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 Rachael Flanagan.
A wonderful inspirational Business-woman whose enthusiasm for business, entrepreneurship and success is infectious. Rachael’s business journey started at only 18 years old with £20 worth of black and white flyers and a mop. 15 years on, Mrs Buckét employs over 250 staff across the South West and Wales and continues to grow rapidly.
Rachael, her business and her team have been recognized continuously over the years. They have won prestigious awards such as Business of the Year 51+ Employees with The Business Leader Awards, Business Leader of the Year with Inspire Wales Award and Young Entrepreneur Award with Welsh Women mean Business. Additionally, Rachael has been invited to both Downing Street and to a NATO summit in recognition of her outstanding service.
Alongside Mrs Buckét, Rachael has made it her mission to support, guide and mentor other budding entrepreneurs to reach their business goals and get to that next level of success. Rachael’s vibrant, go-getter attitude shines brightly, she is an inspiration to all that meet her. She is a true leader.
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?
In the summer of 2005, I opened my A-Level results to find I was leaving college at 18 with an ‘Unclassified’ in Business. This only entrenched further those damning words of my teachers: “You’ll never ‘make it’ as a business owner”. I started Mrs Buckét with only £20 worth of black and white flyers and a mop and today, I’m the proud owner of an award-winning cleaning operation worth over £3.5 million, employing over 250 members of staff in the South West and Wales and growing.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I pretended to be the bookkeeper and used a different voice to chase up debts. I went into my run down office to ring people as I couldn’t afford a bookkeeper and no-one knew it was me. The benefits of going to acting school played out for me in business! However, it was a valuable lesson to learn. Don’t waste your time on doing tasks that you not best placed to do. It’s about having aces in places and playing to both your strengths and allowing your team to do the same. Genuinely I wouldn’t have been in financial difficulties in the early days if I had known this and had delegated and invested and employed the right people.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Mike Leahy put me in for UK Young Entrepreneur Awards which I won in Claridges. If it wasn’t for Mike I wouldn’t have learnt at such an early stage about the importance of PR for business profile and sales. He helped me to believe in myself as a business leader.
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?
Our purpose today is to change the perception of the cleaning market and this came from the very early days of starting up at Mrs Buckét. This was when I failed my business A’ level and I told everyone I was going to be a cleaner and start a cleaning business. People were condescending of my choice and I felt I was looked down upon for becoming a cleaner. This was my catalyst it gave me the drive and passion to want to stand for something and have the mission to change the perception of the cleaning market to one of value and positivity. With the increased demand for commercial cleaning Mrs Buckét has taken huge strides to change cleaners from being viewed as invisible and underpaid to skilled, invaluable and essential members of the UK workforce.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
It was a very challenging time for myself and for my team during the pandemic. Leading by example and showing up in the business are so important especially during difficult times. In the early days of remote working we would have 2 calls a day to maintain communication and reassure the team. It was a very hands-on and reactive time as we learnt to be responsive in delivering to clients and keeping our incredible teams safe. I ensured that I was there for the team on a daily basis, inspiring them and keeping them positive and just being present for them during bad times. The early stages was about me stepping up and being a visual leader x 10 at different levels in the business. Visibility matters in times of crisis. Leading from the front has always been important to me, It means I am often hands on and I demonstrate leadership by going first. It’s crucial for a bricks and mortar business like mine that is always growing and has its biggest growth spurts throughout crisis such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. In some situations, this means as a leader I do the tough things first to show how it can be done. Showing is sometimes easier than telling. As a leader I do not believe in asking their teams to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I think a lot of the kudos and dedication I have from my team is because they know my story and have seen how hard I have worked to achieve this success. Two things you can’t argue with hard work and results.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The start-up stage was difficult and I had times when I felt like giving up. All my friends were in University and I was grafting and cleaning behind the scenes with no money and no investment for the business. This was the hardest time.
My motivation comes from creating a legacy and movement in the cleaning industry that will be remembered. Our core purpose is to change the perception of the cleaning industry and give value and respect to these essential and outstanding workers. Also, to give people opportunities to grow and develop in the business. I genuinely wake up excited to go to work as I’m building something of me that is bigger than me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Showing up and being there for my team.
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?
Getting them together, talking to them about the vision, being passionate, asking the right questions and deep listening to their feedback and ideas as they are truly engaged and enthused that they often have so many great ideas. Involving the team in strategy, team building and marketing creates the ‘we’ and ‘us’ in Mrs Buckét. We go away every year with the team for a strategy retreat and it’s always an exciting time allowing everyone to contribute and then see their ideas play out and feel proud that their voice makes things happen.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I always think it’s best to deliver difficult news in person. I’m always open and honest which people respond to.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It’s even more important to have a plan in unpredictable times but your plan will change a lot more and evolve. Always keep your vision in the forefront of your plan and I also think you should have a really good support network around you, mentors, accountants that you are speaking to on a regular basis.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
It’s important for a leader to look after your wellbeing in order to help the business get through difficult time as it’s detrimental if the leader is mentally exhausted or lacking in mental bandwidth due to overwhelm or over scheduling. I felt mentally exhausted last year during the pandemic and decided to take a day off a week to train for a mountain climb. I then took time out to do a hike in the Alps which helped me recharge and reset.
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?
- Businesses not investing in their brand and in quality marketing
- Leaders not investing in a mentor / coach
- Leaders not spending enough time on the business
- Not investing in getting talent into the business quick enough and thinking about the long term benefits / ROI
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
- Putting the brand at the forefront the of the business
- Upping your own personal profile — everyone has a story that people are interested in and people buy into people over brands.
- Standing out from the competition big time
- Do more of what works
- Being agile and seeking out new opportunities to grow
- Listen to your customers and always look at ways to add value
- Keep building strong relationships with your clients as that is often a growth area that people forget about.
- Cashflow — important to have cash control whether you think it’s fun or not it’s got to be done. Without cash flow, you don’t have a business. Having clear processes and procedures for payments e.g deposits taken upfront if you’re a service business. If you handle regular clients on a retainer you can outsource it and get your direct debit system in place so you’re in control of pulling the cash. Measure debtor days and in my business, we have a debtor system that we monitor regularly and is brought to the senior team if any payments are over 30 days.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. 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.
- To look after your wellbeing — Our lives are busy and we need to ensure that we take time out and look after ourselves. I like to hike and have space and out in nature where I think and make decisions. During the pandemic I felt mentally exhausted and decided to take a day off a week to train for a mountain climb. I then took time out to do a hike in the Alps which helped me recharge and reset.
- Investing in your brand — You need to stand out in the marketplace. We invested £100k on our brand during the pandemic. I can honestly say that it has made us stand out and get a return.
- Investing in a mentor — Over the years I can see the difference when I have not invested personally in a mentor. I wasn’t being held accountable and being kept on track. Being the only MD can be lonely and not asking for help is going to impact your business. Always invest in this.
- Know your numbers — Measure and have clear KPIs to know what’s working and what isn’t e.g in our business all our depts have KPIs and clear roles and responsibilities where your team has ownership on KPIs which they can influence and own.
- Do high-value tasks — This is usually building assets, building relationships, leading, and selling. You need to check in with yourself and I put the mirror up to myself to ensure I’m focusing on the high-value tasks as a priority. Success is often hidden in the 10% of tasks that we avoid doing but that’s where the highest return is.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t be vanilla — have quirks and be different, it’s good to be different in business and stand out. A strong brand that stands out from your competition. Get noticed.
How can our readers further follow your work?