With her trademark beaming smile Sonia McDonald stretches out her arms to hug me. “Hey Lovely, how are you?” she asks as I embrace her back. I go on to tell her about my morning juggling three kids on summer holidays and work deadlines. She ushers me over to a meeting room in an office we share in Brisbane’s CBD.
“You’re doing a great job you know,” she says reassuringly with a giggle as I bring her up to speed on the challenges of my hectic week. “Your kids are great, business is growing, and I feel really positive about 2020.” After our brief catch-up, I have renewed energy to plough on or like her mantra goes, “Just rock it”.
Having worked with and gotten to know Sonia over the past year or so, it’s easy to see how she has become a confidant and trusted leadership mentor to some of Australia’s most respected leaders. From CEO’s to heads of government departments, health or educational institutions, Sonia genuinely cares about developing and supporting her clients on their leadership journey.
As studies emerge about the alarming rate of psychopathic traits in executives along with reports of bullying and inappropriate behaviour, Sonia McDonald believes it’s time for a change.
She is on a mission to foster and develop leaders who are kind, empathetic and courageous and in turn bring out the best in others. It’s a bold mission, but the support she is receiving is inspiring.
Whether she’s giving a keynote speech, holding a leadership workshop or engaging with her many social media followers (she’s considered a LinkedIn Influencer but laughs at the notion) Sonia’s message resonates.
“Leaders who lead with kindness, courage and authenticity, embracing everyone for their uniqueness and have empathy are so valuable.
“Leadership is about making an impact, and these leaders know how to get results from their people to leave a lasting legacy.”
2019 was a big year for Sonia, and the start of a new decade looks like ramping up even more. For the past year, she’s been working with strategist Sara Kay from my sister firm Kay by Design and myself to give a new direction to her business.
“In many ways, Sonia is the typical entrepreneur with many great ideas but needing to focus on one or two to make an impact,” says Sara.
Her old brand of Leadership HQ underwent a revamp with the primary focus of hosting the Outstanding Leadership Awards, acknowledging kind and courageous leaders. The new brand of McDonald Inc helps corporates foster leaders that epitomise the awards core values of courage, authenticity, kindness, inclusivity and diversity.
“As a strategist and someone who looks for future trends, I truly believe Sonia’s courageous leadership message is the next stage of leadership evolution and will be the theme of this decade,” says Sara.
Sonia has more than 25 years of experience on the frontlines of HR and executive coaching combined with extensive study in psychology, neuroscience and business.
It’s courageous leaders that Sonia says are needed to face the challenges of the modern-day. She says old-school directive management styles have a massive flow-on effect from a poor culture in an organisation to mental health problems for employees and good people leaving.
“Courageous leaders lead for the greater good and not just their own, they uplift and empower their teams, showing kindness and empathy,” she says.
But as Sara points out, making changes and acting courageously in business on a practical sense will always have its challenges, which is where leaders need support.
“It is not easy to be the unpopular kid at school and it is no easier for leaders to make good decisions with long term benefits, knowing they will be unpopular with those that lack the same foresight,” she says.
“The leaders that do so see organisational impact and ultimately become those we admire are sometimes those that in the short-term receive the most criticism.”
Sonia understands the need for courage first-hand with her challenges to overcome. In 2004, she was living in China with her husband and two-year-old daughter Abby, working in a senior HR role. Having overcome the language and cultural challenges which come with living and working overseas, the girl from the Gold Coast felt in a good place when her world came crashing down.
Sonia’s marriage came to an end, and she found herself devastated. Now facing life as a single mother, she decided to move home to Australia while maintaining her role in China. But juggling motherhood and the travel demands associated with the position were challenging so she resigned.
“At the time, I felt completely abandoned, shattered and scared but also had a feeling of determination and courage as I knew I had to make a life for us,” Sonia says.
“I wanted to show to Abby that anything is possible and that as women we can build a life for ourselves.”
Sonia stepped out of her comfort zone and took on a very different role teaching and coaching engineers and superintendents in the construction industry around leadership. She enjoyed making a difference to the performance and wellbeing of individuals, teams and organisations through teaching principles of leadership.
“When I was a little girl my ambition was to be a teacher, so my life had come in full circle and was I teaching engineers and foreman/women about leadership, self-awareness and mindset,” she says.
“I loved seeing the transformation and change in them and it was wonderful to see them grow as well as myself in the process.”
As a lover of writing, Sonia started a blog called Leadership HQ and after steadily growing an impressive following was encouraged to start her business. Sonia openly talks about her achievements and failings in business, encouraging others to embrace their “stuff-ups” as they learn from mistakes.
“It’s only now that real strategy has come into my business and it’s definitely been a rollercoaster ride, but I’m committed to staying on the ride,” she says.
“My greatest learning is the power of collaboration and vulnerability – having people who truly care for the success of the business and myself is beyond remarkable and has been a game changer.”
As McDonald Inc grows, Sonia now has other trusted leadership coaches she’s worked with over the years to help deliver her training programs, including her mentor Edward (Ted) Bonel.
“Ted and I work well together as we have different styles and complement each other plus he’s practical having run his own successful business,” she says.
“He approached me to become my mentor, seeing the potential in my message and what I wanted to achieve.
“I enjoy the public speaking aspect of my work, and the Outstanding Leadership Awards have been taking up much of my focus, so the timing was right to bring in others to share the load.”
In between much of her coaching and public speaking commitments, Sonia has been rallying support for the awards. Whether she’s on the phone to CEO’s, posting on LinkedIn or openly calling out companies on Twitter for partnership, her approach has been bold.
But her tenacity to make the awards a success and showcase outstanding leadership is admirable. Sonia is authentic, which is in line with my own values. There’s no PR spin, and she likes to write her posts.
For Sonia, the awards are a platform to showcase the stories of leaders who are making an impact and difference.
“We need our future leaders and generations to hear the stories and imagine a different world that fosters kindness, diversity, inclusion and courage where people’s ideas are valued and appreciated,” she says.
Troocoo Managing Director Scott Horton was keen for his recruitment agency backing with the awards, having been coached by Sonia on his own leadership journey.
“As an executive recruitment and search firm we are in a privileged position that we get to work daily with leaders,” Scott says.
“It was only natural we would want to support those leaders and also Sonia on her mission of kind and courageous leadership.”