We asked Forward Ladies award-winner, Helen Tonks, what it takes to be successful in business and how to encourage more women to take on leadership roles.
Read this insightful Q&A and be inspired.
What does your role involve?
My role has changed enormously over the years and has regularly seen me out of my comfort zone.
When Mark and I founded Hydraulics Online, he already had 13 years’ experience within the industry under his belt. He was therefore the ‘hydraulics’ and, with my background in financial services and strategic change management, I was the ‘everything else’.
As the business has grown since, I have grown with it. I’m still in charge of the ‘everything else’, but I now have the support of a fabulous team. I’m responsible for: vision and strategy, brand and marketing, PR and external communications, website, legislative and legal aspects, ISO 9001 quality management, human resources, finance and community engagement.
I thrive on the variety and on managing and juggling the big picture… it certainly means that Fridays come around quickly!
What makes a good leader?
Somebody who is values-driven, with an infectious passion and energy for their vision, and takes others on a shared journey. A team player who knows they don’t have all the answers, treats others with respect as equals, recognises their own weaknesses and lets others be heard and empowers them to act. Somebody who is pragmatic while building a culture of continuous improvement and providing an environment and the necessary resources that ensures the right work-life balance for all.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given during your career?
Having your own business isn’t the easy option. And the most important advice we were given came right at the very beginning: “Don’t lose your nerve.” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reminded myself of that as we have grown and sought new challenges.
I’ve taught myself that you need to be able to take the knocks too; stand up and dust yourself off when things don’t go to plan. Life isn’t always fair. Fact. Instead of feeling hard done to and sorry for yourself, you need to look for what you can learn from a given situation instead. There’s always something that can take away to make you and the business smarter and stronger.
What does it take to be successful in business?
Know your customers and put them at the heart of your business. Really. Make sure you understand their pain points, what they value and what they don’t – to be sure that your proposition is delivering. And keep talking to them. I don’t believe in business-to-business or business-to-consumer – it’s all human-to-human at the end of the day.
Beyond that it’s about developing a business culture and team where everyone is really pulling together, is empowered and feels invested in the company’s vision and future. You also need a scalable operational model that enables you to deliver consistently; we secured ISO 9001 accreditation in 2014, but I wish we’d invested in it sooner – it’s been invaluable to us for reinforcing a continuous improvement mindset.
Surround yourself with a great support network: your trusted advisers and critics who can be your sounding board and maybe help fill the gaps in your own knowledge, share best practise etc. It’s only your competitors that don’t want to see you succeed.
And never think that you’ve “made it”, got all the answers, got the perfect business… Goalposts move all the time. Complacency is dangerous and leads to failure; you need to stay on your toes. And keep moving.
How can we encourage more women to take up leadership roles?
This is a tough one. There are so many factors at play and I just don’t think you can generalise; personal circumstances and motivators have a massive bearing. But I do think that mentoring can be a very powerful tool.
Even though I had reached a senior level in my earlier corporate career, because Mark led on the technical and customer-facing side of this business, I kept my head down in the background for a long time, quietly getting on with the ‘everything else’. I wasn’t filled with self-doubt as such, but I did question whether I would be taken seriously – particularly in this industry as it’s very male-dominated. I guess it was a case of the ‘imposter syndrome’. Then something shifted in me about two years ago and I’ve not looked back since.
I was recently invited to be a business mentor – to another woman with her own business – and I leapt at the chance. It can be lonely running your own business, and exhausting when you’re constantly having to be creative and innovative with the scarce resources that you have – especially with your own time. To have had somebody to guide me through, be my sounding board and to help me find and believe in the answers already within me would have been invaluable.
Fellow business women you admire?
I don’t have female business role models as such, although l regularly meet other business women who inspire me in some way – who I take a snippet of good advice, insight or learning from. Sometimes that may be a recognised leader or professional in their field, a keynote speaker. Sometimes it can be a friend who is pushing through life’s personal battles as she manages her own career, business or even ill-health. All while juggling everything else that her life and family are throwing at her.
I most admire those who have created something from nothing. Who have had an idea, a vision and acted upon it… on whatever scale that may be.
Success is so personal; we aren’t all striving for the same thing. I simply want to keep learning and growing and be the very best version of “me” that I can be.