Inclusivity: Open, Fair and Just
“I am resilient. People who are non-neurotypical like me have different ways of solving problems and we think outside the box. Diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia didn’t make any difference to the way I was, but I could put a label on why I never felt part of anything or included and have always felt like a square peg in a round hole.”
Interview: Sue Wilcock Pictures: Warren Page
Lisa Ansell talks to Essex Director
When talking about the subject of inclusivity and Lisa Ansell, author of ‘Pull NOT Push’ and franchise owner of Sales Geek, the natural assumption is that the challenges she has had with her career and not ‘fitting in’ would be because of her sexuality.
“Yes, I am a single, 55 year-old, lesbian, businessperson, but that’s not the reason I have felt excluded from a work environment. The hardest thing I have had to master throughout my life, is my neurodiversity.
“I am a self-confessed creative, an oddball who has dyslexia and ADHD. Because of this I am literal, and I have no filters; I speak as I find, and I don’t understand why people don’t say what they mean and mean what they say. That has led to me not fitting into the conventional corporate work environment and has been a major factor driving me to run my own businesses.”
Born in 1966 in North West London, Lisa is the eldest of three. Describing her family as typical working class, her dad was a firefighter and her mum worked in a shop. At the age of five, the family moved to Alresford in Essex.
“Put simply, I was a feral child because I had no parenting growing up. Dad worked shifts, so for five days out of seven, he wasn’t at home, and Mum and I never bonded. The only contact I had with anyone that gave me the care and attention I needed, were the teachers at school.
“I was very pretty and super smart. This, together with the fact that Dad taught me to read and write before I went to school, meant that I was able to disguise how challenging and difficult I found it.
“Dyslexia wasn’t even a thing in those days, and it didn’t get diagnosed until I was much older. I was clever enough to overcome things and find a way around it. Teachers just accepted that I wrote very slowly and when I was reading, I would use my finger to guide me through the sentences.
“Despite this, school was my absolute sanctuary and where I felt safest. It was the place where I had the care and affirmation; I loved it so much and all I wanted to do was fit in and be a good student.
“However, Mum’s mum, my nan, was my role model and a mother figure. Along with Dad, I could do no wrong, I was the apple of their eyes, and their love was unconditional. And when Dad was at home, he was the stabilising force and the housemaker. He was my everything and I was a proper ‘Daddy’s girl’ – I was the golden child.”
“Dad and Nan’s gift to me was that they gave me confidence and empowerment – they taught me that if I put my mind to it, there was nothing I couldn’t do.”
“Dad was a force to be reckoned with. He was an activist and a socialist and would always be on protest marches or demonstrations on things he felt strongly about, such as the miners’ strikes, and Greenham Common peace protects for CND in the eighties. I loved joining him with my placards.
“He always said to me: ‘You have to help your fellow man and make your corner of the world the best it can be.’ Throughout his life, he was always opening his home and taking people in that needed help and sanctuary.
“He brought me up to always challenge authority, even in the family. His view was that just because you are older, doesn’t mean you are right. He died 18 years ago, so my kids never really knew him, but they are following that ethos.”
The consequence of the toxic relationship between Lisa’s mum and dad meant that they split up and her dad, having been pensioned off from the fire service, disappeared for 18 months, leaving Lisa and her sisters at home with their mum.
A rebel child
“I was 14 and expected to look after my sisters. I was a very angry teenager and felt abandoned by my hero father after my parents split. Mum tried to be our friend, rather than a parent. I know now that parentification figured into the equation, with Mum and my roles being reversed.
“When it came to school, I had worked out that I only needed to be just a bit better than everyone else to succeed. So I would just do enough to make sure I was the smartest kid. But I had a thirst for knowledge, and I consumed information. I would read encyclopaedias and dictionaries to glean knowledge in ‘bite-size’ pieces. I was never at home. I spent all my time at my best friends; I also slept rough sometimes.
“I still went to school, but after I would go out. I started partying hard and as I looked much older than I was, I could get into nightclubs and drink in pubs. I even tried running away from home twice, attempting to hitchhike to join the ladies camping out at Greenham Common, but the Police would keep bringing me back home.
“I was smart though and people were telling me to go to university. But it was 1983, I was from a working class family and money was tight, so it wasn’t an option.”
Lisa left high school in 1982 and went on to the Colchester Institute to study Hospitality and Catering.
“I had an idea that I would like to go into hotel management, but after a year, I gave it up. What I really wanted to do was move away from home, so I could be autonomous and independent, and I needed to be earning money to get a place of my own. Yet it took me six months before I got a job at Tesco’s in Colchester where I was a bookkeeper and shop assistant. I was also a party planner for Avon and Tupperware in the evenings.
“Then someone suggested that I was a natural sales person and was good at building a relationship with people. So, I started looking around for a job where I could sell, and just before I was 19, I got a job as a sales representative with a furniture and office company based in London.
“I was doing telesales and I loved it. I was so driven by the need to earn good money and to be independent, and I knew that sales was the only way for a working class female to achieve that.”
“Rejection was never a thing for me – it was something you had to do, and go through, to be where you wanted to be.”
After a short time in this sales role, Lisa decided she wanted to be an estate agent.
“It was a booming industry, and you could earn great money. When I was younger, I had always wanted to be an architect, but got put off because of how many years training you had to do. But I was always fascinated and loved property.
“I went for a couple of interviews and then found this job with Strutt Daughters in Clacton. I went in for a trial day and sold three houses. I was given the job on a starting salary of £3,500 and within six months, I had moved to Cornerstones in Ipswich, earning £10,000 a year, plus a company car.
“I am brilliant at connecting with people and building relationships, after all, that’s all sales is, right?
“I was 20, and I moved to Ipswich with my boyfriend. We had been going out since we were 11 and we were like ‘Babes in the Wood’; we fought the world together.
“Being an estate agent was my favourite job; you were working with customers who were mostly happy that they were on the move, and I got to look around people’s homes, as well as building a relationship with the buyers and sellers.”
Over the next three years, Lisa worked at various estate agencies in the town, but she began to realise that she didn’t fit into the corporate world.
“I was trying to climb the ladder, but because of my learning difficulties, I had no filters, and I couldn’t conform to the business environment. I found it really difficult and started to run into loads of problems around paperwork, admin and my organisational skills. Yet, I was good at sales and that kept me in the job, although I was a nightmare – trying to organise my chaotic mind was, and still is, a major feat.”
Starting her first business
Lisa decided she wanted to start her own business and she set up a property company that was a pre-internet cross between Purple Bricks and The House Doctor. Called Ansell Property Services, she worked with a surveying company and a conveyancing company and would charge people a small fee to show them how to sell their own property, without using an estate agent.
“I would make my money from taking a cut from all the parties involved. I was listing properties hand over fist, and I could easily make £500 a day. I did this for a couple of years, and then I was headhunted by a life insurance and pensions group based in the City.
“I was 23 and the youngest person they had taken on in sales. I went in as a telesales trainee on commission only pay, working alongside 150 others.
“It really was the champagne lifestyle. I worked 14-hour days and was one of only five women who worked on the sales floor. I blossomed. It was like Wolf on Wall Street, but without the drugs; it was full on and a hardcore sales environment. I was so good, that within six months I was earning £60k a year and training other people to cold call.
“I moved to London, and my boyfriend followed me doing the same job with the same company. We shared digs in Hearne Hill near Brixton.”
It was at this point in Lisa’s life that she started questioning her sexuality.
“I had never found it easy to have conventional friendships with girls. I was very much a tomboy, and although I loved the girlie stuff, the glamour and the glitz, having relationships as friends with other women made me feel odd and nervous.
“When I hit London, I started thinking there was a bit more to it. I obviously gave off a ‘gaydar,’ and I had a couple of ‘close’ encounters with women. But I diverted my sexual impulses and channelled my frustrations into my work. I just didn’t look gay and was perceived as a ‘straight’ female, with my long dark flicky hair, city suits, high heels and Alice Bands.
“This made me angry, focused and driven. Anger is my energy and a much-vilified emotion; if you channel it correctly, it can be used as a tool for action.
“The result is I never felt I fitted into anything. I didn’t recognise the social norms, and as a result, I was rebellious. But as a young, attractive woman, I had to find a way to succeed where I wasn’t upsetting the status quo. I was loud, outrageous and allowed myself to be me. I was the drag queen of the City; I didn’t care, as I was proof that anybody could make it if they were good at something, and I was great at selling.”
“I used the fact that I was an oddball to be non-threatening. Cold calling to me was like making new friends who don’t know how fabulous you are yet. I knew how to play the game. I was unapologetically me; I was happy in my own skin and had an unshakeable belief in myself and I wasn’t going to change myself for anybody else.”
However, Lisa was battling with her feelings and the desire she had to create her own family.
“When I was 25, I fell pregnant by accident, and I decided this was my time to have a family. So, I gave up the job, moved back to Colchester, and dropped out of society for five years.”
In that time, Lisa had two children, James now 28, and Kate now 30. She got married and her husband went back to college to study to be a mechanic; his dream was to run a scooter shop.
“He then went on to university to take an engineering degree, and we decided I needed to go back to work.
“I decided to focus on a job that was in a high growth, cash-rich industry, where I could make a difference with my sales experience. I decided on recruitment, getting a job with a search and selection business that specialised in headhunting lawyers; I was tasked with setting up a specialist sales recruitment division.
“Finding a new entry level role in a new industry and learning the ropes was tough because I scared most people, as I was a powerhouse and used to earning big money. I had also started playing rugby at 28, which helped me channel my anger. I was still fierce but strangely a lot softer by then, as having children changes you.
“I was there for 13 months learning my trade before I decided to start my own sales recruitment business in 1998. Based at home in Little Horkesley, the business was called Clark Consulting and there was just me and a phone, and I started building it up.”
In 2004, Lisa rebranded the company to UK Headhunter, specialising in directly approaching sales professionals internationally to fill positions on behalf of clients. She had three recruiters and three researchers working for her, and over the next 18 months, she grew the business from nothing to a £750k turnover.
“I was on track to achieving my aim of being financially independent and retiring by the time I was 45.”
Taking another direction
Then Lisa’s world came crashing down.
“The more successful we got, the more uncomfortable my husband felt, and he became seriously mentally ill. My dad also became very unwell, dying after nine months in hospital. All the strong male figures I had in my life were crumbling around me.
“I was now playing rugby at top level for Sudbury Ladies in National League 1 and Eastern Counties, and through this time, playing was what kept me sane. I was running my own company, working from home and being a ‘Supermum.’ My days were full on, and rugby was my release.”
With what was going on, Lisa downsized her business, and it was ticking over nicely at an annual turnover of £250k, specialising in recruiting sales people into the packaging industry.
“Add to all this, that while I was raising my family I had suppressed my feelings around my sexuality.
“Playing rugby I was surrounded by lots of gay women, and I began to realise that I was incredibly attracted to females.
“I met my now ex-wife quite soon after my marriage failed, and we decided to grow our family. A year after Dad passed away in 2004, we had a son who we named Bob after him.”
Despite the arrival of the new baby, it was a horrible time for Lisa.
“I was grieving for my father and my relationship with my wife was not a healthy one. Also, the overpopulated corrugated packaging market got consolidated. My client companies operating in the industry were either merging or being sold on and the business disappeared.
“So I had a choice. Either I started another business doing the same thing in a different sector, or I went back to the City doing a job in recruitment. I chose the latter and in 2006, I joined a company that was predominantly Recruitment to Recruitment, being taken on to start a specialist sales division. However, the ethos of the company wasn’t great, so I found another international recruitment company, and launched a wholly owned UK business in London with me at the helm.
“Home life was challenging. My wife and I married in 2007, so that I could legally adopt my son, but our relationship got worse. We were living in Clacton, so I decided to work from home as a franchisee of the company I worked for in London.
“Then, in July 2008, I took a business manager position in an executive recruitment company based in Chelmsford.”
On 28 November 2008, Black Friday hit and the office where Lisa worked closed, and she was out of a job.
“By this time, I was completely burnt out, so I dropped out of the business scene completely. During the five years I had spent raising my two eldest kids, I had always helped out working in the local community, and I loved it. I have lived my life being a ‘fixer’ and had always wanted to help the most vulnerable in society. So, my wife and I decided to train as foster parents, which took 18 months, but I had this idea that I would like my next career to be running a children’s home.
“I joined NACRO, an organisation that helps disadvantaged young people and adults. Based in Clacton, I was working with challenging youths from offending backgrounds and ran the education to employment programme.
“I needed something that would rebuild my soul and where I could make the world better. The programme was incredibly successful, and I was promoted to run the Pupil Referral Unit in Clacton.
“I found dealing with youths easier than dealing with some of the behaviours I had witnessed in the boardroom. I was training the most disengaged in the community, but we had a 100% success rate, and I am immensely proud of that.”
It was while Lisa was doing this work, and the fact that she related so well and had so much empathy with the young people, that colleagues suggested that she was displaying non-neurotypical behaviour. They ran some tests, and they confirmed their suspicions that she had ADHD and Dyspraxia.
“It didn’t cause me any problems, it just helped in being able to explain things.”
In 2010, NACRO decided to close the early intervention programme, and Lisa felt she was back to square one.
“By this time, my second marriage had broken down and I was living on my own, as the main carer for three kids, aged five to 18. I was working full-time in Welfare to Work. I also started up a youth music group, helping local kids get gigs and creating great events for under 18’s.
“In 2013, I wanted to return to the corporate world in a full-time sales training role. I got a job with Paymentsense, a merchant services provider. I travelled the country working with regional sales managers, helping them to train their self-employed sales people.
“I spent six years working with SMEs as their part-time interim sales director. I developed a system that could coach anyone on how to sell without selling; using my non-neurotypical brain to create innovative, left field ways to drive their businesses forward and achieve their goals.
“In between the contracts, and in what was a bold step for someone who is dyslexic, I wrote and published a book in 2018.
“Called ‘Pull NOT Push – A revolution in selling for people who hate it!’ it was a way of me sharing my years of experience and success, as well as a Socratic sales system I had developed, that helped non sales people to sell.”
In December 2019, Lisa decided to go into Agile, a cultural methodology for software delivery based around how you develop your teams. However, in March 2020, when Covid hit, Lisa was furloughed and eventually made redundant.
“During furlough, I was giving free advice and mentoring business leaders. After being made redundant, and having had several conversations with Richard Few, founder of Sales Geek, I decided to be his ‘guinea pig and poster child’ for a new sales training franchise they were offering.
“I joined them in 2021, and I feel as though I am in the most inclusive environment I have ever been in. They are my people, and they accept everything about me. We struck a deal, and I haven’t looked back.
“It’s taken years to find somewhere where I am truly accepted for who I am. Their whole ethos is about empowering others to thrive. I am surrounded by a bunch of rebels, and we have so much fun.
“I still play rugby. I also do Yoga, and I went on plant-based diet a year ago, which helps with the ADHD and hormonal imbalances.
“I now run Sales Geek Essex. I feel I have come home and can completely be myself. Culture is highly valued in the company, and they are the best bunch of people I have ever met. I feel loved, and I am completely happy.
“Since starting with them, I have truly found my passion and purpose, to change the way the world perceives sales, to help people sell better and enable businesses to grow and thrive.
“My advice? ….find your tribe, purpose and passion and all will flow and grow.”
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