Nicola Banning talks to Laura Clifford-Jones about what it takes to run a successful therapy business, the skills and qualities that she looks for in her team of therapists, and what’s next on her horizon
Laura Clifford-Jones is Director and Counselling Lead for Poole Therapies & Associates Ltd, and a BACP-accredited counsellor and supervisor. Her passion is for anyone to be able to access good-quality therapy, no matter where they work around the world. firstname.lastname@example.org
NB: What can you tell me about the company you run?
LCJ: I established Poole Therapies & Associates Ltd (PTA) in January 2019, after procuring a contract with Everbridge, an international insurance company to provide high-quality and accessible worldwide counselling and mental health services for international companies and universities, employers and their employees, travellers, and students studying abroad. When we started, there were just six therapists on the books, but we now have 17 engaged in the work, and year on year, the number of clients we support increases. I suppose that you could describe PTA as a small EAP provider.
We aim to provide non-judgmental mental health and counselling support to people all over the world, and we know that whatever the reason for seeking help, living, working, and studying abroad creates its own challenges and these are distinct from those of living, working, and studying at home. That’s why I ensure that I have therapists from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, with a range of linguistic skills, specialisms, and modalities of working to support our broad client base.
NB: Given that your client base is global, what do you look for in your therapists?
LCJ: Firstly, I look for a passion in how they talk about working with a diverse client group. My team of therapists are as diverse as possible and have a range of ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds and belief systems. It helps if they can speak more than one language too. I have therapists with particular specialisms, including working with the LGBTQ community, neurodiversity, sexual trauma, and EMDR. In terms of skills, I need practitioners who are literate in using a range of video conferencing systems and are able to support their clients to use them too. I ask that therapists who work for PTA have had some formal online counselling training and that they are registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office and are aware of GDPR in the UK.
Working with clients all around the world does bring its own unique challenges, which can include both language and time differences. Twice a year, we work hard to ensure that all the therapists know the clock changes that are taking place in different time zones across the world. This can impact on us all for between two and four weeks, as some countries change the clock and others don’t.
NB: Your business was already delivering online therapy when the pandemic hit, but I wonder how it impacted on you initially?
LCJ: We saw many of our clients all over the world trying to return home to their country of origin, and so initially we had a big drop in clients accessing the service. Since then, our clients have increased twofold, and anxiety is a big presenting issue. It’s usual that when people work overseas, away from home, they lack their familiar support system, which can increase anxiety and other mental health issues. Living and working in a new country, you are likely to encounter much that is unfamiliar, including different belief systems, food, shops, language, and the ways in which men and women are treated. On average, we find that it can take up to three months for someone to start to feel comfortable with and settled in their surroundings, but it may take longer to acclimatise.
NB: What does a typical day look like for you?
LCJ: In essence, it’s 24/7; but I feel it’s important to say that I really love what I do. My day starts at 6.20 am, by which time I’m up and out walking the dog; by 8:30 am, I am online, working through emails and updating spreadsheets. I aim to start my client work after 9 am, but sometimes, because of where clients are working in the world, I may have to schedule in an early client.
Alongside running the business and attending meetings, I also have supervisees to see, and I need to be available to support the team of therapists if required. I’ve learnt to schedule time out during the day for me and my dog, which can include simply sitting in my conservatory with her, or being out in nature, taking her for a walk. I aim to finish by 8 pm and always try to stop checking emails by 9 pm, even though my business phone is always on. Once a week, I try to give myself a day when I am not sat at the computer.
NB: It sounds like you have a lot of stamina and drive to do what you do. What has helped you to get where you are today?
LCJ: So often, stories of success have their roots in adversity, and I think this is probably true for me too. When we lose people we love, it changes us, and after experiencing several close family bereavements, I knew I had to stop hiding from the world and do something different. I took a leap of faith in 2012, embarked on counselling, coaching, and mental health training, and became a qualified counsellor and coach four years later. I used my knowledge and expertise to build a successful private practice, but I also knew that I was destined for more.
Your question reminds me of an important conversation that I had with my late husband when we were talking about my dreams. I told him that I felt there was a businesswoman hiding inside of me and that I’d only really know I’d ‘made it’ when I flew to New York and celebrated her success. Well, I’ve certainly found my inner businesswoman now – the business is going from strength to strength, and next year, for the first time, I am fulfilling my promise and flying to New York for a holiday.
NB: I’m moved to hear you say that and to know that you are keeping your promise to yourself – congratulations! I believe that you’ve said before that you are grateful to Richard Branson for describing his dyslexia on LinkedIn as one of his skills. What impact has dyslexia had on your working life and how do you make sense of it now?
LCJ: I suppose I first became aware of it when I was about eight years old and a teacher left me feeling that I must be stupid. Fortunately, I was assessed soon after and was given some brilliant support and additional lessons until I was about 13, which really helped. But then, a new head teacher arrived at the school and informed me and my parents that dyslexia was a form of laziness, took it off my school records and I returned to feeling that I must be stupid.
Despite this, deep down, I’ve always had this urge to prove people wrong, and I think it’s why I’ve had so many different careers, done so much training, and gained such a range of qualifications. I don’t think you can ever have too much training, and I love learning more skills and finding ways to integrate them into my work. I’ve recently become a qualified EMDR therapist and I am also a qualified clinical supervisor, mental health practitioner, and leadership and management trainer and assessor.
I regularly provide psychoeducation and collaborative training on mental health and therapy to the employees at Everbridge, who are the first responders when clients make their initial calls – so it’s good to know that, ultimately, this supports the clients too.
When I think about it, I’ve put all my experience to use in running the business, including being dyslexic. I will often explore with clients how they use language, and my lived experience of dyslexia certainly helps me to support both clients and supervisees who are neurodivergent. I also think it’s helped me to be able to have a wider perspective, as I can see and sense the overall picture and read between the lines. This gives me a business edge as I can see where trends are shifting, and it helps me anticipate and plan. There was a time when I didn’t own my dyslexic self, but these days I do – it’s part of me and the businesswoman that I have become. So yes, I really am grateful to Richard Branson for helping me to rethink how I make sense of my own dyslexia.
NB: What are the greatest challenges you face in leading your service?
LCJ: The number of referrals that can come through in any one month is a constant challenge, and every referral must be dealt with within 48 hours. It’s quite a juggling act, matching therapists with clients, taking into account their specialist skills and the time difference. Another challenge is that I find there aren’t enough hours in the day to run the business, attend to emails, admin, and accounts, as well as see PTA clients and my own private practice clients. I also need to find time for myself and for my family.
NB: Is there anything that you wish BACP would do when it comes to supporting therapists and also business leaders or managers of a service?
LCJ: It’s an interesting question and I’ve often wondered why it is that our professional bodies only seem to view therapists as running a private practice, and not a fully-fledged organization like mine. There are so many facets to running a business, and support for therapists who do run a small organization could be really helpful, such as with finances, advertising, and engaging therapists.
Overall, I think it’s positive that professional bodies are collaborating, and I hope that counselling will become a regulated profession. I think this would be good news for the public and for the employers and businesses that contract a company like PTA to know that the therapists being engaged were fully qualified and experienced.
NB: Drawing on your success in the therapy profession, what three tips would you offer to newly qualified counsellors looking to join the workplace sector?
LCJ: Firstly, think about developing a specialism that you can bring to the workplace counselling environment. All of the counsellors I engage have a specialism, whether that’s working with neurodivergence, LGBTQ, eating disorders, young people or sexual and childhood trauma. Secondly, be clear about the skills and experience that you bring from your former careers and value this as part of your skill set. Before I started PTA, I had worked in business, accounts, admin, childcare, and management and had been a tutor and a trainer in leadership and management. I bring everything I’ve learnt to my current role as a business owner, a manager, a clinical lead, trainer, and also as a therapist.
And, finally, make sure that when it comes to finding the right supervisor for you, you choose someone who can meet your specific requirements. I think it’s so important to feel safe, supported, and comfortable with your supervisor. Don’t be afraid of reviewing your arrangement with your supervisor or being willing to make a change. Your supervisor will need to understand the context of your work as a workplace counsellor, and you need to feel safe enough to be vulnerable in your work together.
NB: What are you most proud of in your professional life?
LCJ: Professionally speaking, I am enormously proud that I’ve had the confidence to build and grow my own business, which means other therapists are in work and have a chance to thrive. It’s wonderful to see their growth in the profession and to create a team of therapists who are there to support each other and collaborate. I’m also proud that I’m a trainer, using my training skills and knowledge to teach others in business about counselling, mental health, and psychoeducation.
NB: What piece of wisdom do you most often find yourself sharing?
LCJ: I probably share two pieces of wisdom equally. The first is that we do not need to get out of our comfort zone – we just need to learn to expand our comfort zone. The second is that counsellors are human too, and we can have the same anxiety and concerns that our clients can bring. I explain this by using the two-mountain metaphor, like this:
People often come to therapy believing that the therapist is some sort of enlightened being, that they have resolved all their issues and have everything sorted, but that’s not really how it is. Instead, I’m climbing my mountain over here and you’re climbing your mountain over there. From my position on my mountain, I can see things on your mountain that you can’t see, such as the avalanche that’s about to happen, or that the path you are taking is blocked ahead, but I can see an alternative path.
Of course, I haven’t reached the top of my mountain and I am not sitting back and taking it easy. I’m still climbing it too, still making mistakes, and still learning from them. We’re all climbing our mountain until the day we die. But here is the thing: we can get better and better at climbing, better at predicting the potential hazards, better at solving problems as they arise, better at planning our climb, and better at appreciating the journey.
NB: Are there any ambitions you’re still planning to fulfil?
LCJ: I would like to expand PTA further, take on more contracts and create a place that is purpose-built for counselling and therapy work and holistic body and mind therapies, to help support mental and physical health. In 2013, I did a trek across the Sahara for charity and so I’d also love to be able to trek the Great Wall of China, Machu Pichu, and other trails for charity.
NB: When there’s time to relax, what does it look like to you?
LCJ: Walking and gardening both help me relax. My house is full of plants and there’s a lot of nature and wildlife on my doorstep. I’ll sit, even on a wet day, in my conservatory, watching nature do what it does. I also meditate and practice yoga.
‘This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue of BACP Workplace, published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. https://www.bacp.co.uk/bacp-journals/bacp-workplace/©BACP 2023.’