I never thought I would be a mother. Even as a kid; I didn’t play with dolls, I didn’t care for babies, and I never had any desire to have children. While other girls were dreaming about getting married and having families, all I wanted was to explore and solve puzzles. I wanted to be Indiana Jones.
So when I became a live-in nanny when I was still a fresh-faced baby myself at 18 years old, I was very unprepared. While yes I was not technically a mother, I loved my girls like I was their mom, and I spent all day by their sides.
On top of being only 18 and immature (not that I knew it at the time), I was also living in a brand new foreign country all by myself while I went to school to learn German. I was living my Indiana Jones dream by exploring Switzerland and the world, while simultaneously living my nightmare of dealing with children.
During this experience, I learned more than I could ever put into words. Everything was either new or just completely unexpected. One thing that was both new and unexpected was how much knowledge I gained of operations during this time.
Being an Au-Pair/Operations Director
Operations can be vague. A basic description of operations is typically someone who searches for problems in a company before they happen to increase leverage and efficiency. Most positions in established businesses aren’t focused on preventing problems, but typically streamlining their current tasks and ventures to save time and money. Startup businesses do not have previous data and experience, so they tend to look to prevent problems while also improving current value.
In this instance, I was the problem solver of every little thing that came up with raising a two and four-year-old with little to no prior knowledge or experience. Basically, I was the Operations Director of a startup.
I had many jobs to uphold as an Au-Pair; a foreign live-in nanny. I was required to take the older girl, Julia, to Kripper two to three times per week and play with the younger child, Olivia, while she was away. I was asked to take them somewhere every day and show them new things and teach them everything I could. My main jobs were to feed them, clothe them, and bathe them. Of course, it was never that straightforward in action.
Their parents worked in major positions in their jobs and were not available to be a big part of their day-to-day routine. This distance caused some issues.
Communication and Organization
Communication was difficult for me and the girls’ parents. While we were all American and language shouldn’t have been an obstacle for three native speakers, it often was. The way things were said were oftentimes misinterpreted, forgotten, or never communicated entirely. This would cause resentment and antagonism. I chose to fix this problem by sending them a word document with my schedule and plans for the day every morning. That way if something needed to change, it could be addressed before the day began.
Since then, I have grown and learned a lot, as have tech industries. Using the tech tools I now know, I would have made sure they had access to my Google Calendar and my to-do lists on Google Keep. That way they could also edit my schedule and lists to their liking, and the schedule would be available anytime they needed a refresher. It would create an open discussion to make changes before they transpired, eliminating any feelings of lack of control for the parents.
How This Translates In a Startup
Operational roles require organization and a high proficiency in communication. Depending on the company, it’s possible you’ll be working with a large assortment of people and may be facilitating tasks in multiple departments. Because of this, being highly communicative to be able to understand what people in all departments, including your customers, require and how you can help them is imperative. All this is especially true in a start-up. When you are in this role, if you are not organized then you will inevitably cause more problems than you will be able to fix.
One of our favorite things to do was go down to the nature parks that litter Zurich’s borders. We would either walk or take a bus and spend the whole day watching animals, enjoying nature, playing on the playground, or making friends. If you have ever dealt with toddlers, you know about their tantrums when they get tired or hungry. Since I had no prior knowledge of children, I found this out the hard way after a long day.
With so many very judgmental elderly Swiss who hated unnecessary noise, my self-esteem and overall confidence were at risk. I had to change my system right away to make sure I was ready for whatever issues could come our way when we were miles from home and comfort. The next day we went out, I took the pram, a blanket, and plenty of snacks and juice among other things. Now the girls could take a break to eat and rest while I walked them home at the end of the day.
Preparation to Succeed
In any operations role, preparation is key. You will need to know how to problem-solve before the problem shows itself. After one terrible park day, I knew we would need to prepare better for the next. I didn’t always need the snacks or the blanket, but having it ready and prepared saved a lot of potential hassle and headache.
In a startup or business, preparation may mean that the company could be releasing a new feature on their website and they need to prepare for every possible situation. The operations director may want to have a backup plan if the site crashes because of too many new users or for overflow. They may need to prepare financially if the new feature does not create enough revenue to pay for the labor put in to start it.
Their job is to make sure every possible outcome has been thought of and covered. Just like with raising children, you never know what may happen. Having all of the available supplies for the worst-case scenario all the way through the best-case scenario is necessary to prevent problems and have a stream-line operation.
Ever Changing Taste Buds
Growing children know change more than anything else in this world. Their bodies and minds are changing, their likes and dislikes, everything. I had many problems with Julia’s ever-changing opinions; especially on what she liked to eat. One day she loved chicken nuggets and ate an entire plate, then the next day she couldn’t even smell it without gagging. Since I didn’t do the grocery shopping, making something she would like was not an easy task.
I had to learn to be quick to change and create judgment on what to feed her. I was often on a tight schedule during the day and they had to eat during a very specific time before it got too late. Therefore I would have to use my judgment on what to cook to make sure she would enjoy it.
This judgment could not have been made if I did not know Julia and her likes and dislikes. Because they change so often, I had to use my understanding of people and ability to empathize. I had to test different foods with her before making them and ask her questions as I did so, almost like a science project. Due to these soft skills, I could easily determine what option would be best for her to try without wasting more time.
Adaptability and Sense of People
While it is common to find computer mistakes, they are easily corrected by some refined coding or an additional tool to counteract it. This is usually a one-time fix occasionally falling to operations. That’s the easy part. Now the majority of problems stem from people.
It could be your customers; they do not understand the program or have trouble utilizing it. Maybe it is your fellow employees in marketing, sales, tech, or other positions. It is necessary to understand what each teammate does as operations is there to accomplish tasks throughout the entire company to create success. If you do not understand how your people work, including their individual strengths and weaknesses, efficiency throughout the company will never reach its highest potential.
Sometimes you will make mistakes and give your teammates projects that do not play well to their individual strengths. You reassess, and you adapt. Rather than giving the revenue retention project to the Financial Administrator who is in charge of spending, give it to an accountant who shows a higher proficiency in budgeting and knows where cut-backs can be made properly. Working to understand your people and what their capabilities are can make a huge difference not only by increasing your leverage, but by creating a better work environment in general.
Many operational roles typically require tech in our semi-post-pandemic world, rather than the soft skills I exhibited in this role. With that being said, it is very important to know that you can not be successful in operations without those skills. Soft skills such as communication, organization, decisiveness, ability to learn, adapt, and understand people. It is crucial to understand your clients in operational roles; even if they are babies.