Part II: Leading and managing during challenging times

Part II: Leading and managing during challenging times

Part II: 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 2, Pennie focuses on the importance of implementing an effective performance management system,  identifying the cycle of regular activities needed to create a robust, supportive approach to build the knowledge and skills of your team.

Join us next month for the final installment of our ‘Leading and managing during challenging times’ mini-series where Pennie’s focus will be on getting everything back on track in 2021, supporting you in your journey in getting back to where you want to be and preparing for the future.

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

What is it that sets consistently outstanding settings apart from others?

What is it that outstanding settings do that is so different from everyone else, and why is it that some settings seem to make everything look so easy and seamless?  

It’s easy to think that they have all the best staff, or that they have large amounts of disposable cash that enables them to splash out on amazing environments, but the truth is often far less exciting. 

What our research tells us

Early Years Fundamentals is first and foremost a research company. Our research is focused entirely on the identification of knowledge and skills gaps in our sector. We do this in a number of ways, but we dedicate a huge amount of time to reviewing inspection outcomes and analysing the experiences of leadership teams.

Our research has shown that there are two common factors that lead to consistently outstanding inspection outcomes. They are leadership and effective performance management, but these same issues also appear with frequency in the reports of settings that receive an inadequate or RI inspection outcome. You’ll see what I mean when you look at the most common issues that appeared in inspection reports in the autumn and spring terms 2019-2020.

“The actions and recommendations made by Ofsted on the management of staff under the new inspection framework.

  • Having monitoring arrangements in place that enable managers to understand where there are gaps in knowledge and practice.
  • Making a connection between monitoring activities and discussions about performance.
  • Putting a tailored programme of support in place which will raise the quality of teaching and learning. 
  • Committing to meaningful CPD events that develop knowledge and practice.
  • Tackling underperformance.
  • Robust induction.”

Early Years Fundamentals Ltd. 2019 ©

As leadership is such a vast topic, I’m going to focus our time together on a quick guide to effective performance management, but before we start, I need to acknowledge that you can’t have a truly effective performance management system without good leadership! Without good people skills, even the most comprehensive of systems would fail. 

Why is performance management so important?

When we get our performance management system right, it’s like a domino effect; the other important elements of practice just fall into place because staff know what is expected of them, they feel supported and empowered, and they work together to know more, do more and be more for their children. 

But how do we know whether our performance management system is effective or whether the things that we have put in place are helping staff to fulfil all aspects of their role?

Let’s start by asking ourselves a few questions.

  • Do all members of staff feel valued and well supported?
  • Are the number of sick days really low or unavoidable due to the nature of the staff member’s illness (in other words, do team members genuinely want to come to work)?
  • Does everyone demonstrate a clear understanding of what is expected of them and do they carry these activities out to the standard required?
  • Is practice consistent across the team?
  • Does feedback through performance management activities contribute to professional growth and a better level of self-awareness?
  • Are training and professional development opportunities effectively targeted to develop skills, knowledge, talents and specialisms?
  • Is professional autonomy high?
  • Are issues of underperformance minimal and usually nipped in the bud early on? 

If you struggled to answer ‘yes’ to two or more of these questions, or you don’t have enough evidence to be able to answer some of the questions, the chances are that your performance management system may not be working in the way that you need it to.

What is performance management? 

Performance management is a term used to describe the activities and processes that organisations put in place to maintain standards and to grow the skills, knowledge and talents of its employees in line with the organisation’s vision, ethos and goals. It has both a strategic and operational function; at a strategic level, all staff contribute to and/or work towards the aims and goals of the setting and at an operational level, staff receive support, training, coaching and mentoring so that they can continue to meet (and wherever possible exceed) the standards and expectations that leaders and managers have set for their roles and responsibilities.

The missing pieces of the jigsaw

The problem is that many managers feel that their qualifications, and even short courses on performance management, haven’t prepared them to manage people. So, we rely on our own experiences of being managed, things we’ve read and conversations we’ve had with others to guide our approach. 

Many of those conversations or snippets of information draw attention to specific activities such as face-to-face meetings, but they don’t tend to give us the sense that performance management is a series of interconnected activities that work together to inform the types of support that we need to provide for our staff. 

So, what does an effective performance management system look like?

A well-rounded performance management system has four essential components. They are:

  • evidence gathering, 
  • formal feedback, 
  • informal feedback 
  • and support. 

They work together to provide a rounded view of performance which enables us to continue to build on the knowledge and skills of individual team members. So, what does each of those ‘essential components’ entail?

1. Evidence gathering 

If we want to truly understand how a member of staff is performing, we need to understand what they know, understand and can do, much as we do for our children. This won’t happen unless we gather a rounded set of evidence that encompasses all the important parts of their role. Our evidence should, therefore, come from lots of different sources such as:

  • Observations of practice,
  • The way the learning environment has been constructed,
  • Feedback from parents and partner professional,
  • The quality of observations, assessments and planning,
  • The standard of spoken and written English,
  • Their behaviour and attitude to work,
  • Their ability to work as a member of a team,
  • Peer-on-peer assessment,
  • 360 degree appraisals….

I could go on, but the point is this… we don’t just look at one area of learning to understand what children know, understand and can do, so the same principle needs to be applied to our teams if we want to understand where strengths, talents and areas for development lie.   

2. Formal feedback 

This part of our system is known by many different names – performance reviews, 1:1s, supervision and appraisals to name a few, but they all have the following in common: 

  • Conversations are scheduled ahead of time.
  • The salient points of the meeting are recorded,
  • The outcome of any discussion is likely to result in performance targets for the staff member, and maybe some actions for the person leading the conversation,
  • Discussions review different aspects of performance,
  • The progress made against previous performance targets is reviewed.

These types of conversation should happen at several points throughout the year if we are to ensure that each staff member is getting the support they need and that they are making good progress or  achieving the targets that have been set.

3. Informal feedback 

“Refers to the on-the-spot, quick catch-ups or conversations that focus on an aspect of work. They are usually unplanned and will be an opportunity to provide positive feedback, to remind the staff member about something that needs to happen or to provide direction. Whilst these conversations are not formally recorded, managers may want to make a quick note of the things that have been discussed if they feel that the subject should be revisited during formal conversations, for example, to record positive feedback, to adjust performance targets, or to address aspects of underperformance.”

(Ofsted inspections in challenging times, 2021).

4. Support 

The last of our essential components is support, which will be individually tailored to the needs of each staff member and could take the form of any of the following:

  • coaching, mentoring, peer-to-peer support and shadowing,
  • team teaching, 
  • being given a specific task to develop knowledge, 
  • taking on a temporary role or temporary responsibilities,
  • training and professional development opportunities (either being a recipient or leading these events),
  • leading on an action plan or on action research, 
  • and sometimes it is just about facilitating professional discussion which enables individual team members to explore what they know, understand and can do.

Support can and should happen as soon as we have enough information to be able to identify and target resources and/or opportunities effectively. It is also crucial to build in time to evaluate how useful an aspect of support has been.

When all of these components are woven together into a cycle of regular activities, we nurture confidence, capability and capacity.

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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