Nursery Management

What Makes a Great Nursery Leader?

  • What Makes a Great Nursery Leader?

Managing an early years setting is challenging but incredibly rewarding. Allison Lee shares her tips on succeeding in the role…

No manager can bring a nursery to the outstanding stage without a hard-working, knowledgeable and dedicated team behind them. However, the manager must be in control; they need to know their team well and steer them in the right direction.

There will be times when it feels like an uphill struggle, but when the main goal appears to be elusive, this is when the outstanding manager will show their true colours…

A variety of roles

Outstanding leaders have many different guises. Nursery managers will often be required to take on different roles to lead their staff and deal with specific situations or challenges as and when they arise. Let’s take a look at some of these…

The role model
It is essential that a manager is a positive role model, and that means remaining professional all day, every day. This can be hard to maintain; sometimes you may feel like sitting back and turning a blind eye when staff appear to be chatting instead of carrying out their duties, but this is asking for trouble – remember, if you allow it once, you will be expected to turn a blind eye all the time!

The mediator
It is the job of the manager to solve problems as quickly and as professionally as possible. There will be times when staff have fallouts; when they do, remain impartial. Listen to both sides but do not escalate the problem. Disagreements should never be permitted to surface in front of children or parents; a bickering workforce will most definitely give the wrong impression!

The counsellor
Your team may be incredible and rarely have disagreements but this doesn’t mean that they won’t have problems outside of the workplace that could potentially impact on their work. It is better for the manager to be aware of these problems so any potential issues can be dealt with in a professional and discreet manner to avoid impacting on the service you are providing.

The teacher
You may have a variety of people in your team, from apprentices to degree-qualified practitioners, and each individual will need to be ‘taught’ the nursery’s procedures on a level that suits them, whilst upholding your high standards. Nurseries will have their own policies, in addition to the essential legislation they are required to follow, and relevant information needs to be cascaded to staff accordingly. You will need to be confident doing this in an easy-to-understand way so that all staff know what is required.

The friend
There is, in my opinion, no problem with being a manager and a friend to your staff – a friend is everything an outstanding manager should be: a good listener, impartial, helpful, kind and considerate. I would, however, advise caution when socialising outside of work. Remember the need to be a role model – this can and must be maintained at all times in the workplace, but will it be as easy to do at a colleague’s 21st birthday party?

The boss
No manager will get the best from their team if they rule with an iron rod. Be firm but fair. If you don’t listen to your team, they will stop making suggestions; if they stop making suggestions, your nursery will not improve; if improvements are not made, the workplace will become boring and staid. Use staff members’ skills and expertise and work with them on their weaker points, and you will not need to be an ogre!

10 essential skills

To be an outstanding nursery manager you will need to draw on a wide range of professional and personal skills to be able to steer the business in the correct way, lead an outstanding team and provide the best possible service to those using the setting…

1 | Confidence – managers must have confidence in their own abilities if they are to lead effectively. In order to be able to influence the behaviour of others you will need to understand the importance of being proactive and have the ability to develop and shape the way your team thinks and operates.

2 | Assertiveness – the more confident a person feels, the more likely they are to be assertive and to gain the respect of the team. In order to be assertive you should decide what you would like to happen, ask yourself if this is fair and possible, remain calm, express your feelings openly and give praise when it is due, whilst being open to criticism.

3 | Sense of humour – this is an essential skill in many job roles but nowhere more in an early years. Always deal with potential problems away from the children and remember, even if you are having a bad day, it costs nothing to smile, and smiling often results in us feeling better!

4 | Staying power – if the manager walks out at the first sign of a problem then the setting will never achieve the outstanding grade they are aiming for. By tackling a problem confidently and working through difficulties logically you will do wonders for your self-esteem and confidence.

5 | Acceptance – an outstanding manager will accept praise and compliments when they are due, whilst acknowledging imperfection and understanding that everyone makes mistakes. By accepting mistakes, and learning from them, we can develop professional practice rather than dwelling on what went wrong and why.

6 | Responsibility – it is important for managers to promote a shared responsibility in their setting. An outstanding manager will always be alert and notice and respond to situations, but they should ensure that their team understand their own roles within the company and be able to delegate tasks accordingly.

7 | Accountability – everyone in the setting, including the manager, is accountable. A confident manager will never blame someone else for their own mistakes and they will help their team to find solutions to any problems as and when they arise.

8 | Vision – without a vision your setting will lack clear aims and objectives, and the team will simply plod on doing what they have always done with no real understanding as to why. Having a vision sets a clear future along a positive and imaginative path, and provides a shared goal.

9 | Honesty – in order to be reflective it is essential to be honest, and managers who have experienced difficult situations and have been able to reflect on their own role with honesty will be able to learn and develop their own practice.

10 | Flexibility – there is little point in reflecting on our own practice if we are not willing to be flexible in our thinking and actions. After reflecting on our own practice we may have discovered things that we could have done differently, but unless we are open to personal change and flexible in our thinking this will never be achieved.

Allison Lee is an experienced nursery owner and author. This article is an edited extract from her latest book, How to be an Outstanding Nursery Leader (Bloomsbury Education, £16.99), which is full of practical advice for the managers of early years settings. Visit