Five things I wish I’d known before I started leading a team (and five things that helped me!)

It was January and my new baby was four weeks old. I was besotted and so happy to be a mother of a beautiful baby boy. I’d started my MA two weeks ago, I’d wanted to start for ages but with a full time job didn’t have the flexibility in the day to go to the first 6 months of lectures. So the timing was in that sense perfect(!)

Manchester Met Uni couldn’t have made me and my baby more welcome, we both attended lectures. And, I was learning to touch type, 15 mins a day so I could type my dissertation. I was still tired of course but although the labour had been long (31 hours), there was no intervention and the support of one of my closest friends had been brilliant throughout.

Meanwhile, my marriage was falling apart and I already knew on my own I couldn’t make the mortgage and the childcare fees. I had no family help and the thought of looking for a new home and managing a move was more than I had energy for.

A friend called in at home and mentioned the Head of Early Years in Bolton job was in the paper, the closing date was in a couple of days. ‘How come you didn’t you tell me?’ I asked – I’d been waiting for that role to come up. ‘Well I assumed with you having a baby…..’ I think my face said it all.

I bought The Guardian (this was 1998 – the internet wasn’t really a thing still!) and started on the job application with my son on my lap. I delivered it by hand to make sure it got there. I went to the interview between breastfeeds wearing a borrowed skirt while my friend and neighbour looked after my baby. And, I got the job. I was thrilled!! I wanted that role so much and now we could financially manage, just.

But here’s the thing. Many of us get promoted into first time leadership roles because we’ve been successful professionals carrying out our previous role really well. I had a solid understanding of early years, I’d lectured in early childhood studies, served as a deputy centre manager in a children and family centre and had been the Principal Officer for Children Under 8 in a neighbouring local authority. So I had the professional knowledge and skills, but the skills needed for successful leadership are completely different to the the skills which enabled us to succeed previously. Experience alone doesn’t solve this anymore than having a new job title does.

The role included leading the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership, writing and delivery the early years and childcare plan, serving on the Area Child Protection Committee and substantially expanding early years and childcare provision in line with government policy and funding – those really were the days!

What served me well:

  1. Understanding hospitality and building a sense of belonging. For professionals from health, social care and the private and voluntary sectors to collaborate and work with us we needed to be hospitable and make our colleagues feel welcome for joint planning and progress meetings. I’d ask how team members would approach this when I was hiring. The team made great efforts to be welcoming and build relationships – small things mattered, good coffee, meeting and greeting, listening and showing we cared.
  2. Genuine care and compassion lay at the heart of our work. This was about helping families become economically stable, helping children access great quality day care and education and ensuring high quality training for professionals. Everyone in the team cared deeply about our work and the community we were serving.
  3. Success relied on people in the team who knew more than me about specific areas – tech, training, day care legislation, safeguarding and early education. I recruited a team who excelled in their areas of expertise.
  4. Creating a shared vision and agreements across all sectors working in early years was the foundations for all our work. We set aside 2 days to work our way through this so everyone was on board knowing the vision was genuinely shared. This served us well for the 5 years that followed.
  5. Being able to articulate and deliver on policy to practice was a strength for me. It was new territory though and I knew I didn’t have all the answers. Along with Vicky Rosen in Manchester and Maxine Roberts in Liverpool we established the North West Early Years Network of 23 early years leads. It was a power house! We later went on to advise the brilliant Margaret Hodge MP and Minister for Early Years about priorities and sustainability of the programme.

The gaps? I was unclear about:

  1. How to articulate for team leaders the leadership practice I was looking for. We didn’t always have shared understanding because I hadn’t made it clear, I thought modelling would be sufficient and I was wrong.
  2. The frequency of 1:1 meetings needed to embed shared commitment to leadership learning. I’d worked with a ‘supervision model’ of 6 weekly meetings – it wasn’t enough, weekly or every two weeks would have been better.
  3. How my own internal listening got in the way, or where I made assumptions in the absence of evidence and clarity. Listening for the overall concerns of the person we’re listening to is a great way to help us get in tune with what’s on their mind, and the issues they’re seeking to take care of and solve.
  4. The benefits of pausing and slowing down, both for my own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. The pace of the required delivery by the DfE was hard and fast, and funding was dependent on meeting spend and achieving targets. The research on pausing is compelling and something I share and encourage on my leadership programmes now.
  5. The importance of asking team leaders questions and giving clear feedback to really make sure I was understanding thinking processes and helping them develop.

As time went on I was fortunate to join the in-house leadership programme and a Modern Managers programme run by what was then the I&DEA. Both of these were great. Modern Managers had residential aspects which brought child care challenges; I was a single parent and help was hard to find. I really wish I’d been able to engage in a leadership programme which was affordable, accessible, based in research and one I’d started before I began leading a team.

I’ve recently designed the programme I wish I’d been able to do when I first started leading a team. And, the programme I wish I’d been able to book my team leaders on when I first started leading leaders. It would have been so great if we’d had an easier way to develop a shared understanding of what good leadership looks like everyday.

It really does meet all the criteria:

  • Affordable at £95 per person
  • Accessible, fully online – (no childcare needed!)
  • Based in research
  • Ideal for first time and experienced leaders
  • Great for whole teams to develop a shared understanding of what good leadership looks like in practice

My promise to you if you commit to this programme is you will:

  1. Have the essential skills you need to begin and progress your leadership career and learning
  2. Understand the HOW of leadership
  3. Have materials and exercises you can use to help you develop and progress
  4. Have the opportunity to develop your own professional leadership learning plan using the tools provided
  5. Learn to be a leader whose practice is grounded in research, is impactful and adding value everyday to your team and organisation

You can find out more here:

Do let me know how you get on!

‘And what about the baby?’ some of you may be wondering? He’s 25 now. He defied all the stats about children from single parent families, and affirmed the stats which show the education of the mother is significant in children’s academic success

He went to Imperial College London, has just left his third employed role in data engineering to co-found a startup. We enjoyed coastal walking holidays as he was growing up and still fly off to beautiful places to walk and talk. We never run out of things to talk about – what we’re learning, decisions about things we care about, music, books and films.

He’s the apple of his mothers’ eye as every child should be!

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