When Dawn Barron hit a major crossroads in her life, help came from an unexpected source, inspiring her to take a leap of faith and change direction. Fifteen years later she is using her talents and experience to help medium-to-large businesses to take the plunge and supercharge their fortunes — by tapping into the power of their people.
Dawn, the founder of Human Alchemy, is also loving being a part of the local business
community, at a time when Lincoln's star is definitely rising. In the run-up to the
millennium, the Essex-born businesswoman was living in Nettleham, having followed her
family to Lincolnshire. A single mum to Lewis (then aged eight), she found herself
increasingly torn between holding down a high-powered job and spending time with her
son. Something had to give.
"I was at a crossroads and wrestling with what to do. I was the Employment Policy
Director for GEC, working for a giant corporation which employed 140,000 people
worldwide. I loved my London-based job, which involved some UK and European travel
and the odd trip to America," said Dawn.
"I regularly commuted by train, spending one or two nights in the capital, before rushing
back home again. I wanted to spend more time with Lewis, but I was also committed to my
It was an agonising time, until someone who was helping Dawn to juggle her hectic
lifestyle, made a suggestion. Amazingly, that person was her au-pair. "I believe people
come into your life for different reasons. She certainly wasn't destined to be an au-pair but
she turned out to be my little angel in disguise, when she handed me a copy of The
Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, saying 'read this'.
"That book, which inspired the name of my business, is all about following your dreams. It
had a big impact on me and I soon decided that I was going to go it alone." Convinced that
her health and home life would suffer if she didn't take action, Dawn handed in her notice
and immediately experienced the wave of relief that comes from making a big life decision.
MAKING A BREAK
Naturally, going freelance can be scary, leaving the security of a well-paid, full on career
with a major company – but the Coelho book is also about having courage. "I decided
going freelance could be just as fulfilling and imagined a future with more personal control
and flexibility to spend more time with Lewis. It is very very hard balancing having a
family and a busy job. It pains me to watch our kids struggling with the same issues – 20
"I was in my thirties, I had consulting experience and the credibility of having held a senior
position in business, which gave me the self-confidence to make the break. I had just three
months' salary in the bank, but I was absolutely determined to find work within that time.
"I was fortunate that GEC was very supportive and I was offered a fascinating, six-month
project, which helped me get started. I worked with a software business to create a sort of
in-house LinkedIn that enabled GEC people to identify and connect with expert colleagues
worldwide – a breakthrough for the business at that time," said Dawn.
Dawn, whose earlier career path featured buying and merchandising, working for a
merchant bank, life assurance marketing and sales and business consultancy, now needed
to build a portfolio of clients to suit her new lifestyle.
"That background gave me an established business network and it was through a contact
that I learned that SKY was going through a programme of change. I wrote a cheeky note
to the HR director and it paid off. I ended-up working on their transformation project,
helping the leadership team communicate what was happening and involving their people
in the process. This is vital when a firm is making significant changes," said Dawn.
Since then, all Dawn's work has come from referrals. In 2010, husband Paul – a
well-known Lincoln businessman who had been working as Chief Executive for the world
leading air traffic management company NATS, in Southampton – made his own
step-change. He joined Dawn as a Co-Alchemist.
Working with your husband, partner or a close friend can be a brilliant, but risky
experience. Thankfully, it's been a recipe for success for Dawn and Paul, who offer their
expertise – individually or jointly – to national and local businesses.
"We are both about transforming companies and organisations and really passionate about
achieving change through a company's people. We complement each other and our
approach is very aligned," said Dawn.
"What we bring to the table are our different experiences – mine is leadership
development and change management, while Paul brings proven leadership experience and
WHAT MAKES THE ALCHEMY?
When a business contacts Human Alchemy, Dawn and Paul explore what that company
wants to achieve and whether they are a good fit for each other. "When it comes to pricing,
we are acutely aware of local perceptions about the cost of business services.
"Our rates are a fraction of what we would charge nationally, but still represent a
significant investment for a local business and it's the first test of the senior management's
commitment to create a different future. They need to be committed, as they make it
happen, not us," said Dawn.
"Our approach, used with a variety of local firms and organisations such as Rilmac, Gelder
Group, James Dawson and EBP (Education and Business Partnership), is to take the
senior management team off-site and help them to look at their business from a different
perspective and to describe a compelling vision of what it could be.
"We advise how they can take their business or organisation forward, by using their
workforce to transform it, under their leadership. We give them the tools and techniques to
improve their personal leadership and we work alongside them for at least a year.
"What we are really about is professionalising – not corporatising a business. This is so
important for the local businesses we work with. Transformation is about awakening your
people's talent and focusing it on a new future. We get so frustrated when senior managers
are not liberating their workforces. Most people want to do a great job. They need to be
seen as highly-talented people with a lot to offer," said Dawn. "We challenge the leaders,
asking 'when are you going to get your people involved in these changes?' Let them shine!"
A SOUND MOVE
Dawn remains hugely enthusiastic about encouraging companies to bring about change, so
setting-up Human Alchemy was obviously a sound move. "It was the best thing I ever did.
Working for myself is a great way to maintain an independent professional career, without
losing out on what is also hugely important to any parent – having a happy family life,"
Dawn is equally passionate about helping Lincoln raise its profile as a great place to do
business, to live and to visit. She is particularly thrilled to have assisted Lincoln BIG by
pulling together the sponsors for the exciting Lincoln Barons' Charter Trail, which will
be in place for the start of the city's 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta celebrations, on
"This is an excellent example of what can be achieved when you excite and involve the
whole community," said Dawn. "I truly feel that we are on the cusp of an exciting era.
The conversations I have with people around the city, highlights that there is a sense of
pride, a sense of ambition and a willingness to be innovative, to create a brighter future,"
"Let's keep it up. It's a fabulous opportunity. If we create a compelling vision of what the
future can be for our wonderful city and put the right plans in place, we can deliver it – but
only if we get people engaged."
Photos by Steve Smailes