The Journey from Carer to CEO – it can be done!
Nicki Bones CEO of SweetTree Home Care Services joins the dots of her career and how it became possible from aged 15 to 50!
I didn’t start my career thinking for one moment that I would one day have such a grand title! In fact, I am not sure that I would have known what that really meant!
My career started while at school, studying for ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels – a mediocre kind of student, at Dartford Grammar school. I had wanted to be a nurse for as long as I could remember, but I couldn’t explain where that began, as I had always just known! At 15, I remember a Career Advisor at school asking me what I wanted to do ‘when I grew up?’ (which may have been never, by the way!) and I replied saying I wanted to be a nurse. The Career Advisor seemed concerned about my choice of career as she felt that it wasn’t a role for the faint-hearted and tried to put me off the idea. Once I had explained that I lived on a dairy farm and the natural cycles of life were something I was very used to and that I was not squeamish, she advised me to look at a carer role to gain some experience. I am sure in my mind she thought that would put me off and I would pick something else!
Whilst still at school I started my first role as a weekend carer, at a small residential home for the elderly, and quickly fell ‘in love’. I still fondly remember the ladies and gents’ names who nicknamed me, ‘smiley’, and I will always remember a chap saying very loudly one day at breakfast that he only lived for the weekends to see smiley – I was sold – nursing was definitely going to be for me!
Shortly afterwards I started working at another residential home and met quite a few ladies and gents who were very confused, and with some very different behaviours. Somehow, I seemed to understand them in a way that others didn’t, and I managed to help them in everyday life, with an abundance of smiles given in return. It seemed to me these people didn’t have a great quality of life, and so I set out to see how I could, just in small part, make this better. Eventually, in 1986, I started my nurse training set on the idea that the clients I had met with ‘Dementia’ needed something much better than they had and I set my career along a path that I hoped would help me to understand a lot more about Dementia and how I could make a difference.
After experiences in surgical wards, midwifery, acute psychiatry and much more as a general Student Nurse and a Mental Health Student Nurse, my passion remained for the elderly, especially those with Dementia. Getting married young and having my children soon after, I worked around family life as a Staff Nurse, Care Manager and Matron for several nursing homes. Throughout this time the one thing I knew I needed to do was to maintain my education and learning to continue to put ‘best practice’ into these environments. I studied constantly, knowing that it might not be possible to achieve serious ‘big’ qualifications whilst the children were little. That on-going learning helped me to show others how to do well in caring for the elderly, contributing, and I hope to improve, the care of those living in nursing homes. A course in End of Life Care, Bereavement Counselling, Practice Facilitation in Nursing, Assessors’ Awards, and many more, kept me on top of the here and now.
I then met Barry Sweetbaum, Managing Director of a new organisation specialising in an assisted living model of care, including those with Dementia, and at last found an organisation that believed what I believed; that people with Dementia were extremely special and that there was a way of supporting them in an environment that respected them as people in a way of complete normalisation. Here, I was able to put my beliefs and learning together with an environment and organisation that really did make that big difference.
Whilst working in assisted living with Barry, I had always known that his career was working towards having his own domiciliary care business to support people living at home. Barry’s own mother had received excellent care whilst sadly suffering from a terminal illness and Barry was passionate about setting up a company that held true his values and ethos about good care. When Barry founded SweetTree Home Care Services in 2002 I joined him to start the adventure in North London, initially supporting the elderly and those with Dementia to remain living independently at home. SweetTree became a special privilege for me as now not only could I put my stamp on a developing business, we could also support people in their own environment at home. My role became setting up services, training and policy and procedures. SweetTree became a best practice model in the community, a model that others looked towards.
At this point I headed back into formal qualifications and took a CIPD diploma in Training, followed by a Leadership and Management level 5 course, and eventually a level 7 course. Being heavily involved in quality assurance and training I began to see how these roles influenced many more people’s lives more directly than I ever could, teaching others to support SweetTree Clients’ with excellent care. The SweetTree Care Academy was established to support team members with their training journey and to develop their own career pathways. The academy has supported our employees to journey into nursing and other clinical pathways, something that, of course, will always be dear to my heart.
As further services grew, I took to business coaching as well as further specialist care learning and I became the Director of Operations, supporting specialist managers in their roles and continuing to help develop the organisation alongside Barry. My Mental Health Nursing stood me in good stead in the specialist services but specific models of care and detailed knowledge were really needed now so I spent time at conferences with specialists and reading lots to get me up to speed.
Today, now aged 50 and having worked at SweetTree for almost 18 years, I have that grand title of CEO. I can’t say it has always been easy – I have had some tough journeys, but I have had the privilege of working with an incredible team. Like me, the team have the passion to get this right and work hard to achieve the organisation goals, their client’s goals and their own personal goals for their futures.
If you would like to join Sweettree on this amazing journey and see where you could go log on to www.sweettree.co.uk