Leadership lessons from Tirza Dak, a picture-perfect HPO!

One of the day care centers that falls under the umbrella of the Dak childcare organization is Tirza Dak in The Hague. In 2010, an High Performance Organization (HPO) diagnosiswas carried out at Dak and Tirza Dak emerged as one of the highest scoring centers. According to the HPO concept, this means that the organization attains a high score in all 5 HPO factors related to successful performance. Tirza Dak is an excellent example of an HPO. Not only did this center score highest in the HPO diagnosis, but the head of the center, Nancy Doruyter, was nominated for Center Manager of the Year (2010) and Tirza Dak was nominated for the Team of the Year in 2009. In a nutshell, you cannot help but wonder what the secret is behind this combination of successes. Has your interest been piqued as well? Read on.

The moment you meet Nancy Doruyter from Tirza Dak, you are struck by her enthusiasm. She gives off a unique energy. We began our conversation by talking about what a typical workday for her is like and what makes her work special.

“Naturally you need an office, but, being a manager, I don’t like to spend too much time there. I try to show my face as much as possible and to be available for everyone. In the morning, when the children are dropped off, I’m there for the staff. I spend some time in the group chatting with the staff and parents. When I see my team so hard at work, I’m filled with pride. Time and again, they do their very best to organize something special for the children. A great example of this is MEMO, which stands for ‘memorable moments’. For example, a musician from the conservatory may visit and play music for and with the children, i.e. creating a memorable moment.”

According to the HPO concept, management quality plays an important role, but no doubt there are times when managers struggle to deliver the necessary quality.

“When I first stared in this position, it was hard to form a bond with the staff. At first, they did not want me here at all. A sort of hierarchy had been established in which I was not particularly welcome. They were also used to a different way of working and this familiar working method was ‘threatened’ by my arrival.”

What changed all that?

“Communication. Everyone’s opinion matters. And I immediately tackled the issue of desired and undesired behavior and treated everyone equally in that regard. They now know exactly where I stand. They are treated fairly and also know that, if something happens, they will be supported. Being the manager, I am always available to them. What matters first and foremost is to set an example. Through my behavior, I show what’s important. Otherwise, I can’t demand the same behavior from my employees. Some people wrongly believe that management is only about allowing freedom, but that freedom demands clarity. I give my team responsibility, but there are rules that must be adhered to by everyone. Personally, I always try to set a good example. For example, say that one of the staff has been to the hospital. It’s only normal to call the next day and show interest.”

You mention honesty, availability and freedom combined with clarity as factors that make a difference. But what kinds of qualities does a manager need to build trust?

“An obvious quality would be consistency in following up on agreements and actions, but, first and foremost, daring to be vulnerable. If I make a mistake, I’m the first one to admit it. I, too, make mistakes and do not always do the right thing. This includes during team meetings. I try to make myself vulnerable in that instance by, for example, admitting that ’your idea is better than mine, so we’ll do that instead’. Being vulnerable also means daring to see beyond your own nose and saying ’sorry’ to your employees or ‘I could’ve done that differently’. At the end of the day, what really matters is Tirza, not me.”

Has your team ever surprised you?

“I recently turned 40 and the entire team put on a party for me. On my birthday itself, there was breakfast waiting for me outside my door and, on Friday evening, they organized a surprise party. I was extremely touched and very proud of them. Obviously, there was also the fact that they nominated me for Center Manager of the Year, which clearly shows that they appreciate my work.”

What has been an important learning lesson?

“I’m an open book and not particularly patient, so I don’t like to explain things more than three times. When something’s clear to me, I need to remind myself to take the necessary time to explain it to others. As a manager, I’ve learned that it is important not to force anything. Some things simply have to be done and that’s something I try to be completely honest about. Even when it’s not especially enjoyable. This kind of clarity also inspires confidence. Another learning experience has been to prepare employees early on when it comes to major changes. For example, we were open 51 weeks in 2010, but will be open 52 weeks in 2011. In May of last year, I told my staff that this change would take place. During the summer, it became official and no negative comments were heard from Tirza Dak, whereas opposition was encountered from other units. This taught me the importance of being open from the very start. Even if a development is not set in stone, it helps to inform people about it early on.”

You radiate considerable enthusiasm. What makes Dak such an appealing work environment for you?

“I started as a group caregiver and was given every possible opportunity to grow. The organization is crystal clear. By that I mean that there are no hidden agendas and everyone is treated fairly. I have been working for Dak for 19 years now. That clarity is also a good fit with my personality. It’s important to feel content and appreciated, but that should be based on honesty and openness.”

In a nutshell, the most important leadership lessons from Tirza Dak:

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