What I've Learnt: Liz Johnson, MD at The Ability People

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by Charlie Spargo

Former Paralympian Liz Johnson founded her own employment consultancy - The Ability People (TAP) - to fight the disability employment gap.

After winning swimming medals at three Paralympic Games, she founded The Ability People to help companies make better recruitment and retention decisions through workshops and consultations. To date, they've worked with companies including HSBC, Chelsea FC, RTM, St James's Place, and Slater & Gordon.

Johnson was named one of the BBC's 100 Women in 2018 to recognise her achievements. She won a gold medal in 2008 for the SB6 100m breaststroke, took silver at Athens 2004, and bronze at London 2012.

We talked to Liz about the life lessons she has to share.

Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?

Breakfast - It is something that I relied on as an athlete and now. If I’m hungry, I can’t think straight!

What's been your luckiest break?

I think my luckiest break was having a Mum who ensured that I was immersed in appropriate opportunities to evolve as an individual and develop the character traits and personality required to adapt and maintain focus on my goals.

She worked very hard to enable me to have the right balance of security and challenge in order to become independent and learn from my experiences. I’m a product of the culmination of everything that has happened, but without doubt my swimming experiences gave me strength both physically and mentally.

And I’ve been extremely fortunate with the people that have come into my life as a result of that passion.

What's your best failure?

Undoubtedly, missing out on the team that went to the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games has been the experience that had the most profound impact. It made me realise that no matter how hard you work some outcomes are beyond your control but also that perceived failure doesn’t define you. The experience taught me how important it is to be resilient and have short-, mid- and long-term goals, and the relevance of each.

What is the best investment you've ever made, either financial or time?

My best time investment has undoubtedly been the time I put into swimming. I started taking swimming more seriously at the age of nine, and trained relentlessly with clubs and coaches throughout my teens. When I set my sights on the Athens Paralympics I joined a swimming club in Torfaen where I trained with able-bodied swimmers, and when my coach moved to Swansea I was travelling 1000 miles a week to train.

Swimming has been my life, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Ultimately if I hadn’t invested that time and won my Paralympic gold medal, and the experience of being an elite athlete, I wouldn’t have a platform from which I can now fight for equality and give voice to the unique challenges faced by disabled people at work. 

How would you describe your work/life balance?

I would probably say, I don’t really have one! One of the reasons I have been successful in my career, both as an athlete and as co-founder of TAP, is that I’ve had a great deal of freedom and control over my work. None of my jobs have felt like ‘work’ in the traditional sense which has made a  massive difference to my personal wellbeing and motivation, but makes it hard to strike a work/life balance as such.

Having this level of freedom was something I wanted to translate to TAP’s structure, as flexible working is a major way businesses can be inclusive to disabled people.

Being able to work remotely or around different core hours to strike a better balance makes life far more manageable for many disabled employees. It worked for me so this is a concept we’re working hard to bring into the big corporates.

Which book would you recommend others to read and why?

'The Chimp Paradox' By Prof. Steve Peters - it helps you to understand your emotions and mindset and that of others to create an optimum environment and emotional output.

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Don’t sacrifice happiness. 

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

I still think the answer to this is my Mum. She gave me perspective but also made me realise that life is for living and that anything is possible so enjoy what you do and never think you aren’t good enough. But, if you want it to happen then you need to be the one to make it happen.

What does success look like to you?

Happiness. This is the ultimate indicator of success for me. You can be achieving targets or have a life that others perceive as success, but ultimately if you aren’t happy then you aren’t truly successful.