Learning to be open and show emotion was a turning point for Rachel Houghton, managing director at Business Moves Group.
As a young, ambitious managing director in a male dominated industry, it took me a while to realise that showing your softer side is a strength, not a weakness. My transformational moment was ridding myself of the mask I used to wear in a misguided attempt to demonstrate authority.
A decade or so ago, I genuinely felt that the way to deal with conflict was to be stern. My way of dealing with a difficult situation was to be tougher; I didn’t want people to think I was a 'soft touch'. I thought being authoritative was the same as being assertive. And so I used to push my agenda forward without necessarily engaging with and understanding the support network that was around me. Or in other words, I wasn’t being myself. I ‘accidentally-on-purpose’ created a new persona for MD Rachel, perhaps because I thought hiding my softer side would make me less vulnerable.
The business was very different when I took over in 2008. I was given the opportunity to take the reins and it was going to be a challenge to change direction. And I suppose I felt I had something to prove.
Transitioning from 'colleague' to 'boss'
My main objective all those years ago was to professionalise the business. I therefore became the conduit for the inevitably difficult conversations with those I had previously worked alongside. Going from ‘colleague’ to ‘boss’ was quite unnerving, particularly when many people in the business were stuck in their ways and may have felt nervous about doing things differently. I was also one of the few women in the company and I was almost a generation younger than anyone already in the senior management team – and suddenly I was at the helm. And so I thought it necessary to change my behaviour.
In many ways, my mask became my protection. I felt I had to build a barrier and set boundaries to do what needed to be done. And it worked. For a while, at least.
Being assertive helped me gain respect and buy in. At least that’s what I thought at the time. In retrospect, it was probably down to the fact that I rolled my sleeves up and got stuck in with delivering projects. I guess their thinking was – ‘she might be hard but she doesn’t ask us to do what she isn’t prepared to do herself’ – and I imagine that’s what helped me earn their trust. I started to shift into a mentor rather than just a boss, and slowly that barrier that I built up started to break away.
Showing my personal struggles
Until I made the decision to let my colleagues into my life, I had always kept business and pleasure separate. I decided to allow those lines to blur a little. It wasn’t an overnight transformation. But when I think back, there was a clear turning point. In 2015, my dad – who used to work for BMG as a driver – was taken ill. The whole company supported me. They would come and visit my dad, just to make him smile. It didn’t end there, either. Both my dad and I would receive letters from the team sending their love and best wishes. That made me realise that I was much more respected and valued than I ever realised.
I started to feel confident in showing more of my true colours, my softer side. I still kept some of those boundaries, of course, but I learned how to be more open. It was nerve-racking to let my guard down but I'm truly grateful that I had the foresight to change, because I now have a team of courageous people who show who they really are, and who aren’t afraid to step into the arena. This means we can share ideas and fortunes. It enables us to build solutions that come from a sense of integrity, a sense of what’s right for the business as a whole. And we have a very successful business as a result.
Successful leaders are not afraid to open themselves up or to be challenged. They actively seek constructive criticism and new ideas. More importantly, though, the best leaders are comfortable in their own skin. Only when you’re true to yourself can you hope to take people on a journey with you.