Getting to know Yale leaders—Susan Gibbons

Susan Gibbons joined Yale as university librarian in 2011. She came to New Haven from Rochester, New York, where she spent 11 years at the University of Rochester, lastly as vice provost and the Andrew H. & Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of the River Campus Libraries. Susan grew up in New Jersey, and currently lives in Guilford with her husband and two daughters.

What was the last book you read?
I just finished Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”, which has been on my shelf for years, but until recently I hadn’t felt quite ready for it. Now I’m reading Carl Zimmer’s “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh,” which is about heredity. I serve on the Guilford Library Board with Carl, so after seeing such great reviews for the book, it seemed an obvious choice. And I always have a romance novel ready for light reading, such as Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series.

How do you see the role of a leader?

When I first started in a management job, I had no concept of what it really meant and I thought, ‘never again.’ This changed when I was asked to take on a leadership role at the University of Rochester because they needed a person with certain skills to solve a problem. It was at this moment that I realized leadership could mean providing service to an organization, and then it felt perfect. Seeing leadership as service-oriented can help people think about management in a different way—that it’s not just about telling people what to do and how to do it.

What musical artist are you listening to right now?

This morning, I exercised to Imagine Dragons, and then I ate breakfast to Lyle Lovett. I was just reminded of him over the holiday and realized it had been awhile since I’d listened to him. And, of course, there’s Pentatonix because I love acapella music.

When faced with adversity on the job, what do you do first?

I find a way to give myself some time so I can avoid making a quick decision, which in my experience is usually a wrong decision. So once I get that time, I take a step back from the emotion of the moment. I work with a fantastic leadership team within the library, and with most challenges, their collective wisdom helps to illuminate the best pathway forward.

What are you most grateful for?

That’s easy, the health and happiness of my two daughters, Aliya (15) and Michaela (18).

What would be your ultimate vacation destination?

A cruise in the Greek Isles, that’s on the bucket list. I’m a sun worshipper so the ultimate vacation for me and my family is a beach vacation.

If you could solve one human problem in today’s world, what would it be?
Global warming. I want to leave a healthy planet for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. When I look at my kids and think about their kids, it is the first thing I would fix if I had the power to do so.

What New Haven restaurant would you recommend to a new employee?

In nice weather, Shell & Bones. For a great indoor meal, Goodfellas.

What has helped you develop as a manager over the course of your career?
Twice in my career I felt that I should upgrade my skills to do my job well or to progress in my job. So, in both cases, I went back to school: I earned an MBA and then a doctorate in higher education administration. This schooling was rewarding, but I find that there is no substitute for experience. Past experiences help me with today’s understanding of what I’m capable of achieving and so I find myself less intimidated by new challenges.

What is one of your favorite childhood memories?

My father is from Kerala, India. He came over as a Fulbright Scholar in the ‘60s, married my mother, and didn’t go back. We had very little family in the U.S., so it was a wonderful experience to visit India as a child and be surrounded by dozens and dozens of relatives. It was neat to think that there are people out in the world that you’re related to. So I have strong memories of those trips back to India. They offered a sense of belonging that I didn’t often experience growing up.

Tell me about the first time you did one of the following—made a mistake on the job; reached an important goal; realized what you wanted to be when you grew up; or was promoted.
I can’t tell you the first time I made a mistake on the job, so clearly I was totally oblivious to my early mistakes. I do distinctly remember the first time I made a huge blunder, when I was back in Rochester, and handled it well. I foolishly mismanaged a situation that resulted in a direct report losing confidence and trust in me. I remember saying to myself ‘I need to own this; I can’t come up with an excuse; I just need to own this.’ I went to my colleague’s office and apologized, saying that I read the situation completely wrong, that it was totally my fault. What was interesting is that it was a turning point, in a positive way, in our relationship. It was the first time that a supervisor had ever apologized to her.

There’s a false perception that as a manager you’re supposed to know the answers to everything and be perfect. My apology built her trust in me and this made an impression on me. I became more and more aware that one of my roles as a leader is to be human. I think I do my staff a complete disservice if I make it all look easy, especially work-life balance; if I don’t worry about my kids or act like my kids don’t exist. I bring all of these aspects to my role, and hopefully I give permission to my staff, through example, that family comes first; it always comes first. The communication guidelines we’ve put together say, when you go home, stop emailing. When you go on vacation, stop emailing. Be respectful of others’ boundaries because hopefully we all have things we’re passionate about outside of Yale.