Difficulties of leadership by June O’Sullivan
24 January 2017
Leading through difficult times is the test of any leader. It’s easy to be lauded when times are good. Today many Early Years leaders are facing grave difficulties including uncertainty about funding, a recruitment crisis, local authority cuts, contract reductions and increased competition from schools. The consequences are varied including reduced income, low staff morale, quality concerns, redundancies and possible closure or bankruptcy. It’s not an inspiring picture so how do we lead our way through this? What do our staff expect of us? What will help us keep the service alive, effective and in demand?
First it helps to have a clear vision with a plan that can be explained to staff and parents in a way that they understand what it means for them. Then we need a plan and a communication strategy that tells the story in a way that makes sense. People need to know what is happening and why; something our politicians fail to recognize.
Why do we need good leaders now? Because we are a sector in difficulty. We have been trying to manage a policy led disaster for the past two years which has led to a catastrophic reduction in staff and poor retention. If you have been asleep then it is a 72% drop in students applying to Early Years courses, a 96% drop in Early Years apprentices and retention at about 24%. A pretty unpleasant set of statistics. So good leaders will be making recruitment and retention their watchword and step up their efforts to find as many ways as possible to support, nurture and encourage staff. Leaders don’t dump. They find clever ways to extend people and increase their knowledge. Whether its writing and delivering a course, introducing a coaching plan, putting a small bursary in place, reviewing flexibility of staff hours or simply giving them £20 to shop at Poundland to upgrade the treasure baskets.
When we have a challenge good leaders remain credible. They gain the respect of their staff by being available, facing the challenges and conflict head on and being brave and courageous. Whether we copy our Australian colleagues and chain ourselves to the railings of the Houses of Parliament or march on the street about funding, good leaders keep their integrity and stand up for what they believe. They are also pragmatic so they can overcome unnecessary barriers to change and making improvements. Right now, many Early Years leaders have battened down the hatches but many more have seen another way forward, a possibility for networks and consortia, shared bids and contracts. Leaders who manage change rather than let it overwhelm them are more successful and lead better services. Some are using the time to enter into new markets such as new baby places, after school and holiday care, free schools or tech development. They make a real difference to the children in their care as well as to their staff.
Leading is hard at the best of time. It’s a complex process and if it was easy we would have a surfeit of good leaders. The logical extension is therefore that leading through difficult times is even harder. It requires someone with a clear vision, good communication, energy, enthusiasm and the integrity to bring their staff and parents with them on a difficult journey.
June will be hosting her seminar ‘Leading for Excellence’ at Childcare Expo London. You can view the seminar programme here.