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'Calling LionHeart was like being thrown a life jacket'


My name's Jackie and I was 53 years old when I finally got to put the letters MRICS after my name.  It had taken a very long time...

I'd started off my studies with a Higher National Diploma, which put me into the second year of a surveying degree. But when I graduated in 2008 the world's economy collapsed, and my contract to begin my APC training with DTZ (that I'd beaten 300 applicants to get) was cancelled. 

At that time, building surveyors across the country lost their jobs, and there were few jobs available anywhere in any field (hard to imagine this scenario now with the current shortage of building surveyors!)

I'd been 36 when I decided to 'go and get a degree', after being in marketing most of my working life. When I was young, I was quite rebellious, and much to my parents' horror, left school before finishing.

It was a decision I later came to regret because I always felt I somewhat lacking by not having obtained a degree, like I'd wasted my abilities.

I'd also become a mum just before I turned 19. Although I married his father, I left when my son was 18 months old and have been a single parent ever since.

Fast forward to about 2003 and I knew I wanted to leave marketing and study - but didn't know exactly what... Then one day clearing out my bookcase, I realised I had a LOT of books about design, architecture, and building, and remembered I'd always had this idea of getting into property development some day.

"That's it!" I thought, "I need to go and study construction."

The competition was fierce

I didn't have a clue about building surveyors, or what they did. It was only in the second year of my HND that I had to choose a specialism from Architectural Design, Construction Management or Building Surveying.

I didn't even know what the APC was until my peers on my degree course were asking where I hoped to do it. Everyone was talking about DTZ and how they had the best training programme out there - and that's what I set my sights on.

Little did I know how fierce the competition would be for one of the two Graduate Building Surveyor internships on offer, but the process started with a detailed application form, a telephone interview, and then a full day of assessment and role-playing.

I have never been so nervous in all my life! I can't tell you how many times that day I just wanted to give in and walk away. I can still feel the panic, the inability to breathe properly - little 'old' me competing with so many 20-something Oxbridge grads with tons of confidence and swagger.

I think I was chosen as the wild card, a bit of 'diversity' as one of a few women Building Surveyors. Whatever the reason, I was thrilled - even more so when at the end of the three months I was offered a contract to go back after my final year at uni, starting September 2008.  

An almost start and a false start...

But just a few weeks before my start date, my contract was first delayed, then cancelled altogether. I was gutted.

Luckily 18 months later when things started to pick up again, I had a call from DTZ asking if I still wanted to come and undertake my APC, offering me the weekend to think about it. "No," I said, "I don't need to think about it. The answer is yes".

However, during the two years I spent with DTZ, I'd been daydreaming about a business idea that just would not go away. At the same time there were a few things going on at work I wasn't happy with, so I did what I usually do... took a massive risk and left surveying to go and be creative and produce this product I'd been dreaming about.

Well, that lasted seven years - and took all of my money! The business failed, despite the product being in stores such as Fortnum & Mason. Like so many small businesses, it ran out of capital, and I had to take the heart-breaking decision to shut it down.

At the same time, I went through my second divorce. I spent some time in South Africa to lick my wounds and gather myself.

I had no idea where my future lay and felt quite lost. Then my dad suggested I get back into surveying. 

The APC is not an easy task

After some thought, I messaged an old colleague to explore my chances of getting back into the profession.

"I'll hire you tomorrow," he said. At first I thought he was joking, but I started two weeks later, in April 2019 - starting my APC again completely from scratch.

It was some time before my final exam that I discovered LionHeart. Looking back, I guess I was still a little bit broken considering everything I had been through. So much stress, and that turned into a lot of self-doubt.

Undertaking the APC is not an easy task, as everyone who has been through the process knows; working hard in the day, studying at night. It is a long and demanding period. I was feeling overwhelmed and inadequate - but terrified anyone would find out in case I seemed less than perfect in my job, or said I wasn't really cut out to be a Building Surveyor after all.

Phoning LionHeart when I did changed my life. I describe it as like being thrown a lifejacket.  

I received coaching and counselling (albeit not at the same time).

I had 'Imposter Syndrome'

Coaching was first, and the lovely Clare guided me through some very difficult feelings and perceptions I had of myself and my abilities. I felt my life had been one failure after another, but she made me see just how strong I actually was, how much I'd achieved and how I'd come through the other side of so many challenges.

Clare helped me to see that I was struggling with Imposter Syndrome. (If you want to know more about imposter syndrome, I recommend checking out LionHeart's webinar on the subject)

I often hear people say they don't believe in mental health issues. Until it's their turn, of course. Many people might never suffer from self-doubt or mental health issues, so I get they don't understand what it feels like - but that doesn't make it any less real.

I'm happy that these days more focus is given to the fact that we can have a sick tummy just as easily as we can have a sick mind, and there's nothing wrong with that. It is our societal conditioning which makes us believe that we're 'broken' or 'damaged' if we struggle mentally.

We surveyors have embarked on a rewarding but hugely busy and stressful career, and I think we are fortunate to have LionHeart to help, whatever we are struggling with.

I'll be forever grateful for their support, so when I found I could give something back by becoming an ambassador, I jumped at the chance. If I can spread the word to other surveyors that there is free and confidential help just a phone call away, it is the least I can do to support this precious resource.

Jackie Mills MRICS is a building surveyor with Sanderson Weatherall. She was single mum to a teenage son and in her 30s when she decided she was going to 'get her degree'. She became chartered in December 2021, after an inspiring yet challenging journey that had lasted 17 years.

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