A Conversation on Women in Leadership – With Jessica Horton

Jess Horton is the General Manager for Go West Tours, a business that operates all across Victoria. Jess has grown with Go West Tours over the past eight years and is continuously striving to be a better leader for her team. When we sat down with her to chat about her experiences, it became clear that her hard work and core beliefs about the tourism industry, leadership, and women in leadership roles have built the foundations for a successful, welcoming company. 

“Tourism is a people business,” Jess says.  “Emotions are what colour our world.”

What was your path to becoming a General Manager for Go West Tours? 

I progressed from being a casual team member to part time, and became the reservations manager. Then we acquired a competing business and I was managing both reservations teams, which was really challenging. Thereafter, I was working full time and started to really get into the higher level management side of things.

That’s where my passion for leadership really started to grow, and it made me realise that that was something I really, really wanted to do. I always remember my mum would tell me when I was a little girl that I was really bossy, and at the playgrounds at kindergarten I would be enforcing the rules and telling people what to do. Now I tell my mum it’s not being bossy, it’s leadership skills! I feel like it’s just really been a part of me for a long time. 

One of the things that really stuck out to me was some of the amazing leaders that I had at Zoos Victoria, and all of the great leaders I had there were women. That was really, really empowering to see these boss women doing their thing. But they were also really empathetic leaders, and I think that that’s such an important space to continue growing, especially in tourism.

I then secured the job as general manager, and I hope to be able to continue developing my leadership skills and create an even better environment for our team to grow. 

You mentioned you had some great women leaders on your journey, can you tell us more? 

Some of the best leaders that I’ve had have been women, they were just so kind and compassionate. I feel as though ‘the human touch’ can be easily forgotten in successful companies. You need to keep the emotional side of things in there, otherwise we just become robots. 

I think it’s really important for women to be in leadership, first of all, because it’s empowering to see somebody who is like you in those positions. Far too often, women can get discounted as too emotional for certain roles, whereas being able to use those emotions effectively is what emotional intelligence is.

It’s incredibly important that we have diversity in leadership as well. Women have so much to bring to the table, so much experience, and a lot of motivation as well. I feel like women, particularly young women, feel as though they’re not going to be as respected because of their gender and age, but they’ve actually got some amazing ideas, so creating a space where they feel safe to be able to share those ideas is really important.

If there’s one piece of advice that I can give to any young women looking to progress their career in tourism, it’s to build your confidence. We’re really not backing ourselves. There’s so much that we can achieve, so it’s just really a point of putting yourself outside of your comfort zone and going for it. 

What do you think the industry could do better to support women as leaders?

One thing is to offer greater flexibility. Women often encounter very unique challenges throughout their lives, quite often that’s related to child rearing. By offering more diverse and flexible working arrangements, women can still access those opportunities that may not have otherwise been available to them.

Something else that I feel we could do better at is to really highlight and champion women who are achieving amazing things. Too often our media is full of negativity and really paints a lot of people in a bad light, and I think it’s really important to have a more positive spin on a lot of the media stories that we have coming out.

Luckily in tourism, we actually have a lot of women in leadership positions, which is absolutely amazing. So we’re clearly doing something right, but it’s really important to continue championing those people and encouraging them to come along to events. Creating events just for women as well, so that it creates that space where particularly young women don’t feel as intimidated because they’re surrounded by other people just like them, and that it’s a safe space for them to share their ideas and share their passions.

Once you get that conversational ball rolling, then the rest of it usually comes pretty easily. 

What would you say makes a good leader?

There are so many skills that make good leaders, but one that I feel is going to be more and more important in emerging leaders is empathetic leadership and emotional intelligence. Tourism, especially, is a people-based business, and we’re dealing with people from very diverse backgrounds, from all around the world, and they’re all here to have a great time.

They’re excited, they’re full of emotion, and there’s nothing worse than coming across somebody who works in service and they don’t have the energy. That often comes from leadership top-down. That’s why I feel that empathetic leadership is so important.

The other side of leadership that’s really important is backing your staff. If there’s one thing that makes your staff disengaged, it’s not feeling valued. Making sure that your team feels valued and that they are participating towards a greater good and contributing. Actually seeing that contribution in real time is so empowering to that individual, and it really gives you the space to build your team up. And they are more likely to go above and beyond for you when they feel valued too.

Finally, we need to be looking beyond the financial incentives, beyond what people are being paid for their positions, and really getting down into what makes people feel truly valued. I think that that is what leadership in the future needs to focus more strongly on. 

What steps have you taken to work on your own leadership skills? 

One way to improve and develop my leadership skills is completing an advanced diploma in Leadership in Management. I was also really lucky when I was accepted into the Melbourne Tourism Leadership Program (MTLP), and I’m now surrounded by other people who work in my industry but are at different levels, positions and sectors.

There’s events, there’s marketing, there’s hotels, tour operators – and it’s so interesting to be in a room with all of these amazing professionals. Great leadership is being able to take ideas and experiences from other people and make them your own, to blend them all together and find more effective ways of leading your team.

The other opportunity that I’ve had is being part of this ambassador program for the Young Tourism Network. It’s been a great experience and I really hope that I can help inspire more young people to come into the industry because it is an amazing, dynamic, diverse industry.

No two days are the same. There’s always different challenges and opportunities to grow and extend yourself, and it can quite literally take you anywhere in the world. So it’s definitely an industry that I would recommend anyone to try because it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, tourism can be for you. 

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