Little School founder Maria Johnson: leader profile

Teachers who turn to entrepreneurship bring to the table a mix of curiosity, caring and ambition – Global Women member Maria Johnson is just that, we caught up with her to learn more about her journey.

Maria Johnson is the owner and managing director of the award-winning Little School, private preschools in Wellington and Auckland, which won Wellington Best Small to Medium Business 2011 and won her Wellington Regional Business Woman of the Year 2011. In 2012 she was Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist and in the Next Women of the year awards she was an Education finalist. Maria is passionate and ambitious about young children discovering their abilities and providing them with the knowledge, skills and values to make them lifelong learners. Exciting project

Johnson’s latest adventure is a new company which will complement Little School. Little School caters for children 2-6 years old, while the newly-created Nursery School will take these children on at an earlier stage: babies until they’re two years old.

To allow Nursery School children to transition straight to Little School, Johnson has bought and converted the house next door to Khandallah Little School. This first Nursery School will open this month, October 2015. Role models

Her mum and dad. Both installed in her values and morals, and hardworking ethics – for example growing up on a farm, she had to get up early in morning to get chores done.

“I came from a family where Mum and Dad both worked, and there were lots of expectations on us as children of respect and responsibility. I definitely think those hardworking ethics have helped me become the successful person I have in my career.”
Hardest lesson learnt

One of Johnson’s hardest lessons was learnt experimenting with international expansion.
With plans to establish Little School in China with the support of Education New Zealand and the Consulate General in Shanghai, in 2013 Johnson spent six months in Wuxi, China.
Sadly, her business partner turned out fraudulent and she was forced to pull out. Now she is fighting a copyright battle against that partner to keep the exclusivity of her Little School brand.
“If you’re trying to open up a school to local children you do need a local partner – but my biggest lesson was do due diligence on that partner! Even though I thought I had done it, keep your wits about you and be business savvy – don’t leave it up to trust-based relationships that work well in our small ecosystem back home, and is particularly strong in the education sector.”
“I lost a lot of money and opportunity, but have learned a lot about being harder with contracts. Numbering every single line in contracts so you know nothing has been added, making sure you sign the bottom of every page not just the signature at the back.”
“It has been a great lesson. I enjoyed working with my Chinese staff up there, they were fantastic – but there’s a few bad apples everywhere you go.”

To keep developing as a leader

Along with being a teacher comes a love of learning, so professional development to upskill comes naturally to Johnson – particularly up-skilling in business knowledge. Having concentrated the majority of her career on education, she’s found she has needed to put more business foundations in place to ensure the strategy’s sound and the business grows.

She’s recently an alumni of the Icehouse owner-manager programme, and reads whatever she can get her hands on – from Jim Collins to Verne Harnish – to gain knowledge she can pour back into her companies.

“Aside from upskilling myself, I do everything I can to pass learning onto staff as well. I hold regular Powerpoint sessions so they too are learning about business sides of things – which is a big step for teachers.”

“One of our values is empowering. This isn’t just about empowering children and schools, but empowering parents to be better parents, and empowering the team to be the best teachers they can possibly be – to pass knowledge onto children and families.”

Qualities of a leader?

Johnson says leaders need to set a vision and culture that everybody in the company is aligned with – and that “everyone has been part of developing so it’s not top down, its 360 inclusive.”

She sees her role as there to serve her team, to make sure they have everything they need in order to be able to do their jobs properly.

“You have to be able to walk the talk. Not just about sitting in your office and making those big decisions – if I have to roll my sleeves up if there’s a child that’s vomited everywhere then I will help out if that’s needed.

“As a leader it’s not about being hands in the company, it’s about being hands over the company in order to grow, BUT I still think sometimes rolling your sleeves up when you can see staff need you is quite empowering to them. That you’re not above doing the jobs that they do.”

The wrong culture can undermine everything – Johnson says finding the right people to be with you on your journey will help define your culture and create vision and success. Don’t put up with C-players.


Have people to sit and chat with.

“It doesn’t matter the industry you’re growing your business in, you still have many of the same issues and worries as business owners in other sectors. Talking with people that have been through similar situations where can share experiences and can feel not so alienated. It can be a lonely job when you’re an entrepreneur creating a new company and there is a lot of tall poppy syndrome in New Zealand. I found a lot of comfort in meeting people who have been on similar journeys. Learn from them and read as much as you can, upskill yourself, go on courses, learn from the best.

“I find that’s one thing I love about New Zealand: people are so happy to help you and spend time with you, mentor you, share their stories. So meeting those like-minded people has been incredibly valuable. Otherwise it can be a very lonely journey – mentors can help steer you in the right direction so you don’t make the same mistakes they have.”

Little known fact about Johnson?

She is a twin and in turn, went on to have twins herself.