Management

How to be a leader when you don’t feel like one

March 2, 2023

Imogen Edmunds from Redwing Solutions on leading an Early Years setting from the front

Imogen Edmunds from Redwing Solutions on leading an Early Years setting from the front
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • This story is about being a leader through tough times — because that's when being a leader counts most.
  • Imogen Edmunds, who's worked with EY staffing for nearly 20 years, offers tips to put this concept into everyday practice.
  • Read on for leadership ideas, including Imogen's top 3 tips to being a leader in difficult times.

Being a leader is never easy. But especially now, as we face a combined staffing crisis and cost of living crisis, the pressure can quickly mount up. You have places to fill, bills to pay, and your team are looking to you for support and stability. It can feel like you’re constantly on the back foot right when you need to be stepping up.

But you’re not alone. 

Imogen Edmunds, CEO and founder of Redwing Solutions, has been sharing her leadership expertise with the Early Years sector since 2004 and she’s got some advice for weathering the storm. And as she explains below, leading proactively and tackling issues head-on is the only way forward. 

It’s not easy, but luckily, she’s here to show you exactly how to do just that. I sat down with her to learn how to lead confidently through crises.

Make expectations clear from the start

One of the most important aspects of your role as a leader is to define your expectations of your team. A clear framework of behaviours and roles can help provide a feeling of consistency when everything else feels unstable. If you’re stressed and busy, it can be hard to find the time to slow down and clearly express what you need, but this really is the best way to avoid resentment down the line when things don’t get done or don’t get done ‘right’. 

Imogen says that leaders often make assumptions that their team will know what needs to be done (and how) as they must have ‘seen the manager doing it’.  Leaders can also assume that certain knowledge or behaviours are just ‘common sense’, but this is often not the case.

“Somebody might not know that walking in at 8 o’clock with the parents is a problem unless you’ve told them that you need them to be at work ready to start at 8 o’clock,” says Imogen.

Perhaps most importantly, know your contracts inside and out. These are where the expectations for your team (and your business) are laid out explicitly. The team at Redwing are commonly asked by leaders whether they have to pay somebody who doesn’t come to work because their child is ill, but their immediate response is always to ask what it says in the employee’s contract. 

“If it says in the contract you’ll get paid for time off for your children then that’s what the employer must do,” says Imogen, “If the contract is silent on that issue then it defaults to what the law says will happen in that situation. So people do need to understand the documents they’ve issued.”

An Early Years educator and their manager are sitting together on a sofa, they are both looking at a laptop.

Address issues head-on

During a recruitment crisis, just getting staff through the door is hard enough, so what on earth do you do if they then don’t turn up to work?

Although this can be a stressful situation, Imogen always advises an informal conversation first, before any formal disciplinary action. Even if you’re scared of saying the wrong thing, a prompt, calm conversation about a small problem is the best way to nip it in the bud.

“You’re absolutely reasonable to sit down with your member of staff, explore what’s going on and find a solution,” advises Imogen, “It’s fair for you to sit down and explain the consequences of lateness or absenteeism on the team. And, unless you’ve had that conversation, it’s not really fair to say later on ‘We need to talk about this formally.’”

Of course, no one enjoys the conversations where we have to correct someone, so Imogen advises a mindset shift. Instead of seeing it as ‘having to tell someone off’, embrace the chance to help them grow.

“You’re where you are today because someone put you back on the right track,” she says, “If our managers don’t do that for us, in the future, we’ll never be able to manage other people.”

You may have heard of a feedback technique called ‘the compliment sandwich’, but Imogen advises that this mix of messages can muddy the message you’re trying to get across.“I once had a manager who was so vague in his conversations that someone came out of a meeting with him, thinking that he’d been promoted rather than disciplined,” says Imogen, “If you want someone to stop doing something, you need to label it as that. Don’t try and butter it up with lots of nice words to the point that it covers up what you're saying.”

The big ideas

When addressing an issue with a team member:

Do

  • Be fair
  • Be kind
  • Be clear and specific about what you want to stop or start happening
  • Offer help to make the required improvement

Don’t

  • Be unreasonable
  • Threaten that they ‘will get in big trouble’ if they have to be told again
  • Try to ‘cushion the blow’ with too many compliments
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Delegate tasks before you need to

It’s no good reminding your deputy of everything they’re supposed to do as you’re rushing out the door to deal with something else. Instead, Imogen advises choosing a day when you have time to go through the tasks you’re doing with your team member, so they can do it well when you’re not around. 

In other words, start delegating tasks before you need to.

“You’ve got to think about succession planning,” says Imogen, “It’s better to give thought to it now than seeing your team member going down the road to work somewhere else because you never gave them the opportunity to grow. We’re where we are today because someone gave us the opportunity to grow.”

Imogen recommends three steps for this:

  • Don’t assume that just because a team member knows that you do a certain job, they know how you do it. Start by showing the team member who’ll be doing that task at a convenient time. 
  • Next, perform the job or task together. Again, this should be low-pressure, so you have the time to explain or answer questions.
  • Lastly, have the team member perform the job themselves.

“Your future self will thank you,” says Imogen, “Delegate when you don’t need to delegate so you can do it properly. Don’t wait until you have a million things to do and you just want to farm out a job to somebody else.” 

A group of Early Years educators and their manager discuss strategy. They are in a light room, around a table. Several of them are holding notebooks and pens. There s a whiteboard with writing on in the background

Finally, know the value of your time

In an Early Years setting, everyone plays a valuable role, but as a manager, you’re likely the most expensive. And, as your time costs the most money, you should be unashamedly selective about how you spend it, especially during the current climate.

Many managers pride themselves on getting into the rooms and ‘doing everything they expect of their educators’, and while this is a noble sentiment, are you bringing the most value you can by changing nappies or serving snack? This is not to say that a presence amongst the children isn’t important, but Imogen explains that it’s easy for leaders to forget how valuable their time is.

“We shouldn’t be doing the tasks that we don’t add any value to,” says Imogen, “I always smile when I’m on the phone to owners and they’re washing up. They’re doing something that needs doing, but was it something that they had to be doing?”

Just as with delegating, choose the best person for the job and remember that it might not be you.

Imogen’s top three tips:

  • Be clear about your expectations of your team. You don’t have to micromanage everyone, but assuming that your team know how or why to do something before you’ve told them just leads to misunderstanding and resentment.
  • Address any issues quickly and informally first. No one enjoys telling someone off, so try to think of it as ‘course correction’ instead. And don’t be too fluffy with your feedback - keep it clear and kind.
  • Treat your time as though it’s a valuable commodity because it is. It may be that the washing up needs doing, or someone has to tidy the bookshelf, but as the likely most expensive person in the setting, does it have to be you? Choose the best person for each ‘job’.
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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