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Owen Smith

Burberry Ltd

Service & Productivity Manager - Emerging Markets

Read more from Owen Smith

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Leadership Lessons from Supernanny


What can a reality TV personality tell us about leadership? Owen Smith argues that Supernanny could teach L&D a thing or two.

Jo Frost, aka TV’s Supernanny, could easily make the leap into business turnaround/performance management coaching if she wanted. OK, so I’m not suggesting that she starts putting the finance director on the 'Naughty Step', or has a reward chart in boardroom for the CEO to stick coloured squares onto, but there are lots of parallels between what she achieves with dysfunctional families and maximising performance within organisations.

Her tried and tested formula works wonders, but is flexible enough to be tailored to the needs of the family and the individuals within it. If you haven’t ever watched it, you can catch it on Channel 4 or Discovery Home & Health. Her formula is simple – in a nutshell, it is ‘Guidance’ – Observation/Feedback/Coach, coupled with ‘Consequences’ - Recognition and Reward/Discipline.


1. Observation

Rather than leaping in with solutions, she spends a day or more observing and getting a feel for the family dynamic, and gathering examples to enable her to give really effective data-based feedback.

Key Leadership Lesson:

Look before you leap!
It’s all very well going in with bluster for maximum impact, but unless you allow time to really take in the bigger picture, you could end up getting it very wrong indeed, and merely alienate your ‘audience’.

2. Feedback

Supernanny is not afraid of having those uncomfortable but courageous conversations. She is direct and honest, and backs up what she is saying with what she has been seeing. She also explains what is missing, giving clarity on what is acceptable and the correct course of action.

Key Leadership Lesson:

Moral courage!
When giving feedback, have the courage to tell people when they fall short of expectations, backed up with specific, real and objective evidence (gathered during the ‘Observation’ stage). In addition, be absolutely clear on what is acceptable behaviour/performance.

3. Coach

The purists might argue that it’s not true Coaching that she uses, but she is very effective at blending a more directive approach when necessary and then stepping back and asking open questions to empower the parents to come up with their own answers. But perhaps more importantly, she teaches and encourages the parents to share a consistent approach, and also be rigorous in its application, however difficult and draining this may be. She actually starts the ‘Coaching’ ball rolling during the feedback stage, where she asks the family, both parents and kids, what they would like to change and how they would like to be in the future.

Key Leadership Lesson:

Persistence and consistency!
The moment you lapse and ‘allow’ sub-standard performance or behaviour to go unchecked with no feedback (and therefore tacit acceptance), you’re starting to build a mountain for you to climb in order to get back on track. In order to embed the new improved ‘habits’ it requires a large degree of resilience on the part of the leader/manager – don’t expect miracles overnight. Allow your people to make mistakes, but use them as learning experiences so they don’t make them again. Finally, create and agree a unified vision with the team/individual. Without this buy-in, your mountain will become a sheer cliff-face.



4. Recognition and Reward

The use of highly visible and visually stimulating ‘reward charts’, often themed around the children’s specific interests, helps to keep their focus on what they should be doing, and recognises the progress being made with milestone rewards along the way. When Mum and Dad’s behaviour is the root cause of the problem, they sometimes are also represented on the reward charts themselves.


Key Leadership Lesson:

Make it meaningful and keep it visible!
Having a reward scheme is only the first step – are the rewards relevant and meaningful for the individuals, and do they know what they need to do to achieve this? Years ago, I worked for a well-known fast-food chain, which on the whole had a fairly young workforce. For winning ‘Employee of the Month’, they would offer a £20 Argos voucher. There never seemed to be much excitement about this until one day we offered a choice – they could swap this for a £20 HMV voucher instead. From that day, I do not remember ever giving out any more Argos vouchers. Draw your own conclusions…!

5. Discipline

There is always a consequence to bad behaviour. The legendary ‘Naughty Step/Spot’ being the most common, where the naughty child has to go and spend an allotted amount of time after suitable verbal warnings have been given, is a highly effective sanction. This will always end with an apology, but before this Mum or Dad reiterate why the punishment was handed out, for absolute clarity. It takes only very few stints on the Naughty Step before you can see a real difference in behaviour and immediate response to warnings. However, it should be noted that as soon as the parents misuse the Naughty Step, they are chastised and corrected by Ms Frost!

Key Leadership Lesson

Fair and reasonable!
Deal with the specific behaviour or the performance in question, never the individual. There is nearly always a ‘pain barrier’ to go through when first disciplining poor behaviour or performance that has gone unchecked in the past – in the business world be ready for Appeals and Grievances, in addition to tantrums! However, if you can combine being fair and reasonable with the persistence and consistency displayed when Coaching, you’ll see real results and earn respect.
Finally, please don’t think I’m trying to say that leaders should treat their workforce like a bunch of kids (tempting as this may sound!), but there are some clear parallels to be drawn between the Supernanny approach to turning round dysfunctional families and driving and improving performance in business.


In Summary



1. ObservationLook before you leap!

2. FeedbackMoral courage!

3. Coach Persistence and consistency!



4. Recognition and RewardMake it meaningful and keep it visible!

5. Discipline - Fair and reasonable!

Owen Smith is learning & development partner at Bhs. He is one of TrainingZone’s bloggers, and you can follow his musings at

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Owen Smith

Service & Productivity Manager - Emerging Markets

Read more from Owen Smith

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