Be Passionate, Speak Up and Remember You Belong at the Table: 3 Leaders’ Best Advice

Sponsored by KinderCare Learning Companies

Jen Barber, Director of IT Projects; Jeni Douglas, Vice President of Family Operations; and Andrea Tank, a member of their Family Operations Team and the Manager of their Center of Excellence: Special Projects, Quality and Training.

Photo courtesy of KinderCare Learning Companies.

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KinderCare Learning Companies, the largest private provider of high-quality early childhood education and care services (“ECE”) in the United States by center capacity has an all-important mission: to support families by helping parents and children feel confident for life. To achieve this goal, they rely on the help of their over approximately 33,300 teachers and staff  who serve thousands of children every day!

To learn more, we reached out to three members of the KinderCare team, who all happen to be talented leaders in the organization: Jen Barber, Director of IT Projects; Jeni Douglas, Vice President of Family Operations; and Andrea Tank, a member of their Family Operations Team and the Manager of their Center of Excellence: Special Projects, Quality and Training.

All three women have a wealth of knowledge for growing your career, building your team and finding a job that makes you happy. For instance, Barber notes how, at KinderCare, she is able to build teams that work by filling them with people she can trust and who have positive attitudes that complement each other. “In this field, the right attitude and a driver mentality is more important than deep knowledge of the function,” explains Barber. 

And, in regards to advancing your career, finding the right manager is key. Just ask Tank, who notes that, “I have always appreciated a boss who challenges me! A boss who knows when to push you and help you think outside of the box.”

Of course, a great, supportive team is what makes a job great. And you can find that in spades at KinderCare. “My current favorite perk about working at the company is the people,” states Douglas. “I'm fortunate to have developed relationships with incredible people that are some of my very best friends.”

For more leadership tips and tricks, and how KinderCare has supported their growth, read on!

What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual or team that you think has been particularly effective?

Barber: I focus on imploring the teams to leverage each other. I really try to build a Center of Excellence within my teams. This allows them to be their own first line of issue resolution, instead of me. It can be slow going; I won’t lie. It’s asking people to change behaviors. But, this reinforces my own behavior to go to my peers to help find resolution. This behavior feeds outwards, too — I try to be the example to my teams, and my peers now start to go to each other instead of our own leaders. This behavior is also reinforced when I ask that my team members mentor each other. During our team meetings, I ask that every one of my people bring a knowledge sharing topic. Something they’ve used in the past, or a new topic for us. This internal body of knowledge is invaluable.

Douglas: Lead by example! Regardless of role, as a leader of people, I have always believed that I would never ask my team to do something I wouldn't do myself. At times, this shows up in ways of modeling a conversation or approach during a meeting. And, sometimes, in our industry, it might mean stepping into a classroom and changing a diaper or reading to a group of toddlers to support a teacher while on a school visit.

Tank: In this work from home/virtual world, an extremely important strategy is to be sure that you are clear with your team or individuals.  Give details, repeat your ask, ask the individual or team to repeat the ask back to you. Being clear ensures that all parties know their expectations. Encourage your team to ask questions if they aren’t sure what the ask or goal is.

How have you developed as a leader? And how has your work changed since you went into leadership?

Barber:  When I moved from being an individual contributor to a people-leader role, I quickly shifted to growing team members and being people-focused. This shift required me to be in more strategic conversations about vision and operating models instead of the day-to-day tactical delivery of projects and programs. I am, honestly, in a lot more meetings, but I feel that I have a larger voice now, and a seat at the table. 

As a leader, I find that I get to interact with many more people across the organization. Further, I identify my own work, and, where I see gaps, I feel more obligated to pick them up and resolve issues or give clarity. I notice that I ask a lot less permission these days — I simply dive in where I see a need. And I feel gratitude from my teammates and peers when I pick up the ball and run with it.

Douglas: This year marks 21 years of service with KinderCare Learning Companies. One of the things that I value deeply about my journey is the opportunity to learn, grow, develop and advance throughout the organization. I have worked for all three of our KinderCare brands and each experience has challenged me in different ways and helped broaden my approach as a leader. Thankfully, I haven't had to leave a company that I love to grow and develop, instead I've worked with leaders that have provided new opportunities at every step. 

Tank: I have been in early childhood for over 15 years. I began my career as a teacher and progressed into leadership roles at the center level, becoming an assistant director and then a center director.  Shortly after I flexed over to the corporate/field support side of the business.  My day-to-day work has drastically changed over the past five years. I currently reside in Michigan and was part of a company that KinderCare acquired in 2018. This acquisition meant that most of my teammates would now be based in Portland, OR. (That’s right, I was virtually working with many folks before it was a thing in 2020!  Ahead of the curve!)  Leadership, in any capacity, requires excellent communication skills, especially when your team is thousands of miles away. Over the past few years, the overall approach to work has changed when it comes to this communication and has involved finding creative ways to connect — virtual happy hours, lunches, coffee chats, and checking in daily via email or chat.

What is your No. 1 piece of advice for other women who are moving into or want to move into leadership or how did you show you were ready to advance into a leadership role?

Barber:  Be passionate about your area of expertise. Being passionate drives so many more important behaviors that have served me well. It drives being assertive, it drives you to not let your voice be stifled. When you’re passionate, you set the tone of your working relationships, you have confidence in your abilities and you know your space. When you’re passionate, you can easily drive to action, and you will rally people behind you. You don’t have to convince anyone that you’re good at your job; you simply do it well and let your actions speak for themselves.

Douglas: It may sound basic, but I believe it was the simple act of raising my hand and speaking up to say that I wanted to do more. As a woman, I believe this can feel awkward or uncomfortable and it shouldn't. I haven’t reached mastery of limiting self-doubt, but part of the growth comes through the discomfort of change. I think it's important to keep in mind that growth doesn't always mean immediate promotions, but it signals leadership that you're ready to put in the time and effort. Investing the time in learning and developing new skills and building new relationships will create a strong path for opportunity.

Tank: Be confident and ask questions. You belong at the table, remember that!

How do you think about making sure your direct report(s) feel well-supported in their lives both in and out of the office? 

Barber:  At the end of the day, I don’t care so much about “working hours”. I care about outcomes. As long as my team is able to meet objectives, having a doctor’s appointment for your child in the middle of the day is perfectly fine. I’ve never been a clock-watcher, and, sometimes, roller-skating with your children at 2 p.m. is a critically healthy thing to do. I think it’s so important for work-life balance to be able to have the freedom to choose your own schedule to whatever extent you need to be successful.

Douglas: This is critical to everyone's success at all levels. I am a believer that while I love my career, my company, and the people I work with daily, if I don't prioritize my well-being and life outside of work, I won't be the person they need me to be in support of them. This has been a hot topic on our team, and we need to normalize taking time fully away from work (including email, text, and Slack) outside of emergencies or sick days. Being a good leader means trusting in your team to manage while you're away. This year, we are incorporating specific well-being goals into our annual goal setting sessions and will be tracking them and holding each other accountable!  

Tank: I think about this often and always make sure it is part of my day to day. Even though we aren’t in a physical office, I still believe in an open-door policy. Communication is key, so you need to make sure your direct reports know that you’re available to support them both at work and at homes.

What’s been your most valuable career mistake?

Barber: My biggest mistake was staying too long at a company where I didn’t feel valued. I was feeling undervalued, and a new boss came in and recognized that I was readying to leave. He asked that I, “give him a year. Let’s do great things together!” That year helped me grow my experiences and shape my change management growth, but, ultimately, I didn’t feel any more valued at the end of that year. What I learned was that I need to feel valued in order to fully contribute and feel completely fulfilled in my role. I’ve also learned that when I stop feeling valued, it’s time to go.

Douglas: Thinking that being a good leader meant doing it all without leaning on and delegating to very capable and talented people. I'm not talking about off-loading tasks but taking for granted the opportunity to include individuals in the work — the ideating, solutioning and networking. It didn't always come from a place of distrust or ego; in my mind, I was "helping" my teams by saving them from the burden of additional work. As I started to evolve and grow, this was a huge aha moment! Creating a safe space for the team is what allowed me to develop, and I wasn't fostering this for my own people! Once I made the shift, there was an increase in team trust and engagement and ultimately it made us a more effective team.

Tank: Early in my leadership career I made the mistake of being too quiet. I wasn’t confident in myself and my ideas. I would share my ideas to a teammate or too but was fearful to speak up in larger meetings. As my career progressed, I realized I needed to speak up more and be proud of my ideas. I also learned that it is ok if all my ideas were not winners, sometimes it is just great to be a thought partner — you never know if something you say could be a springboard for someone else’s idea!

Ultimately, what has led you to stay at KinderCare? 

Douglas: As a mission-driven organization, my love for children is what gets me excited about the chance to impact their lives for the better. But I can't discount the role that working with so many incredible people plays. I can't imagine working anywhere else with anyone else!

Interested in learning more from the amazing women who work at KinderCare? Check out previous articles on their profile. And stay tuned for an upcoming article about Alie Cameron, another spectacular leader at KinderCare!

Fairygodboss is proud to partner with KinderCare. Find a job there today!