Leadership – observe and practice what works well. Think about those people that you consider are the best leaders and managers and notice what they do and how they do it.

Reflecting on my very early days as a leader and manager, I can honestly say that I had a lot to learn.

Over the years, I have acquired many more leadership and management skills by observing others’ good outcomes and using these methods.

You have all probably heard of the expression ‘Fake it until you make it’ – strategies backed by science; – and I know that I did just that!

What I realise now from those early observations and from my research and studies since then, is that there are many skills, practices and behaviours that must be acquired to be what most would consider the best leader and manager. Having an aptitude for it too would help but this often comes with experience.

I hope that my story will help you.

The beginning of the journey

In Autumn 1991 with no business experience or previous management experience and no qualifications in early years and childcare I opened my first day nursery in Southampton. It had taken nearly 2 years of planning.

It was an ‘opportunity’ to meet the needs of working parents at a time of recession when more women seemed to be returning to work after having a baby.

I had 2 young children, I was working part-time and struggling with my own childcare arrangements which were a mish-mash of support from both family, friends and a registered child-minder which I felt provided little consistency for my children.

Aware of the difficulties with childcare, and knowing that full day care nursery provision was almost unheard of at that time I realised there was a huge gap in the market for working parents with young children.

My husband who had entrepreneur tendencies – yes, risky business I know! – and I, went about researching the need for such a service and then together we started business planning.

I knew that the financial outlay, employing staff and running a business, as well as leading and managing a team would be a challenge and a scary proposition. I also knew that I needed to appoint an experienced childcare professional; a person that could support me with these aspects of running an EY setting – this was my priority.

Be fearless, trusting and build confidence

My husband and I had taken out a business loan with huge support from our families; we had secured a building and had started renovating and securing all the permissions to meet the registration requirements needed at that time.

We were on a very steep learning curve. But then there was Barbara – my saviour!

I had advertised for a qualified and experienced manager and interviewed many people for the post but I knew when I first met Barbara that she was the one.

She was a quietly spoken, quietly confident and yet self-assured person whom my husband and I warmed to immediately on meeting and I felt sure that we could work together. I could sense that she felt the same. The idea of being part of a ‘new project’ really appealed to her.

She had held senior childcare and EY management positions in the past and was keen to get back into a similar role, but one with a difference.

What she did for me during her interview was to conjure up a feeling of excitement and optimism, as well as providing total reassurance that together we could make it work.

See value in interdependence and seek potential in others

My first lesson was visualising what it might be like to be a great leader and manager. As I have recalled in my previous blog post for ‘What makes a great leader and manager?

In that very first meeting Barbara clearly shared my vision to create something new and exciting and something that working parents were looking for – me included!

We talked about how the two of us could work together with me as the owner of the business and her the manager and expert in her field.

She shared an outline plan for taking the project forward; the skills that would be needed; the tasks that needed to be completed; the reality of the challenges and the ways to overcome them.

Despite my newness to the role, she must have seen that I had something to give. Perhaps it was the opportunity for her to shine and to go some way to achieving her dream of setting up her own nursery business or the chance to share the same vision.

She knew I had much to learn, but her leap of faith and her ability to trust and see potential in a person has stayed with me.

She always looked for that potential in her work and through the appointment of our staff; what did they really want to achieve? What were they good at? What did they aspire to be, have or do?

Provide encouragement and empowerment

This is how Barbara led that first discussion, but in a very subtle way. She listened attentively to our plans, she assessed our needs and matched her skills, expertise and knowledge to these.

Many people that work as managers and/or are considered leaders will say ‘the process for developing leadership and management skills and qualities is ongoing – you never stop learning’, and I saw this ongoing development of Barbara’s skills as she took on new challenges in her role as manager, working for someone that had little experience in the sector.

Have clearly defined roles and responsibilities

Sometimes the leader and manager of an organisation are one and the same person, or there may be two or more different people taking on these roles.

It’s important to have job descriptions for each post and Barbara and I spent time developing these before we opened the setting, along with our newly appointed and experienced deputy.

There is now a much bigger emphasis on ensuring that roles are clear and that measurable targets are included. It’s also good to develop key performance indicators (KPIs) for each role; what you are expecting to see achieved, how many, how much and by when?

In my nursery business, particularly in the early days, I saw Barbara as the early years lead and manager. She considered me to be the lead of the business. I had a clear role as did she – these had been agreed at the start of our relationship. I managed the finances, marketed the business, dealt with all aspects of customer services including ultimate responsibility for parent partnership, developed quality and supported training and development of staff in an overarching way.

I introduced new business ideas and coordinated and balanced these with meeting the needs of children and families which was Barbara’s focus.

She also dealt with the day-to-day issues of managing the team and supporting individual staff development. This is what she was good at, and gave her much satisfaction.

We had clear roles and responsibilities.

Make opportunities for others. Allow others to take ownership. Step back and pass on credit to others. Take the positives from difficult and challenging situations and see them as learning opportunities

Barbara always strove for quality and was forward thinking in all that she did. She fully supported me as her employer, equally as well as she did the team that she worked with.

Appointing quality staff was a problem. EY qualifications started changing. NVQs were being introduced and apprenticeships were once again back as an option.

I had earlier achieved a childcare management qualification so I then trained as an Assessor. I studied for an Adult Education Teaching qualification and this later enabled and supported the business to go forward with accreditation as an employer that was recognised for training and developing their staff to meet the business aims and objectives.

Barbara provided hands-on quality training within the workplace and I did the assessing.

We had the first Nursery Assistant to achieve a L2 in EY and Childcare in Southampton and we became the first small business in early years within Hampshire to hold the ‘Investor in People’ award.

I ensured that Barbara had full credit for all her efforts behind the scenes and we both attended the award ceremony.

I knew that I would not have achieved all that I did in the time running my business without her but she allowed me to take ownership of the role as she took ownership of hers. It must be noted that with ownership comes responsibility. Not passing the blame on to others when things go wrong – and sometimes things do!

What I also started to appreciate is that with ownership and the subsequent responsibility, there comes the opportunity to improve. Taking the positive from difficult and challenging situations is a must.

Be proactive not reactive. Don’t stand still

I noticed that Barbara was always proactive. She would look out for emerging situations, whether it was a staff member seeking promotion, a dissatisfied parent, a conflict brewing between team members, a training need or a required change in policy or procedure.

Whatever the issue she would always involve me. We would discuss, usually agree and decide on a course of action so that we were prepared. She would then involve staff in finding the way forward.

This also enabled us to have a joint plan for dealing with any difficulties and a joint approach to specific problems.

Even when we did not agree, which was rarely, I appreciated that Barbara had the knowledge of the sector and practice and should make associated decisions. She equally appreciated that when a matter could impact on the business or finances any decision was for me to make.

Her loyalty to me and to our agreed plan was unsurpassed.

It’s no good hoping that something will not become a problem and then having to react when you may be ill-prepared and less able to manage the situation.

As a leader and manager, it is certainly an advantage to be proactive rather than reactive.

We all know great leaders and managers, they tend to leave their mark

Barbara taught me so much about leadership and management and truly was one of the best.

‘A leader’s job is not to do the work for others, it’s to help others figure out how to do it themselves, to get things done, and to succeed beyond what they thought possible’ (Simon Sinek).

Our success was marked by the opening of our second nursery in 1997 with thanks to Barbara for helping me to achieve my goal.