Insights from a Career Practitioner's Journey


Donna Thistlethwaite is a Brisbane-based inspirational speaker with a passion for wellbeing and psychological safety in the workplace. She is a trained Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) facilitator, delivering both private and public workshops in Brisbane and nationally and is also the founder of “Career Vitality”, providing career services to individuals, parents and organisations.

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

As the year draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on my 2019 and what insights my experiences might offer the CDAA community. It’s been an action packed-year, marked by key achievements such as recognising that I am in flow personally and professionally, setting and accomplishing a revenue target for my business which resulted in my best year yet and receiving CDAA’s Excellence In Practice Award (Individual).

In July 2019, I received a phone call from then CDAA Queensland President, Julie Street, to share her plan to nominate me for the Excellence In Practice (Individual) Award. This was for the work that I have done as a career coach supporting adult clients, including return to work mothers, the inspiration that I give my clients and the way that I have integrated mental wellbeing into my career coaching practice. I was surprised and honoured because the thought of nominating had not occurred to me and I know that many in our community do awesome work.

A couple of months later, I was even more surprised to be announced as the winner of the award at National Conference. I can’t really remember the acceptance speech because I was startled and, to be honest unnerved, as the announcement was made. When the MC read out my profile, it seemed to me that there was a very big emphasis on my personal story of surviving a suicidal crisis and my work in that space and little reference to my career coaching achievements. Despite many years of personal growth, my head went to, “OMG, people are going to question why I would receive this award when it’s meant to be about career practice”. The rest of the night was a bit of a blur as this thought played on my mind. It then plagued me for the final day of the conference, impacting with my ability to be truly present and enjoy the glow of having received some wonderful recognition for my work.

By the time I finally arrived home from Canberra that night, I had managed to remind myself of the significant successes I have achieved with many of my careers clients. I recalled the 30+ five star reviews clients have written, which frequently speak of my passion, capacity to listen and genuine interest in supporting clients to achieve their career goals and become the best version of themselves. That night I received an email from one of my clients advising me that she had just landed a target role and saying how helpful she had found my support and the confidence that I helped her to build. She will never know how much that message meant to me.

So what are some of my key learnings/practices that I recognise have contributed to my success as a career practitioner to date?

  1. Unconditional positive regard for clients and creating a safe space for them to feel comfortable opening up and sharing their stories for both of us to gain insights. I discovered Norm Amundsen’s work during my Graduate Certificate studies in 2013 and have found his techniques and resources incredibly beneficial to my practice. How amazing are those sessions when the client talks, talks, and talks and then suddenly says, “Oh it all makes sense now, I can see what I need to do”. These are my absolute favourite sessions and I’m really grateful that I have stayed quiet and trusted the process. I’ve also realised that some clients need something more, there might be issues impacting such as confidence, mindset, mental illness, etc, and it is important to meet them where they are and get a clear idea of what help it is that they want or need. I’ve learnt this lesson by getting it wrong on more than one occasion but taking the learnings.
  2. Embracing ongoing growth. As career practitioners I know that you get the commitment to lifelong learning. I thought I got it too. The growth I have experienced over the past six years has been exponential, transitioning to a new profession, ongoing professional development, my quest to discover and implement a fulfilling life, it was practically non stop over that time.

    Recently I had a discussion with a counsellor friend studying Gestalt Therapy. It turns out that to become a Gestalt therapist you have to go through the Gestalt Therapy process. My friend Celia said, “It’s emotional, it’s messy, my relationship is entangled in it, it’s like a roller coaster”. I replied, “Oh Celia, that sounds horrible”. There is no time or space in my life for anything like that.” I pictured myself falling apart before client sessions or opening pandora’s box and everything turning bad. I said “My life is very tightly strung right now, I cannot do anything that could cause it get out of balance.”

    The next morning I awoke up to an insight … “I cannot continue to help others if I stop growing myself.” I reflected on a couple of contexts in which my reactions weren’t sitting comfortably with me and decided it was time to MAKE TIME for more “inner work”. As a speaker I heard recently said “We cannot sell what we don’t stock”. Never stop growing.
  3. Building relationships with clients and recognising their successes. While I occasionally see clients for a single session most of my clients opt for either a two or three session package. This is a decision that they make after we’ve had an initial session and we’ve had an opportunity to confirm we’re a good fit. The packages are more cost effective for them and they have six months to use them, although I’m not strict on applying the timeframes. All of my clients are entered into a customer relationship management system and Mailchimp. Although I must admit I’m not doing this as much as I have in the past, for many years I have sent a monthly newsletter to clients discussing careers topics and insights that I think could be useful to them. Many of them have said, “when I read it, I hear you talking”. This can be a great way to nurture our relationship with them, increasing the prospect of them returning in the future and also referring us to others. Whenever one of my clients lands a role, or makes a career decision, I send them a handwritten congratulations card which I’ve had awesome feedback on (I found a great shop with quality cards for $1 each).
  4. Collecting feedback from clients. I recommend this from an improvement perspective but also for marketing. I have learnt the hard way about the importance of continually checking in with clients about whether they are getting what they want. Past mentor, Shari Walsh, suggested many years ago that I ask how they have found the session and this has been awesome advice. I recommend checking in during the session. I once asked a client at the conclusion of the session whether she was getting what she needed and she replied, “no, have you noticed that I haven’t said a word for the past 20 minutes”. This was confronting to hear that but I’m incredibly grateful that my client could share this with me. I offered to add a session to the end of her program if she felt that would be useful at that stage. Thankfully she commented that she appreciated that I was someone that she could give that feedback to.

    For the past couple of years I have encouraged clients to write google reviews because my search engine optimisation consultant suggested this would be a good idea for google ranking. It has been incredibly beneficial for that but there’s been an unintended benefit in that people call me and say, “I read your reviews and you sounded like someone I want to work with”. Social proof can be incredibly valuable and can give people confidence around fit.
  5. Placing good people around you. Whether it’s collaboration partners, industry colleagues/friends to refer to, or administrative support, we can achieve so much more with others. I love that our community is collegial and know that I would not be where I am now without the contribution of many CDAA members. Get to know your colleagues and reach out to them to debrief, share resources, create programmes, refer and to enjoy each other’s company.

I know that many of you will have other great strategies to share and welcome you to do so in the comments when this article is posted on social media. The more we help each other the more we help those we serve and the profession. As they say, “A rising tide lifts all boats”.

Finally I wish you every success for 2020 – hope it’s your best year yet. Merry Christmas!

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