Leading and managing during challenging times

Leading and managing during challenging times

Leading and managing during challenging times 2560 1708 Nursery Story

Welcome to our ‘Leading and managing during challenging times’ mini-series with early years expert Pennie Akehurst.

In Part 1, Pennie focuses on how we can prepare for the return of Ofsted inspections, what we can learn from A&E departments to prioritise workloads and how task management can help alleviate your inspection anxieties.

Join us next month for Part 2 of our mini-series where Pennie will focus on effective performance management, identifying practical ideas and sharing tips to support you prepare for the future and your journey in getting back to where you want to be.

Preparing for the Future – Getting back to where you want to be after the COVID crisis

Challenging times: where are we now? 

The COVID crisis has challenged us in ways we never imagined. Leaders and managers across the country have worked tirelessly to meet the needs of their children against a backdrop of continually changing guidance focused on reducing the transmission of COVID-19 and infection control.

It has created a huge amount of work for many providers; we’ve adapted systems, stopped doing some things and we have changed our approach to others – but now we’re in a weird phase of trying to establish a new normal as we try to normalise living with restrictions.

Part of that getting back to some kind of normality also means that Ofsted will be recommencing full inspections later in the year – so, in the not-too-distant future, Ofsted will want to look at what we do, how effective our systems, processes and practice are and the impact that our services are having on our children and staff.

This has created mild panic on many social media sites as leaders and managers try to predict if they will be one of the first to be inspected and what inspections will be like given the impact of the global pandemic.

But that sense of worry or panic isn’t just about the fear of the unknown.

The job of a leader and manager in an early years setting has always been complex and this level of complexity has been intensified by the COVID crisis.

The constant influx of ‘stuff’ and ‘things to do’ has meant that for many settings important things like monitoring activities and continuous improvement have become something that we know we need to do but carving out the time to do these things consistently and to the depth we need and /or desire is a real challenge.

The feeling that important ‘stuff’ is getting missed or overlooked nags away at us because we know that to be effective leaders and managers, we need to have an accurate view of the quality of our provision and the performance of our people. We need to know what is working well, where things could be improved, where members of our team are struggling and where we need to focus our energies because something needs urgent attention.

Throughout the crisis, our days have often felt ridiculously busy or chaotic, and some days we may have gone home feeling deflated and overwhelmed because we are no further forward than we were when we woke up.

What we are feeling is an emotional response to stress.

We can all have busy, hectic or even chaotic days, weeks or months but how we respond to those situations has a significant impact on how we feel and our ability to cope when lots of things are being thrown at us.

I need to say that this doesn’t mean that we’re doing a bad job or can’t cope if we feel that life is crazy busy or that we’re constantly firefighting, but what I can tell you is that it is possible to go home at the end of the day feeling that you were in control of those crazy busy days or that you have a game plan to reduce those feelings of being overwhelmed.

So, how do we do this?

What can we learn by looking over the fence at a busy A&E department?

At any one time, an A&E department will have large numbers of patients that need to be seen – but they can’t all be seen as soon as they arrive because there physically aren’t enough staff and/or cubicles to assess and treat everyone as soon as they come through the door. In addition, some of those patients will have minor injuries whilst others will have life-threatening conditions. So, A&E staff need some way of prioritising who needs to be seen first whilst also balancing those tricky targets around ‘waiting times’ for less urgent cases.

Triage – prioritising cases by their degree of urgency

Triage is continuous in an A&E department to ensure that those with the greatest levels of need are attended to first. It is not something that can just be done at the beginning of the day – it needs to be a dynamic process because casualties continue to arrive throughout the day and cases need to be reviewed regularly to ensure that there isn’t a decline in each patient’s condition. Without that on-going triage process, A&E staff would just be dealing with patients as they come through the door and patients would undoubtedly die. 

Some A&E departments work with traffic light systems, allocating a red, amber, green status to indicate levels of need, whereas others work with scoring systems, but regardless of the system, it works because cases are regularly reviewed to ensure that staff continue to prioritise in order of importance/urgency.

Could you use the triage approach to manage your workload?

If we want to make sure that everything is back on track, our first priority has to be to either mentally or physically triage the tasks that need to be undertaken in our setting on an on-going basis.

This isn’t about having a ‘to do’ list but having a process that enables us to regularly stop for a short time throughout the day to review:

  • what is coming in, 
  • what has been dealt with so far, 
  • what remains of critical importance, 
  • what is less important, 
  • and what can be parked for a while.

We need to create short pockets of time in our days to step back from what we are doing  to think about our approach as we may be creating a greater level of stress for ourselves simply by trying to be all things to all people.

Forward planning

Even in busy A&E departments there is a level of forward planning. For example, there is a system to alert medical teams to incoming ambulances which will let them know the estimated time of arrival and the condition of the patient. This provides a little thinking time to reorder tasks and ensures that key staff can be made available to meet patients who are seriously ill. 

Understanding what is ahead alongside what needs to be done is an important part of the triage process, as it enables medical teams to be realistic about what can be done in the minutes and hours that follow.

Are we using the information that we have to proactively forward plan?

That got me thinking…do we make good use of the information that is known to us and use it to forward plan? Some things can’t be moved such as a safeguarding case conference or a meeting with a parent, so they are fixed in time, but other things don’t have a specific deadline – we just know that they need to be done in the near future. But leaving these tasks floating around in the ether is likely to result in one of two outcomes:

  • Tasks will be forgotten until they can’t be ignored any longer and then they will be crammed into the next available slot which may displace other important activities.
  • Tasks could be missed all together and we only think about their importance when something (usually undesired) happens.

It is, therefore, of critical importance that we use information that is already known to us to help shape the order in which we prioritise our tasks.

Knowing who does what

If you have ever spent any time in an A&E department you will notice that there are different types of uniform – some are different colours, some have different trims around the collar etc. These differences denote the roles and responsibilities held by each staff member. It’s easy to see at a glance who works at what level which saves valuable time in an emergency situation. 

When you add this factor to the dynamic triage process it becomes glaring obvious that this is a really efficient way of delegating tasks. It ensures that tasks are delegated according to clinical competency, roles and responsibilities.

Are we delegating effectively?

Many of the leadership teams I work with struggle with delegation for reasons that seem to be logical at the time. Managers have shared things like:

  • I don’t want to burden staff
  • It’s quicker and easier to do it myself
  • I’ll need to train someone to do that

The problem with all of these reasons is that everything lands at the door of the manager, which means less hours in the day to get on with the things that only we can do. 

So, to give ourselves the breathing space that we need to get things back to where we need them to be, it is worth thinking about levels of responsibility and occupational competency. When we look at all of the things that need to be done, what could and should sit with other members of the team? How would we go about managing this level of delegation? And who needs additional support or training to take on specific tasks?

Communication is key 

A&E departments work with systems that enable staff to capture and access information quickly. They often have central boards which can be referred to briefly so that everyone knows what is happening, what needs to happen next and who is currently involved. 

Would having a central ‘tasks board’ help everyone in your setting to understand what needs to be done and by when?

If we have an accessible way of communicating what needs to be done, everyone will know what needs to happen and it becomes far easier to hold individual staff members to account for specific tasks. It also becomes easy to see when new tasks have been added and how important they are. 

Once a task has been completed, it would be noted on the board so that the leadership team can see the number of items that have been completed and any important tasks that still need to be actioned.

These are just some of the things that may support you in your journey to getting back to where you want to be.

Pennie Akehurst

Pennie Akehurst

Managing Director
Early Years Fundamentals Ltd.

Pennie Akehurst is an author and leadership specialist with over 30 years’ experience in the early years sector. Pennie has worked in the private, voluntary, maintained and public sector, and spent 17 years delivering strategic early years and childcare priorities within two local authorities. During this time, she developed and led the implementation of challenge and intervention programmes designed to support leadership teams to improve outcomes for children (aged 0-5) and to manage changes to legislation.

In 2017, Pennie left the public sector to establish Early Years Fundamentals Ltd, a research, training and consultancy company focused on identifying and managing issues that may affect outcomes for children and inspection outcomes.

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