In this edition of Leadership Voices, we’re chatting to Jennifer Eckfield, who owns and operates The Learning Experience in Doylestown, PA. They’re an early education academy and a perfect place for Jen’s blend of passions and expertise to come together. She’s also very active in the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce, serving on a variety of committees and the board. Jen shares some fantastic resources and ideas about how to cultivate culture within your team.
Jen: I pretty much do full cycle business operations from the money end, to the management end, to staffing, to retention, mentoring.
Kristen: Wow! There’s a lot of elements and components of leadership in that very clearly. What got you to this place? What was the first time you realized you wanted to kind of own your own space and be in charge of things?
Jen: Well, I started interestingly. When I was about to graduate college, my family decided that they wanted to open a seasonal business, so my parents bought a Dairy Queen and when I graduated I never thought I’d know so much about vanilla ice cream in my life, but I can tell you pretty much everything you need to know. So I decided when I graduated that I wanted to open as many Dairy Queens as we possibly could. So we went from one to two, to three in a period of two years, so I was working about 100 hours a week, no exaggeration and I did that for about 11 years. I really learned a lot about what good businesses look like, especially from my mother, who is everything she touches pretty much turns to gold, but she’s a hustler, so I had a really great, strong example, of what work ethic looks like, and you earn, I never ask anyone to do a job that I won’t do myself. And I lead by example.
So it was after 11 years, I really didn’t have a passion for it; my biggest decisions in life were rainbow or chocolate jimmies, and I was bored. I decided to go back and get my teaching certificate, got myself certified in the state of Pennsylvania and I started to teach and from there. I was in a classroom for a really long time, and then I wound up moving from a classroom to an administrative role, where I went from being in my own little bubble to managing 30 educators. I learned a lot, I learned a lot of communication, but I also worked in an environment that really promoted good mental health and communication, and emotional intelligence, and growth and change, so while I was learning all of those things about myself I was also learning how to navigate and manage people.
I happened to work in a pretty volatile environment, which my husband was not happy about. He knew I was good at what I did and I loved what I did, but I worked with really traumatized and sometimes violent kids, and that was hard for him. After we had our son, and after all those years in that environment, we started talking about doing something for us, a business that we could do, but it’s hard, because when you’re passionate and you love what you do, it’s hard, you just can’t roll into anything, it doesn’t work that way. One conversation led to the next and then we started talking about daycares and sort of doing our due diligence, is this possible, could we do something like that? Kind of looked into different programs and for me, once I was introduced to The Learning Experience and everything they had to offer curriculum wise, I was in. Because that’s really the journey, just I had the passion, I can still teach, I can still be an administrator, I can still mentor young teachers, and guide them, because everything I learned, I learned from somebody who mentored me.
Kristen: That makes complete sense. What a journey from vanilla ice cream! Question, then; being in charge of a classroom and in charge of a business, do you find you use a lot of the same skills?
Jen: Absolutely, I use all of the same skills. Communication is I would say the most difficult thing anyone has to do, navigating people. You’re in a relationship with everyone, so depending on what your skill set is, or what kind of profession you do, we’re all dealing with people. So you have to teach people how to listen, actively listen, because you know most of the time people that are in a conversation, they’re not listening to what the other person is saying, they’re just thinking about what they’re going to respond with. So a key to teamwork is people learning to actively listen.
We also a lot of mediation here. One, I have a building full of women, so I’m not even going to elaborate on that, and two, it’s hard to use professional courage, and to stand up for what you believe is correct professionally, and then say it to someone’s face, without getting defensive and then holding on to some feelings about it. It’s really hard to teach that, but that was one of the things I learned at my last job. I don’t have to agree with what you do, and whatever choice you make, if that makes me uncomfortable professionally because I don’t think it’s ethical, then I have every right to be able to say that you to you in a professional manner, and then you can reflect on it. That takes a level of communication that has to be a culture that you create in your program, and that’s really what I strive to do here.
Kristen: It sounds like one of the keys to leadership for then is intentionality, like understanding that proper kind of teamwork doesn’t happen by accident, is that fair?
Jen: Absolutely. You need to adjust, and when you’re able to adjust to meet the needs of the other person that’s when you really succeed. There’s no cookie cutter kid, there’s no cookie cutter anybody!
Kristen: Yeah, so I know you’ve talked a lot about mentors and the importance of having folks in your life, are there any books or talks or podcasts or things that are, folks you’re not in direct relationship with that you incorporate into your learning, or that you would recommend to other folks?
Jen: Okay, so one of the first books I ever read and I absolutely loved, it’s called The Fred Factor by Mark Sandborn and focuses on customer service and passion. Also, Who Moved My Cheese. It’s still one of my favorite books, it’s completely applicable, it’s never out of date. I’m a huge fan of Simon Sinek, so I love Start with Why, and Leaders Eat Last, again, it’s about knowing what your purpose is and having your passion, those two books are fantastic
Kristen: Fantastic. I’ve never heard of the Disney ones, so will absolutely add them to my list. Any final thoughts on leadership?
Jen: You are only as good as your team, so mentoring is essential. Also, don’t make excuses. When I opened this place I knew no one, but I got out there and I made connections and I made it work. Don’t make excuses.
Kristen: I totally agree. If you make excuses, you won’t make anything else. Jen, it has been an absolute pleasure. Thanks for taking the time to speak to us today.
Jen: My pleasure, thanks!