The name Jennie Johnson is followed by MBE and adorned with numerous accolades awarded in both a personal and business capacity. Born out of a personal childcare crisis, Jennie founded Kids Allowed in 2003 which soon became the largest childcare provider in the North West. Fast forward 20 years and, after a brief stint in ‘retirement’, Jennie is now founder and CEO of My First Five Years Ltd – an educational platform and child development app to support and empower parents.
Jennie attended our staff away day last month and spoke candidly about her 20 years at the helm of business. Many of the learnings she shared are pertinent to fellow business leaders. In today’s blog, we highlight 6 of Jennie’s key lessons from her time as CEO.
1. Your values must be your foundation
Jennie admits that she didn’t realise how important aligned values were until the business made its first big mistake. Jennie was selling her vision of a customer-focused approach to childcare under her banner of ‘yes to any reasonable request’. As part of her vision, every parent signing up to Kids Allowed received her mobile phone number so that they could get in touch direct if they had any issues. One morning, she received such a call from a parent complaining that their child was refused breakfast because it was after 9am. To Jennie, a request from a parent to have their child fed was not an unreasonable request, so why had they been refused? After some self-reflection she realised that she had made the promise of ‘yes to any reasonable request’ to parents but hadn’t communicated it to staff. To resolve the issue, Jennie began working with her colleagues to establish values and to align everyone in the business to those values. She admits that this was hard to do retrospectively and that there was some resistance from a small portion of the staff. She became focused on appeasing that 10% and found herself neglecting the 90% that were ‘Team Jennie’ and ‘Team Kids Allowed’. It was at this point that she learnt one of her first big lessons – if people aren’t going to come with you on the journey, you have to let them go.
2. Recruit for attitude, not qualification
Once Jennie had her values in place, she started to align everything to them with a particular focus on recruitment. The childcare sector is highly regulated, and a large portion of your employees must possess a childcare qualification. Her recruitment strategy at the beginning was to recruit for those qualifications, as her aspiration was to have 100% of her staff qualified. In doing so, she found she wasn’t necessarily bringing in staff with shared values and attitude. The recruitment strategy was therefore turned on its head, and Kids Allowed began recruiting for attitude instead. Jennie’s lightbulb moment here was that she could help the right people gain the necessary qualifications, but she couldn’t teach them attitude and values. And so her training academy was created to ensure that she could deliver the qualifications to her staff (which won her an MBE for services to apprenticeships). Ever the trailblazer, Jennie was also responsible for making Kids Allowed one of the first childcare businesses to attract men to the sector and one of the few not requiring the use of agency staff. She filled her settings from the bottom up. When a new setting opened, she could drop in existing talent which created new opportunities in the existing settings.
3. Be aspirational
When Jennie set-up Kids Allowed she was intentional – her vision was to be the best childcare provider in the world. She created a culture of striving for excellence. She found her colleagues were excited to be part of this vision of excellence. She empowered her colleagues with the skills to be the best they could be at work but also using those skills outside of the workplace. It created a sense of ambition for those that wanted it – a reassurance that progression was an option if they worked hard for it. But she admits that some colleagues weren’t ambitious for the next step and were happy in their given position, which is ok too as you need both in play to keep the business sustainable.
4. Your team are everything
Yours is the team that is going to deliver your results – look after them. Jennie stresses the importance of investing in your team – she implores you to give of your time, your passion and your effort. Not because it might pay off one day, but because your team are your legacy once you’re out of the business. She employed an easy strategy which involved asking her colleagues how they were feeling out of 10. She didn’t expect them to ever be a 10 (because that would be perfect, and she wasn’t after perfection – she was after excellence!). But she stresses that it’s a really easy way of catching someone on the way down if you notice that their number is falling or that they are sitting at the lower end of the scale. Employee health and wellbeing has always been important, but today more than ever we are hearing more about it through health and wellbeing committees, mental health first aiders, mental health awareness week etc. etc.
5. Empower your team from the bottom up
Jennie firmly believes in upside down management which means she puts herself, as CEO, at the bottom of the pyramid. Traditionally, those at the bottom of the pyramid are the ones serving your customers, so she suggests putting them at the top as they are your most important asset. As the most senior leader at the bottom of the pyramid, your role is to empower those at the top and create an environment where they can flourish. She also stresses the importance of being authentic. Your colleagues, particularly those with ambition, look to you as a business leader – don’t make it look easy, she says. Be truthful about the highs and lows, particularly female-to-female as it is women who are often juggling more outside of the office and who shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed to be doing so. If you’re leaving the office to watch your kid’s sport’s day, be honest about it. That goes for blokes, too.
6. Be kind to yourself
If you run a high-performing business you have to be prepared to be tough which means having tough conversations. As a founder, you might also find yourself in a position where you are putting yourself under a lot of stress financially and, at times, that can leave you in a scary place. Plus, you’re dealing with all the pressures of life outside of work. That’s why, for Jennie, it’s important to remember to be kind to yourself. She does this by reminding herself and others to ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’. She admits it’s not always been easy but that, particularly if you are the one shouldering a lot of the responsibility, you must put yourself first so that things don’t start to crumble under the pressure.
About Jennie Johnson MBE
Authentically passionate about improved outcomes for every child, Jennie’s most recent eureka moment in January 2021 led her to founding My First Five Years Ltd, a ground-breaking App to support and empower parents and provide expert knowledge to guide their child(ren) through the unique journey of their first five years.
Formerly Founder and CEO of the multi-award winning Kids Allowed, Jennie is renowned for being down to earth and incredibly honest about the highs and lows of juggling motherhood and running award winning businesses. Awarded an MBE for services to Apprenticeships in 2016, she was the first female to be awarded CEO of the Year in 2017 and Businesswoman of the Year in 2019.
More details about My First Five Years can be found at www.mffy.com.