“Who’d leave television to go to a library?” Asked Kate Torney’s 12-year-old daughter in 2015, when her mum floated the idea of leaving her coveted post as the Director of News at the ABC. Torney headed up a staff of 1,400, including 11 international bureaus. She’d clocked 22 years at the national broadcaster and spent the last decade ushering it through its digital transformation. So upon hearing about the CEO role at the State Library of Victoria, her first thought was, “What is the role of libraries in the digital era?”
“I remember someone at the state library saying to me, rather cynically, ‘Well, if you’re worried about the future of libraries, come down and spend an afternoon here and then make up your mind,'” recalls Torney.
She did just that. The library was packed to the rafters. The majestic octagonal hall and its surrounds vibrated with the quiet hum of humanity gathering respectfully with a common purpose – to think, to learn, to simply be. Teenagers were hunched over their textbooks a stone’s throw away from national treasures such as Ned Kelly’s legendary suit of armour; the past and present colliding in a myriad of exciting ways for the storyteller in Torney. After two hours exploring the oldest and busiest public library in Australia (and one of the four most visited in the world), she was hooked. “I thought, maybe I can bring my storytelling and digital experience to this place whose core purpose is to collect and share the state’s memories,” said Torney. “Basically, I left desperately wanting to be part of the future of the library.”
Torney’s jump from one public institution to another might not appear a seismic leap. After all, each is committed to serving the public interest and has a strong sense of legacy. “Yet I was totally out of my depth,” says Torney. “And I couldn’t have loved it more.”
On Leading Introverts Versus Extroverts
Journalism tends to attract extroverts. At a staff meeting, everyone from a cadet to the Executive Producer, will voice their opinion, says Torney. “Let’s just say, you’ll never die wondering what someone thinks.” Torney’s leadership style suited this extrovert culture, one where she received instant feedback. She’d know right away when change might be difficult because her staffers would thrash it out with her before she’d even sent the email. “We had far more robust conversations than most workplaces because of the nature of immediacy of the work and the personalities it attracts.”
Arriving at the library, she soon discovered librarians are far more introverted. It comes with its benefits, as Torney boasts, librarians are extremely thoughtful and considered people, with their own way of doing things. “Librarians like systems. They have incredible personal and professional integrity and I’ve had to change my leadership style to support that culture by providing strong evidence to back up changes I want to make.”
Surround Yourself With Smarter People
“I’m a people leader and I don’t think that has changed between jobs. I’ve always liked to surround myself with smart, talented people. I feel really comfortable not being the smartest person in the room. I like to consult in leadership and consult deeply. I always think that the answers are always well within the organization and not always at the leadership table. So I like to work with people who work the same way and draw information from their teams at all levels.”
Torney is also a big believer in informal leadership. She notices the people in her office who the majority seek out for advice. In other words, the ones who tend to run a million miles if she attempts to recruit them as managers or leaders. The type that say, “No, I’m not a leader.” Understanding what motivates those people is important, especially if it’s not necessarily a new title or promotion.
“Political journalist Barrie Cassidy was that for me. If I called him a mentor he’d throw the word away, but he provided amazing leadership to me and so many people at the ABC.” In a more formal sense, Torney recalls Mark Scott, now Secretary of the NSW Department of Education, who taught her about consultative leadership. “He values having the right people around the table. He had an incredible sense of confidence that allowed me to grow in confidence as well. Generosity, being available, generous with your time and experience. They are all so valuable in a mentor or boss.”
On Reactive Leadership
In this new hyper-connected world, where a response is always at our fingertips, how do we ensure the seemingly urgent doesn’t crowd out the important? Torney tries to avoid reactive leadership. “Having the capacity and courage to pause, think, and shut off that highly connected feedback loop is very important [to every leader].”
Relishing the Underdog Status & Honing Instincts
“Often in my career I made decisions that looked like a backwards step to colleagues. They’d say, “Why would you leave a part of the ABC that’s thriving for a part that isn’t?” But I liked the challenge of revitalizing a part of the organisation and building a successful team.” Learning to trust her instincts has been a journey in itself. She swears by having honest conversations with friends. Bouncing ideas and decisions with people outside your industry delivers fresh perspectives from people who are invested in only the interests of you.
Supporting Aussie Literature
Storytelling is a critical part of any thriving society and democracy so Torney believes we should value our own and share our diverse perspectives. “If we want to shape our future, we need to understand our story now, and in the past, in order to be able to make good decisions and have informed views and opinions,” says Torney, who always makes an effort to read Australian authors. If you’re in search, check out the Stella Prize list, it’s a great resource.
Three years into her role as CEO, both Torney and the 160-year-old institution are thriving. From accelerator programs for entrepreneurs to a vast digital database for researchers, engagement with the library is growing day by day. Between 2017 and 2018, over 1.9 million people visited the historic landmark in central Melbourne, not to mention nearly 4.5 million visits online. Forty per cent of people using the library are under the age of thirty, something Torney is proud of in this device-driven world that makes virtual ways of being and connecting easier than getting one’s body to a certain place at a certain time. She’s similarly proud of how the library continues to function as an egalitarian space that helps bridge the digital divide by increasing access to those who might not have literacy around technology, like seniors and the homeless. One thing is obvious. Torney is a leader committed to an important mission – to preserve, create and share the stories that make us who we are as Australians and enhance a space that’s open to all.
Main image credit: Teagan Glenane
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