Monthly career interview with professionals in the not-for-profit sector
1. What is your current role and how long have you been working in it?
I am the National Manager of the National Advocacy Service for People with Disabilities. I am responsible for the strategic direction of the organisation, and for leading, directing and managing a team of staff across the country. I have been in this role for over 2 years, but I have been with the organisation since 2011.
The National Advocacy Service for People with Disabilities (NAS) provides an independent, confidential and free, issues-based representative advocacy service. NAS is funded and supported by the Citizens Information Board (CIB) which has a mandate under the Citizens Information Act 2007 to provide advocacy for people with disabilities.
NAS operates on the principle that people with disabilities:
- Make decisions about their lives.
- Access the supports they need to enable them to live their lives and enjoy meaningful participation in family, work and leisure.
- Are listened to and consulted by their families and those who provide their services.
- Can enjoy the benefits of participation in and contribution to their communities if they so choose.
It’s a really complex area because of the recent ratification of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the legislative, policy and social changes it is bringing. We are moving towards a model of supported decision making and advocacy is critical to that change.
2. How did you get to where you are today and what influenced your decision to work in your chosen field?
I started out as a solicitor in Glasgow. I trained in a Law Centre and then moved into a large legal aid practice where I was a litigation partner for a number of years. I always knew that I wanted to work in a human rights related field. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of being in Court every day and representing people from all walks of life and across a range of issues. I worked in the areas of criminal defence, family law, mental health law and adults with incapacity legislation. I first came across independent advocacy when representing people facing detention under mental health legislation and I saw the value of advocacy in practice.
I was always particularly interested in the interaction of the law with people who were traditionally deemed as not having the capacity to make their own decisions. There was new legislation in Scotland around that time, and it meant for the first time, that people could start to take control of their own lives.
As a partner, I enjoyed the collegiate environment of development of the firm in a competitive environment.
I had always travelled to Ireland and I knew that I wanted to make a change in my life and experience living in another country. I wanted to bring my skills and experience to a different field. With the experience I had in Scotland of changes in capacity legislation I was able to integrate this into my original role in NAS as a regional manager. I have been able to bring that knowledge forward into my role as national manager.
3. What do you love/enjoy most about your job?
There is huge variety in my job. We have a team of around 50 people altogether. Most of them are involved in direct representative advocacy, and some involved in mentoring and support, along with a senior team. I also work directly with our very supportive Board of Directors. I enjoy meeting different groups and bringing forward an advocacy perspective to developments in disability policy in Ireland. We know that advocacy can make a real difference to people and can help them bring about change in their lives.
4. And what are the most challenging parts of your job?
As we have a remit for those who are disconnected from their communities, one challenge we face is in reaching those people. Over the years, we have done a lot of work to promote the service to people who would otherwise be hard to reach. I always remember the value of advocacy and how it can support people to take control of their own lives and ensure that their voice is heard.
5. How do you relax?
I try to make use of the gym next door to the office by attending their spinning classes and kettlebells. I travel home to the North West at weekends and if I can face it, then a dip in the ice cold Atlantic is the best relaxation there is!
6. What skills and personality traits do you think are essential for a job like yours?
In a leadership role in human services you need to have an outgoing personality with a clear communication style. Communication is not just about my message going out, but what I am hearing and listening to.
You need to be able to hear different perspectives on organisational development, but be ready to make your own decision and bring people with you to ensure that the decision is implemented.
As an organisation grows and develops you need to be able to delegate effectively – whilst ensuring that your team feel supported.
Ultimately the work we are doing can be very challenging and I need to be empathic to both our own staff and those we work with. But that has to be accompanied by ability to provide a high quality service and that needs all the architecture of a strong but flexible organisation.
7. What’s your advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in the same field?
I would advise anyone to try out a number of different roles and gain as much experience as possible. Our teams come from a variety of backgrounds – law, social work, social care, psychology – and they all bring a richness of experience to the advocacy role.
8. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
When I decided to leave Scotland and my practice it was a really difficult decision because change is daunting and you don’t always know how it will work out. Lots of people in senior roles in the law in Scotland – judges and senior counsel – told me of their own decisions to make big life or career changes and how you learn so much from it. They told me that you will never be afraid of making change again as you know you can work your way through it – and they were absolutely right.
9. What has been the best moment of your career so far?
I have 2 career highlights so far! One was being made a partner at the age of 30, and the next was being successful in obtaining my current role. Both have been hugely rewarding and stimulating.
10. What are your career aspirations?
I would like to continue in a leadership role. The lines between traditional organisations like law firms and charities are not as clear as they used to be. There is plenty of crossover in skills and knowledge which can be used to drive forward effective change and good practice across all of these fields. People often talk about the differences between the private and public sectors. I like to think of the commonalities and how we can harness that to build great services. I would also like to use my own skills to support other organisations grow and develop.
If you’re a professional who works in the not-for-profit sector and you’re interested in taking part in the ‘My Charity Career’ interview series, please get in touch by emailing Laura at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you!