As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Richard “Richie” Huffman, founder, president and chief executive officer of Celebree School. He launched the company in 1994, and over the course of two decades has grown Celebree School from a single preschool into 26 locations and Maryland’s largest, privately held chain of childcare centers. Huffman believes in Growing People Big and Small™ — by creating environments that educate and nurture young children and growing and developing leaders within the company, as well as franchisees. He continues to guide the core vision of Celebree, one that embraces change, innovation, and the constant pursuit of self-improvement. Alongside Celebree School’s executive team, Huffman is committed to being a part of each step and supporting the success of every franchise and franchisee’s entrepreneurial journey. Huffman can address setting industry standards within early childhood education, shaping a dynamic corporate culture, franchising, as well as leadership and entrepreneurship.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Sometimes you need to do multiple things to find out where you deserve to be. Back in high school, I didn’t take the typical path of going to college. I knew I wanted to create my own path through entrepreneurship. It began with bakery distributing (getting up at 3am and 21% of what I took out the door and sold to customer). Then I got into real estate and learned how to allocate a portfolio (business vs. real estate). From there, I got into the tanning and nail salon business, as it was trending and popular at the time. Finally, I got into childcare/ preschools, which was introduced from my parents. From my experience, the key is looking for new opportunities especially when you are young. I’m so grateful that at the age of twenty-six, I knew I found something I wanted to dedicate my life to. With that, I went back and sold the bakery, the real estate, and the salon to focus on preschools.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
Funny and mistake is hard in the same sentence…
We had an incident at one our schools where one of our children got out of the playground area. I had to sit down with the parent- the parent was speaking from a parent’s perspective of the way they felt. They felt their child was unsupervised and snuck out, etc. and being 26 years old at the time, I wasn’t married and didn’t have children, so it was difficult for me to navigate. The only thing I could relate to was the feeling I had for my two dogs that ran away at one point. I know NOW that was a HORRIBLE example for parents. It was very clear once I said it that I was WRONG. But it was the best relating feeling I had when speaking to these people. Boy has that changed today after having 5 kids.
Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take away’ you learned from that?
I would say a key learning from that experience is to be more aware and try to have a different perspective when speaking to different people. I have so much more experience now that I did then and I can relate to more people now from the journey I have been on.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I have so much passion for the early childhood education industry and I knew I wanted to change the perception of it. It was known as daycare or a place you dropped your kid off because you had to go to work. Our teachers were called “daycare workers.” For the responsibilities and the impact these folks were having on children, I knew I had to change that perspective. Today our directors are called business leaders and our teachers are called “early education professionals/ teachers”. Twenty-seven years later, we’ve learned the first five years of a child’s life are the most important. We learned we HAD to pay attention to it. As times moved on, we not only changed our perspective of preschool teachers, but also what we learned about early education. We are so proud that we have been able to elevate and give the respect to teachers and directors that they have always deserved. Best of all, families and communities are recognizing it as well!
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Throughout the years, there have been instances of hardship, mostly downturns in the economy and recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. I can say the pandemic was probably the most difficult out of my twenty-seven years in this business. In other situations, and turn downs of the economy, I know certain levers I can pull and adjust to make things work. With COVID, however, someone is telling you to go home and don’t return, there unfortunately aren’t too many levers you can control and pull there. It was very different this time around. To this day, the one thing that has always gotten us through is always reminding ourselves and focusing on the mission AND the company strategy. Our success through the pandemic really came from getting back to our original strategy as soon as possible and start recreating that momentum.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges?
Never. Never thought of giving up for a second. I knew that stopping or giving up, we weren’t going to close our schools. I knew I had to continue the momentum to the strategy. That’s where the motivation gets us through these challenges. Focusing on the big picture/ mission/vision/values that lead to our successes was also a key driver to stay the course and continue to build the business to all that it could be, especially now with franchising. It’s a whole new challenge and focus. It’s also a whole new mission helping families start and open their own businesses in an industry that I believe is extremely rewarding in so many different ways.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I touched on it earlier, but keeping the organization focused on the mission, vision, and the strategy while also being sensitive to everybody else. Everybody looks at challenging times in different ways. It is really important as a leader to be sensitive to others views of the situation, but also remind them to keep focused on the goals of the vision and what we set out to accomplish.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
During uncertain times, it’s more important to turn up the communication. During the early stages of the pandemic, we shot more videos and had more zoom calls (in addition to surveys) as well as continued to pour into our teams and give assurance that we are okay, we are going to get through this. We reminded our teams that we have to stay open and we have care for essential workers (especially doctors and nurses) during these times. As a brand, this was our time to shine and step up to be a thought leader during a challenging time.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
We create our future. Is it going to be the same straight narrow path that we see? No. Maybe. Sometimes. Sometimes it’s not. But the future we have and the vision we have of our future is very predictable and critical.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
They pull back on communication
Stay in the problem too long
Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
When the economy gives us an inch, we take a foot. Always take more than the economy is giving you. I always say, be bold! Historically, January was always a big enrollment month for us. We’d really raised the bar to increase traction for our schools during this time with tactics such as open houses, marketing, driving enrollments, etc. In the area, we were one of the only schools who continued with this. We were bold and we caught up. When organizations and people are growing, there is a lot of excitement and in return people feel happy. This also helps boost morale and lift spirits, enticing our employees to keep up with the amazing work. I walked out of an advisory meeting and all of the advisors said “the energy in this room is unreal…it inspires me to do better”- our Celebree board said that about Celebree employees who presented.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Communication: During the pandemic, daily zooms, huddles and internal communications was and will continue to be extremely important to achieve success.
2. Keep your vision: Never lose sight of the direction you once set for your brand.
3. See the mission: Get back to the mission to keep the momentum going and business growing.
4. Listen to your people: Taking advice / guidance and making decisions is critical.
5. Stick to strategy: We’ve seen over the last year that strategy is key and even more so, pivoting your strategy to stay current and nimble with the times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You didn’t come this far just to come this far”
I stared at this a LOT during the pandemic
Inside this quote is inspiration
Its all the above
Its game time!
I have it on my mirror at home and on my white board in my office-
When you wake up in the morning, everyone thinks I pop out of bed ready to roll….not quite. Once I read this quote, I think “you know what, it is game time” and there’s a lot of people on the team who are working as hard if not harder than I am so….lets’ go!
How can our readers further follow your work? (LinkedIn, social, etc.)
Linked in : Richard Huffman
Other that I didn’t mention but is important and I would like to share:
Most people probably don’t realize how rewarding our industry is and owning a Celebree school is. The coaching and developing of people. We grow people big and small.
When you have the ability to coach someone to be better than they were when you found them…there’s an amazing responsibility there. It’s so rewarding when you can be an influence in someone’s life to help them in so many different ways. You see them change and their life change and you can put them on a new path for the better! That’s the best part of franchising.