“I had a vague idea but not really a plan”

When I was little I always wanted to teach. I had a vague idea but not really a plan. I was doing well in school until I hit about 14 (hormones, world experience, divorce – parents not mine!) and just lost interest in school. I busked my way through a handful of ‘O’ levels and got out of there as quickly as I could.

For the next nine or so years I crawled my way through various jobs: waitressing, shop work, architect’s assistant, clothes concession manager, data entry clerk (even in shipping 1980’s job titles were not aspirational), bar manager, gym receptionist and tons of temping office type jobs. It all just seemed like an aimless meandering at the time. However, when I look back, some of this experience gave me the best grounding in the world of work. I worked with all sorts of people at all sorts of levels in huge variety of settings. I learned loads about team work and masses about good and bad management and leadership – real experiential learning.

In the early 90’s I left my gym job (very telling when you look at me!) and had my first ever period of unemployment. The Dublin job centre made me go for an interview with a charity, Carmichael Centre (a little like UK CVSs). It was for a role as Assistant to the Director. I told her honestly that I didn’t have a clue why FAS had sent me but that I was very organised and efficient, had a good work ethic and that ‘it might be a blast to work for a charity for a change’. (Do not try this line if you are going for an interview with a charity. The sector and Equal Opps interviews are a bit more sophisticated nowadays.) I got lucky. She liked me and we gave it go.

1. Get someone who believes in you and is prepared to mentor you.

The late Kate O’Sullivan was a truly wonderful mentor to me at Carmichael Centre. I PA’d for her for about 10 months and then she created a project for me to manage full time. It was working with people who had been long term unemployed and I loved it. I had some real learning curves as I moved into managing other people but found a niche in working with people to help them find out about how they could move forward in their careers.

2. Find something you are sincerely passionate about.

I had a real interest in helping people who had left school early and not quite found their place in the world (wonder where that came from?). I had a genuine belief that most had much more potential than they were realising. With that belief as a starting point, it becomes easy to help people. During my five years in this role I got lots of experience and some qualifications in Management and computer skills (it was all still quite new then). One year we had a shortfall in funds for providing some aspects of our job-seeking skills training. Kate, pushy as ever, decided I could do it myself.  “You know how to write applications, you’ve had tons of interviews – think about your experience, read about the theory and put it into something that looks like a workshop.” Aaaarrrgghh!

“I just kept looking for opportunities to grow my skills”

I did it though. It worked. I loved it … and I remembered that I had always wanted to teach. So I just kept looking for opportunities to grow my skills. I loved that job but needed to re-group and think about the future. I took some time out to think about it.

Working at the Directory for Social Change

The first thing they said at my DSC interview was “So, tell us how you got to this stage in your career’. Wow! I had a career – how did that happen? I told them about how I just loved to help people learn and grow, and was a proficient administrative manager and loved working with charities. DSC would be a great place to get a bird’s eye view of the sector and learn more about training and events. They offered, I accepted and my 6 months has become 15 years. During that time I’ve had a few roles at DSC – all within their training services.

3. Let those who can help know what you want to do and what you need to do it.

The CEO, Debra Allcock Tyler, took over after I had been there for a couple of years. She had 1-1’s with every member of staff when she joined (good practice by the way) and during mine I ranted on about how much I loved training and wanted more opportunity to deliver than just organise and manage it. She listened.

Debra was my second mentor and lived up to all my expectations of what a good mentor should be. She gave me an initial six weeks’ mentoring, threw me in the deep end, gave me some course titles I could deliver, told me to get the material together, gave me some delivery dates – and then supported me all the way. I learned more from that experience and mentoring in six weeks than I could have learned in any three-year teaching degree – experiential learning that I could use in a practical way. At that time I was the In House Training Manager at DSC as a result of a couple of internal promotions. I was doing both this and trying to get training experience in.

4. Say yes to some of the stuff you don’t like doing, get noticed and learn from it.

One budget planning period I mentioned that it could be economically wise for DSC to employ some trainers on a full time basis. Debra said, ‘write me a proposal, with the numbers in’. Do you know, I nearly didn’t. I hate writing to structure and well, numbers, we’ve been there. I still have a copy of that e-mail and proposal I sent to Debra and I still have my job as the first trainer DSC took on as an employee. I love it.

5. Keep learning!

Most careers worth their salt are a journey rather than a destination. I loved learning to be a trainer and am still learning. Every day I deliver a training course I give myself some review time afterwards to see what I can change, add, take out, learn from that day – no matter how many times I have delivered it before.

Passion and commitment above qualifications

If you have a genuine interest in the field you pursue, if you demonstrate your willingness and commitment to learning, if you look out for and maximise opportunities that work well for the organisation as well as yourself, you are much more likely to be hired for your attitude, and given the skills training along the way. The voluntary sector is a rewarding and challenging place to work. We do so much with so little. Never worry that the ‘little’ is about your academic attainment. The ‘much’ is about your passion and commitment. If you have that, go for it, it’s always a commodity in demand in this sector and certainly what I would look for in recruits in my field – always over and above qualifications.