Mary Frances Cooper | Crain's Pittsburgh

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mary Frances Cooper


Mary Frances Cooper is president and director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the public library system of the Pittsburgh area, with 19 neighborhood branches. She has 30 years of experience in all facets of library service, with distinct experience in the operations of urban public libraries.

The Mistake:

I was trying to manage people without trying to see things from their perspectives.

When you’re in school, you’re responsible for yourself, but when you get into the working world, you have to work with people, whether it’s employees or patrons. It’s not that I didn’t have any people skills, but you have to be collaborative in your approach, because your success and the success of the work depends on it.

I got very interested in what makes people tick and how they work a number of years ago. I had a person I was supervising who was really smart and really creative. Sometimes she was a good partner but other times I felt like she was angry with me and I could not figure out why. It was disorienting.

I started reading books on managing people, how to get into their heads and help understand them. I ended up getting a second master's degree in counseling because I found the subject matter so fascinating.

It helped me realize that it’s not always about me, that there’s often something else going on.

I did have an “a-ha moment” that I needed not to be focusing on this person from my needs and my expectations. Nobody wants to think they’re not a caring person, but it’s often difficult to collaborate with people who have different work perspectives and expectations.

For example, I like people to be direct with me, but it’s hard to be direct with others. Sometimes you have to be, like if we’re having a conversation and I don’t think you’re listening or connecting in a way we need in order to be successful.

I ran into that employee years later. I wouldn’t say we came out of that situation with a perfect relationship, but she said to me, “I am managing at the level you are, and I realize how hard it must have been.”

If you’re having a problem with an employee, you can’t internalize it, and you can’t make it personal.

The Lesson:

I realized that if you’re having a problem with an employee, you can’t internalize it, and you can’t make it personal.

Find those ways of talking to that person that makes it about the work and not about anything else.

It’s hard, and there are times when I have a different conversation in my head. But you need to know how to work with others.

You can’t do it alone.


Follow the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on Twitter at @carnegielibrary.

Photo courtesy of Mary Frances Cooper.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's Pittsburgh.