June O’Sullivan’s Top Tips for Successful Leadership

Honesty and Integrity…Confidence…Inspiration…Commitment…Passion… Communication…Decision Making Capabilities… Accountability… Delegation and Empowerment…Vision…Courage…Passion…Emotional Intelligence… Resilience… Persuasion…Curiosity…

Leadership is constantly in the news. Mostly for the wrong reasons as we see example after example of weak leadership. Weak leadership is dangerous; it causes businesses to fail, organisations to collapse and for those working with children— especially poor children— it leads to failing education standards. But hey, it’s easy to criticize from the safety of an armchair. The reality is that leadership’s tough.

I have enduring admiration for good leaders, that’s because I spend my entire working hours trying to be one. Like most leaders, I have a lasting vision.  Mine was to create the best social enterprise childcare model where all children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, could thrive and succeed. I think it’s wrong that children from poorer families can’t easily access great childcare, especially when so much research demonstrates the correlation between good leadership in nurseries and schools and good outcomes for children.

Of course, a leader with a vision needs a team of people to support that vision. Great leaders make great nurseries and I am blessed with a team of staff and nursery managers who similarly believe in providing the best childcare. They want to make a difference and do something great every day, which is a continual challenge.

Let’s look at a day in the life of a nursery manager. Wake up to a text from two staff from the early shift telling you they both have diarrhoea and vomiting. Rush to the nursery so you can recruit an agency staff member to remain in ratio. Redeploy the team so that babies are not disrupted by the change of staff. At 8am, busy working parents arrive. One mum’s upset because of a difficulty at home and wants to talk, another has an issue with the fees. A child slips up and hurts his head. Two staff members need to reflect on their attitude to each other. The student tells you that her tutor has announced she is visiting later and she forgot to tell you. This is all before you’ve had a cup of tea.

You end the day with a staff meeting where you want to help the team reflect on the quality of their teaching. You’ve been observing and think they could differentiate and extend more. You’re keen to develop a new piece of action research because you want to measure the benefit of playing music during the day.

How do you manage all this with calm and confidence? I designed a model that summaries all the areas Early Years leaders need to be able to juggle.  It’s quite an ask given that nursery managers are often undervalued and their abilities underrated by the public.

June Blog Diagram

Most leaders are not superheroes, just ordinary people doing extraordinary things because of their great commitment. High management goes hand-in-hand with tremendous responsibility and power which needs to be respected and wielded with care and thoughtfulness. Good leaders buzz with emotional intelligence; they can read people in order to respond with sensitivity and humanity. They care about their staff, which includes having those frank conversations to pull staff into line. Performance management can be considered negative but it’s the framework that gives staff members clarity and a manageable set of expectations that help them recognize, articulate and ultimately achieve their next step.

Leaders need to get things done. I love the completer finisher staff who like to see things through within that SMART target. It’s marvellous to see change occur, no matter how small, like a new display or a whole refresh of the baby room. The joy’s in the sharing, praising, celebrating and evaluating what has been achieved. Even if it’s a fish supper at the Staff Meeting. The progress should always be documented, whether it’s face-to-face with parents, posted on Facebook, written in a newsletter or uploaded to YouTube.

Here are my top ten traits of strong leadership (in no particular order):

  Strong Leadership Consequences of Weak Leadership
1 Visionary with a sense of purpose and ambition You are lost and out of your depth and the business will fail
2 Credible and knowledgeable (a pedagogical leader) Nobody respects you and you will lose in the marketplace
3 Committed and passionate, caring for the staff and purpose Staff will neither follow you nor show loyalty
4 Brave and risk-taking Cowardliness leads to an unwillingness to face problems and a lack of innovation
5 Curious; keen to learn and support others to learn Disinterested staff and poor retention and loyalty. Risks business profitability and success
6 Persuasive, challenging and motivating Unconvincing so staff won’t follow
7 Great communicator Risk of poor organisation culture and brand damage
8 Decisive Doddering about so lack of trust and direction
9 Humble and humane Arrogant and unpopular so no leeway when things go awry
10 Emotionally intelligent; understanding yourself and your motivations Detached and distant so performance and retention likely to be poor

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In my book Successful Leadership in the Early Years, I developed a  practical questionnaire to assess the quality of individual leadership. It might be worth having a look and completing it alone or with staff to review your leadership.

 

June O’Sullivan MBE is chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation and a regular media commentator. Her upcoming books 50 Fantastic Ideas for Nursery Gardens and 50 Fantastic Ideas for Engaging Dads will be out in July and September this year.

 

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