Executive Grapevine | Executive Grapevine International Ltd

Paralympic GB winner Liz Johnson is already making waves in the recruitment industry as she
aims to make sure that nothing gets between a person’s ability and their achievement potential…

Gold Medal Recruitment

 

Liz Johnson has overcome stacked odds before. Just 11 days before taking gold in the 100m breaststroke at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games her mother passed away after a long illness with cancer. As a child, Bonnie Johnson, Liz’s mum, took the future medal-winning athlete swimming to strengthen her hemiplegia-weakened muscles; sessions that would eventually underwrite the Newport-born swimmer’s selection for Paralympics GB whilst she was still in her teens.

Four years after her Beijing victory, at 26 years old, Liz took another medal in the 2012 London Paralympics - this time a bronze. Impressively, her win came at an age which, in the world of competitive swimming, is considered practically ancient. More stacked odds, more success. Now 33-years old, Liz is no longer competing in the Paralympic world. Instead, she’s experiencing challenges and success in a different field altogether: recruitment. Alongside veteran recruiter Steve Carter, whose career has taken him from Morgan McKinley, through Robert Half and Adecco, Liz has founded The Ability People (TAP) – an agency without a central hub staffed exclusively by people with impairments.

Over coffee in a North London café, Liz explained how both her and Steve’s frustrations at the challenges people with disabilities face regarding employment led to the agency being founded. With Liz exasperated at the state of disability employment in the UK – the 9.1% unemployment for people with disabilities in the UK is almost three times as much as the rate (3.6%) for people without a disability – in Steve she found someone who was really frustrated at the difficulties he found getting employers to consider disabled candidates. Liz recounts Steve’s experience of trying to get a group of blind people into work – “around three quarters of visually impaired people aren’t in work, yet they can be some of the most intelligent people with the best memories,” Liz enthuses – and how he kept coming up against barriers. She said: “I remember him telling me that ‘I must know enough people that I can help them get a job.’ Yet he couldn’t.” From their disillusionment TAP was born.

Despite the agency still in its nascent stages the firm have grand plans. Staffed exclusively by people with impairments, the for-profit business aim to help candidates, both disabled and non-disabled, overcome barriers and get themselves into meaningful employment. Amongst their consultants are ex-bankers, TV Presenters and numerous medal-winning Paralympians, all of whom, daily, deal with challenges that non-disabled people wouldn’t have to and thus, Liz believes, are the type of resilient person needed to succeed in a competitive industry.

“Around three quarters of visually impaired people aren’t in work, yet they can be some of the most intelligent people with
the best memories,”

 

“Your disability or physical ability is irrelevant because you,
as a person, are able of doing something or you’re not – work,
sport, art anything.”


And there has been early success. Liz has already made the BBC’s 100 Women list: a run-through noting the broadcasters most ‘inspiring and influential woman from around the world for 2018’. The accolade places her alongside the most-widely read Spanish-language author, the Deputy Secretary of the UN, and one of the pioneers of the GPS we all take for granted whenever we’re lost and frantically checking Google maps. Heady company. TAP has also won contracts to hire for Diageo, British Airways and John Lewis.

Yet, Liz needn’t have entered recruitment. Due to her sporting prowess, it would have been easy for Liz to sit back and soak up the deserved plaudits which come her way. Maybe take on some media work. Maybe ease into some form of ambassadorial position. Yet, whilst she is on the media circuit and has ambassadorial responsibilities, Liz has also dived straight into an industry which, anecdotally at least, is renown for its long hours and hard-target-driven culture. Already, she is able to recount tales of pre-dawn emails sent on 5am commuter trains to London.

Crucially, this behaviour isn’t indicative of TAP’s ethos. “We’ve got a fluid, flexible model,” Liz explains. “It’s enabling.” Flexible and enabling means staff work from home – conducting interviews via video, passing over file details to other consultants if they are unable to work, communicating clearly with each, working only when they feel they are able to. Liz is adamant this is the future. Anecdotal evidence suggests she is right. How many firms interview a candidate over Skype? Pass details on if the person they’re hiring isn’t quite right for them but might be for a role their colleague is hiring for? Allow employees to work flexibly and remotely? And, in our personal lives, video calling, instant messaging and on-the-go communication are all givens. “The world is getting there and recruitment is too,” Liz adds.

And just because TAP operate flexibly, she isn't expecting her employees to be on standby 24/7. The 5am emails came about because the gold-medal winner is often on public transport travelling for media duties in London. This doesn’t mean she will then be working till midnight the other side. She truly believes in giving her consultants a proper work-life balance and practise one too. – Extending this mindset, the company works without targets and goals. There’s no being sacked if you don’t make target. “Our ethos,” she tells me, “is to empower people to working in a role that want, and that they’re comfortable with. If they’re comfortable, they’ll be good, and successful and have a balanced lifestyle – ultimately that is success.”

This want to meet her employees’ needs isn’t born from some passing interest voguish workplace trends. It was born from her personal experience and wanting people with disabilities to be able to find work they could add value to. “I realised early on that to be able to compete with able-bodied - for want of better phrase – peers was exhausting,” Liz tells me. “I could do it buts its not normal to then want to be in bed by half seven or spend all weekend recovering to be ready to go on Monday.” Liz is candid about the self-doubt this sparked in her; the thinking she was lazy, even though she had spent years getting up early to train for Paralympic swimming, even though she had balanced a degree in business management alongside sporting commitments. “Eventually I realised that I’m not lazy, it was my body telling me I needed to recover so I can fire when I need to fire.”

“You’d speak to a lot of people with disabilities who, for one reason or another, were out of work.”

Yet, Liz realised that not everyone was in her position. Not everyone could take downtime and work as flexibility as she could – especially people with disabilities. A lot of jobs that offered any semblance of flexibility were often manual – meaning those with physical disabilities just weren’t suited to them. “It hammered the home how lucky I was [to be a Paralympian able to have a job that allowed her to work only when she felt able to],” Liz relays to me. “You’d speak to a lot of people with disabilities who, for one reason or another, were out of work. They aren’t equipped to do manual labour. If they did, they would become tired and it would create a vicious cycle. But, they are able to provide value in other ways.”

This is why her agency is staffed by people with disabilities. Adil is one of them – and he’s one her star recruitment consultants. Someone who is so switched on and so articulate that he’s appeared on UN videos about disability employment and made appearances on TV too. Unfortunately, he left education at 18 and didn’t have many opportunities because of his disability. He was perceived to come with baggage because he required a personal assistant and taking public transport isn’t practical for him. “However,” Liz explains, “he’s more than capable and working flexibly allows him to maximise his potential, work at his optimum and do the hours which allows him to function best.”

And, in a manner, this reinforces one of the reasons why she ended up in recruitment. “I needed to find an industry where it was possible to create a flexible working environment,” she told me. One where “disabled people aren’t either told they’re special for breathing or seen as a burden either.” Which is the same attitude she has to business and to candidates too. If you have a disability or not, Liz is just interested if they can do the role on offer. “Your disability or physical ability is irrelevant because you, as a person, are able of doing something or you’re not – work, sport, art, anything.”

And, she understands the importance of the role that the recruiter plays in communicating the skills a candidate has, even if they have impairments – and how she can help candidates get opportunities they might have previously not have. “The recruiter is the middle person between the candidate and the client,” she explains. “And, it’s not our place to judge whether they should be accepted. We put them forward based on their talents.” However, Liz is circumspect. Not everyone will feel the same way as her – and conscious, and unconscious bias, are still rife. Some people haven’t taken TAP seriously. Others think they’re a gimmick. Yet, with huge clients already on her roster, she is able to shrug off this negativity. “It’s not for everyone. Not everyone will want to understand. We don’t all drive the same type of car or eat the same type of food. People have choice and we are, at the end of the day, a choice.”

Thus far for Liz and TAP, though, it's going swimmingly