Fiona McDonald is a coach, trainer and hypnotherapist, building a list of clients after leaving her career as a corporate social worker.
‘I struggled in school because I was an undiagnosed dyslexic, and I spent a long time being made to feel I couldn’t achieve. As a result, knowing that learning is a key part of growing is a value I hold strongly. I’ve always wanted to stretch myself and take on new challenges and interests – I have a short attention span for things that are insufficiently stimulating, and it’s here you get an insight into how dyslexia can be a gift, rather than a disability.’
It’s believed that dyslexia affects 10% of the population, 4% severely; and many more have other learning difficulties that are not necessarily visible or explicit in the workplace. McDonald’s aim is to help people who might be suffering from some of these problems (many of whom do not even realise there is an underlying cause). ‘I recently delivered training on helping people affected by specific learning difficulties (SpLDs). The aim is to get the learner to understand how an individual feels – I ask them to write about something important to them, but with their left hand. You experience what it’s like to be disorientated – trying hard to achieve something, but finding that something else is stopping you.’ For some, just having to write on a board in front of a group of people can cause anxiety. ‘My role is to help those who have undiagnosed learning difficulties or simply thought they weren’t very good.’
Part of McDonald’s career change was to train as a hypnotherapist. ‘The first step is to address the myths and prejudices around hypnotherapy; that it’s a kind of new-age or hippy construct. In fact, the results hypnotherapy can achieve with phobias, addictions and trauma can be remarkable, and actively help improve people’s lives.’ Trying to stop smoking, overcoming anxieties and improving social confidence are three key areas where hypnotherapy can get notable results. ‘I’ve recently helped a client overcome their flying phobia by doing exercises that resonated with them, not solving the situation per se but dealing with the underlying fears. That person still doesn’t enjoy flying, but it has gone from pathological fear to something controllable. The result is that they go on holiday and enjoy their life much more.’
Different types of thinker
What makes a good trainer? ‘It’s about making sure you tick everyone’s box – we all learn differently. When you have a roomful of people, I ensure there’s something for auditory thinkers, kinaesthetic thinkers and visual thinkers. I also introduce emotional and evocative exercises that get people to think from another perspective. It’s good when you feel you’ve achieved that and stretched someone to think differently.’ McDonald draws again on personal experiences to influence this. ‘If you’re in a service role, think about when you’ve been on the receiving end of good or bad service yourself. What could you take from those experiences that you could then directly do differently in post?’ Empathy with the other person is absolutely central to improving our own work. ‘So the exercise might be, mirroring good experiences and then considering how to adopt strategies into your day-to-day.’
Another essential element is to make training fun. ‘You learn more effectively if you’re enjoying yourself. Making the day fun does not trivialise it or mean you’re not taking it seriously – actually it makes it a much more effective day. I always ensure the day is entertaining and that attendees go away feeling good about themselves and about what they’ve learnt.’
McDonald worked as a full-time social worker for ten years before deciding she was unhappy in the profession and wanted to make a major lifestyle change. ‘I had a small son and I wanted to be in control of my own time. In social work there is an expectation that you work well beyond your 37-hour week. It can be a difficult, gruelling job.’ Indeed, the profession is a taxing one – recent DfE figures suggest that of 684 social workers who left a local authority in 2013-14 to a known location, 64% left social work in England altogether. (As a new data collection, the figures are presented as experimental statistics).
‘In addition,’ McDonald says, ‘I was ready for new challenges and further opportunities for self-development. If you have built your career to a certain level, it’s worth considering whether the time is right to break away and follow your own path. You have to be self-motivated, willing to work under your own steam and accept that you don’t get the same level of positive feedback and workplace camaraderie that you might be used to. You also need to know that the first year is likely to be difficult as you build up repeat clients. But, the advantages of being independent are probably more numerous than you realise until you’re doing it.’
It takes courage to leave a comfortable, secure role and become self-sufficient in doing what you want to do. McDonald’s approach has been a portmanteau one: break away, but ensure you build up a good contact list so you can continue your work in a consultant capacity if needs be.
Setting your own goals
‘As a supervising social worker I was most proud of an international and national awareness-raising project, Clear as Mud. This was designed to help foster carers have a better understanding of dyslexia and other learning difficulties; it featured five short films which I directed, and five e-bulletins shown at the same time each morning across a week.’ The idea was that people would only have to set aside ten minutes each day to learn something new, relevant and important, in an entertaining way – McDonald’s principles on optimum learning in action. ‘I was passionate about this because I felt strongly that looked-after children (LACs) are not only disadvantaged in the system, often having to move from one school to another, but also because sometimes their disadvantaged background means educational opportunities are missed.’ There is often misdiagnosis of specific learning difficulties, according to McDonald, ‘and sometimes they are simply scapegoated because of their background.’ Being a trainer and coach means actively improving people’s lives from looking at situations differently – not offering magic bullets, but putting incremental changes into place that can be adopted relatively easily and without needing huge injections of finances.
Today she is helping people on a number of platforms – phobias and anxieties through the hypnotherapy, learning difficulties via coaching and training, and continuing her work as a consultant social worker helping foster carers, on an ad-hoc basis. ‘It’s a satisfying mix of roles. I would say to anyone contemplating a career change, or who might feel a bit stuck in their job that when you do the right thing, everything else fits into place.’ Start taking control, she advises; undertake training. ‘Look at adult education and speak to the people who are doing the kind of role you want to do. Find out everything about it.’ Try a careers adviser; ‘the relatively small cost of doing so versus the potential change makes it a great investment.’
We spend such a huge proportion of our time in work, she concludes, ‘that you owe it to yourself to make sure it’s enjoyable. If not, it can impact on so many other areas of your life.’
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.