDL branches monthly. I also try to work at least one desk shift a month. It would be impossible for me to keep track of everything and do everything without having a top notch executive assistant. I do and she’s a ninja! Her name is Jaci (pronounced “Jaycee”).

When you’re hiring librarians, what skills are you seeking – either soft skills or hard, technical skills?

It really depends on the position, but by and large we look for:

  1. Soft skills
  1. Soft skills
  1. Soft skills


  1. Soft skills

What types of soft skills are at the top of your list in terms of importance?

You want somebody who is kind, who is outgoing, who desires to be part of a team. You also want someone that is selfless and is passionate about pushing the bar even higher.

I enjoy people being fearless, who are able to look past their own fears and are willing to speak up in a constructive (not degrading) way. It’s important to be constructive, speak up and if you have an idea to make things better, then let’s do it. That’s all I care about making things better.

You were recently named as a Wayne State University Outstanding Alumni. Multiple members of your family bleed green and gold. Who else in your family has graduated from Wayne State? What aspects of Wayne State make it a top choice for your family?

I am honored to be named the 2017 WSU Distinguished Alumni and to represent the SLIS and WSU Libraries. I have since received notice that I am also the 2017 recipient of the Urban Libraries Council Joey Rogers Leadership Award and the 2017 Michigan Library Association Librarian of the Year Award. It has been a pretty unbelievable year.

My father went to Wayne State for Medical School and my grandmother attended the College of Education for a while. WSU was a no brainer for me. In addition to providing a top-notch education, the program was flexible enough for me to attend law school and work full time simultaneously. I would encourage anyone to give serious consideration to WSU when contemplating higher education or graduate school. WSU has nationally recognized programs that are both of tremendous benefit educationally, as well as value.

Congratulations! Those are immense honors – and well deserved! The Joey Rogers Leadership Award offers a stipend for senior library managers to pursue a professional development opportunity. What will you do with Joey Rogers Leadership Award?

I am applying for the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University. The program offers training for people who are interested in running for office, it has many aspects including personal leadership development and training on public process. It’s intended for people interested in becoming legislators. Maybe someday I’d be interested in being a legislator, but in the meantime, I think it would be good training for me to learn and help others in their endeavors. Libraries are governmental organizations, though we don’t think of ourselves that way. Whether you’re an academic in a university library setting or a public library funded by local, state, and federal funding, we need to understand and learn how to be successful advocates. Not just related to money, but issues of intellectual freedom and other topics, too. I think understanding this is important for the longevity of libraries. I do some of this on behalf on the Michigan Library Association and other organizations but would like to learn more.

I think it’s important for us to be good advocates – not aggressive advocates, just better advocates. I’m never aggressive when I’m advocating for libraries. If you are a nice person and people respect you because you treat them the right way, people will want to work with you.