10. Laurel Herman: Having impact, being influential and using initiative

Laurel HermanLaurel Herman is acknowledged as an international expert in every aspect of personal effectiveness.  In this podcast Laurel talks to Sue Stockdale about fifty years of being in business, and how using her initiative to solve problems has taken her into a number of different ventures including concept shopping, an image consultancy and a social enterprise helping people with Autism Spectrum Difference achieve fulfilling working lives.

Laurel’s start as an entrepreneur came almost fifty years ago when she advertised her used designer pregnancy clothes for sale in The Lady magazine. From these humble beginnings, and with no intention whatsoever of ever being in business, Laurel pioneered the idea of Concept Shopping which became very successful and whose clientele still grows today. They included Lady Jean Denton, rally driver and member of the House of Lords.

Becoming known as the go-to image person for corporate execs, Laurel then launched Positive Presence as an independent consultancy focusing on impact & influence by incorporating all aspects of communication and behaviour too. Clients include male and female leaders of top law practices, consulting firms and corporate organisations worldwide, as well as many private clients. Over time, Laurel’s confidentiality, discretion and down-to-earth practical advice has been taken on board by many powerful and successful people needing to consider how to impress and influence others.

After one of her sons was diagnosed with Aspergers at the age of 30, Laurel founded a social enterprise helping talented, able individuals with Autism Spectrum Difference achieve fulfilling working lives. ASPIeRATIONS  helps employers to recruit , retain and grow  autistic talent and work with candidates to optimise their employability for the business world.  Find out more about Laurel on LinkedIn.

Laurel Herman transcription

Sue : [00:00:00] hi, it’s Sue Stockdale, and welcome to another episode of access to inspiration. Today I’m speaking to Laurel Herman who has more than 50 years of experience to share with us. Laurel is acknowledged as an international expert in every aspect of personal effectiveness. Her start as an entrepreneur came over 50 years ago when she advertised her used designer pregnancy clothes for sale, in the lady magazine from these humble beginnings and with no intention of ever running a business, Lauren pioneered the idea of concept shopping and over the next 20 years became known as the go to person for the great and the good, where she styled their opinions and help them with image and clothes advice.

Her clients include male and female leaders of top law practices, consulting firms, and [00:01:00] corporate organizations worldwide, and many private clients too. Her confidentiality discretion and down to earth practical advice. Has been listened to by many powerful and successful people when they are considering what to wear to impress and how to present themselves.

More recently after one of her sons was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 30 she has turned her attention to setting up Aspierations an organization aimed at bringing together organizations and people with Asperger’s and act as a catalyst to help business see that there’s a pool of talent perhaps they’re not tapping into and together with those in the spectrum, being able to connect them and work in those organizations.

I’m fascinated to learn from you, Laurel. You’ve been successful with a number of your different initiatives over the years, including your more recent one Aspierations, which I’ll get onto later on. You’ve got such a wealth of knowledge and experience about personal effectiveness. I wonder how it all began. Where did your story start?

Laurel: [00:01:58] I actually think that my story probably [00:02:00] started when I was very young because I now realize that I was highly intuitive to things that when I’m even working with a client now, I suddenly think, how should I know that. And I realized that even maybe as a little girl, certain things were striking me about life and about people.

So it started very, very early. But I never intended ever to be in business. I have to say that girls like me, you know, of my age. It wasn’t the thing you did. My mom had never worked. I was academic at school. If you ask people, they will say, Laurel won all the prizes. I didn’t win all the prizes. But somehow there’s an image of that. And really because of that, I think when I reflect on it really, I didn’t need to prove anything. I studied statistics, met the man, I fell in love with him. I was 16 and all I wanted to do was really get married and have a family. I did get married and I have my first two children by the time I was 22. At that time there was never any intention of doing anything at all.

And the reason for that, it’s quite interesting. Again, in reflection, my father was in a business which depended on the buyers from big corporations buying the [00:03:00] things he sold. And I used to be in his office and I used to listen to the buyers. I remember they really, he depended on that. They were big buyers in every sense of the word, and they would look at something fingering through a magazine. It’s like, Oh, I like that handbag knowing full well, he had to go and get his secretary to go out to buy the handbag. And I remember sitting there thinking, how can anybody be like? Right? But it was our livelihood. In fact, I had to four of them at my wedding and all four from different companies. Never bought me a wedding present.

I didn’t need the wedding present. You see, again, looking back, I was 20 but I couldn’t understand how people could do that, but had they not been invited to the wedding, he would have lost the contract. So that was in my mind, that’s what business women were like. And there was no way I ever wanted to be in business and it’s really interesting cause that stayed with me for a long time. So after the birth of my second son, which was very soon off, the first one, I want you to get rid of my maternity clothes, which in today’s world would have been called designer. But [00:04:00] in fact, there wasn’t such a term then. I advertised them in the lady magazine and I advertised my maternity clothes.

A lady from Northern Ireland, from Coleraine answered the advert, bought my maternity clothes, asked me if I had any non-pregnant clothes, which I have from obviously from before the children, and I sent them over to her. She bought the lot, at which point she asked me, all my friends are so jealous because we can’t get good clothes over here.

So I had a very stylish mom and grandma and I put the in a box and sent them over to Coleraine and her friends bought the lot. I put this other advert in saying, group of friends got clothes to sell. I do not know why I did it and I forgot I’d done it. And one day I came home and my grandmother said to me, what have you done?

We’ve had phone calls from all over the British Isles wanting your clothes. Now. I remember that as if it was yesterday. And I realized now, which I didn’t then how resourceful I am, and I phoned all these very nice ladies back. I said, I’m really sorry. The advert came out a couple of weeks ago, leave it to me. I’ll [00:05:00] do something. And I was very shy, led a very sheltered life. I wasn’t, didn’t know how to speak to people I’ve never met at all. At that point, I did have friends who were beginning to buy good clothes. It was beginning of the French and Italian clothes. I spoke to all of them and got them to put their cast off clothes together.

Now again, the funny bit about this is when I actually got married, it was the era of short A line lovely clothes,that was the geometric look. While I was pregnant for the whole two and a half, three years that I was, as it were, middies came in with waistlines and I couldn’t bear it because I put on three and a half stone for each of my children.

So when I went to, sell my friends clothes, they were all the minis. I didn’t even realize this until much later. Actually what I did was selling by mail order. To all these ladies around the country and I put all the things in parcel, send them off and they sent half back or whatever. I loved it. It was a hobby.

So while I did that, my two little boys playing on the floor, cause they were very good. I do my parcel, send them off and that was it. That went on for some time. And then [00:06:00] a lady from Saffron Walden, phoned me up and said you’ve done so well by me and you’ve never met me. My cousin who’s going to be a lady mayor of Enfield, she wants to come and see you. Absolutely. Not in my home. I mean, there’s no way. Well, of course, I gave in eventually and she came and then she brought her counselors and so it went on. I put the advert in and then continued to put some adverts in saying I had clothes for sale. And so over years I actually saw people in my home and I remember had somebody from Buckingham palace. I remember going to the Royal Mews actually to dress all kinds of things. And that was actually the beginning of my work in the corporate world.

Sue : [00:06:42] I’m imagining you weren’t calling it work in your head.

Laurel: [00:06:45] I certainly wasn’t calling it business at all. And then what actually happened was Jean Denton, who was headhunted to come to London in a corporate role.

And she actually met the wife of the CEO who happened to be very, very smart, and I don’t even remember what she [00:07:00] looked like, but she didn’t want any makeup. She had shapeless clothes, and Jean heard about me. She put two and two together and thought I was selling the CEO’s wife’s clothes because she was from this area.

And she told me this later, and she came to see me. I dressed her. She didn’t know that she thought she was wearing the CEO’s wife’s clothes. Not that I ever said that she actually was wearing my own. So every time she’s on television, I saw her in something I had bought. But what was interesting, she brought all her friends here to see me.

Right. Because she was generous. You see what she felt? She looked good. She wanted them. And that was very much for me. I have got cousins who wouldn’t dream of telling anyone in case someone might buy a dress that they look good in. Right. But. That was Jean, and that’s how it went on-. So that was my introduction into the business corporate world.

And then things started. I got a lot of attention and I really became, I suppose, the first image consultant. So I was the go to person for all kinds of things do with women clothes for work. It was [00:08:00] the beginning of designer clothes and awareness of looking good. It was the time. That people would start to want to look good, and that when I was on television, people would say, how did you get those clothes?

You know? And I say, well, they’re from…, this was a marketing tool, but I didn’t realize that wasn’t my language because we never advertised. It’s all kept very discreet. And eventually. I think we took premises and it became concept shopping, and I had to admit it was a business. I still am very resistant to being a business woman because I don’t think I am a business woman. I just think I’m very good at what I do. I really do think that.

Sue : [00:08:32] Do you think that that relates back to the sense that you had of those business people that were buyers that worked with your father?

Laurel: [00:08:37] Yes the stigma, but also now I’m in the big business world and I realized that . It’s not my bag, you know, balance sheets and all that kind of thing. Of course, I understand them. I’m not stupid, but it’s not what gives me the buzz  is kind of people and what I get from that. So concept shopping actually went from strength to strength because the women who began to hear about us weren’t all working women, but most of [00:09:00] them were. And there wasn’t anything available.

We were the introduction to French clothes even trouser suits. I remember the first time a customer bought a trouser suit is that she thought she had done something unbelievable. Even just, she’s still a customer of mine and we laugh about it. So that went off. All those years. In that time, many opportunities have been presented to me, even putting my name to a range for Marks & Spencer, but my husband wasn’t happy.

I knew he wasn’t happy, and so I turned everything down because my husband and my children and my family life are most important to me. Sadly, my marriage ended very painfully, very acrimoniously after 30 years, and my whole life was blown apart. My husband, my white knight in shining armour left me with debt. and also screwed me in the divorce, which was when I realized how much money I earned, because now it’s challenged. So I had to get through that. And what I haven’t added, my husband was actually only my second boyfriend, so everyone said to me, Oh, you’re a successful businwesswoman and you’ll be fine. I wasn’t fine at all.

[00:10:00] I had never been single. I’d had one boyfriend before my husband, for seven years. So it was really the most terrible time. But like everything else, you learn a lot. And I found how strong I was, the inner resources I had, which I didn’t want to find. But I did.  And the fact that the infrastructure that what I’ve built actually helped me through it.

Sue : [00:10:21] And I also imagine that you had a great deal of support from your customers just as women generally tend to be supportive of one another. Did that also help you?

Laurel: [00:10:29] Right, absolutely. But that came about because as I was getting through this divorce and it was really horrible. I realized at that point, this is 20 years ago, that divorce was really a subject people didn’t talk about.

It’s not like today when you pick up a newspaper and there’s always kind of an oligarch’s wife or a football, his wife, and about the settlement. Nobody talked about it and I realized that I was getting through because of my family, because of the support of people here. And I realized that there were other people who wouldn’t have that.

So I found because I’m articulate, because like you [00:11:00] said, you know, when I believe in something, I want to help those people. So I actually, because I wasn’t media shy, I became a role model for divorce, survival and recovery in the media and wanted them to see that if I could get through, cause I was the person crying in a corner saying I couldn’t live without my husband. And I wanted people to know that. So that’s when my customers realized what I was really going through in that time. Two things happened. First one was because I was disadvantaged financially and I knew that I hadn’t just been selling clothes. I’ve got a brain. There was a lot of psychology and what I did, I loved it.passionately. for all intents and purposes, Laurel was selling secondhand clothes, which was not the truth. And I walked in one day starting positive presence. I’d been so disparaging about image consultants. This, what is that?  An image consultant?  but he’s not like that. And I couldn’t explain it because it was going  to do something different.

And what actually happened was my clients from concept shopping. By that time, all women who come right at the top of the tree, and when they [00:12:00] heard that I was starting positive presence, they said, wow, fantastic. You’ve done me so well by me and you’ve never abused your connections. I’m going to introduce you and I will tell you within a few weeks I was taking shopping, managing partner of Clifford chance managing partner, PWC, the managing partner of arthur andersens and chairman of Deloitte, etc.

Which I now can talk about.  All men, not together. I have to tell you all separate. In fact, only one of them actually admitted it. I would think of when they were around at the world economic forum, they were all wearing clothes that I’d go shopping with them, and none of them realized that they all came from the same place.

I then when I went shopping, and I don’t know how I had the audacity to do it, I only ever take my husband or my three sons shopping. I had never taken another man shopping, but I think I must’ve been good at it because I loved it and in fact, they, each one said, great. We want you to come into the companies and make our executives look good.

So again, it was timing. It was the beginning of people accepting that this was like, it wasn’t too superficial. If someone like I did it because I’m not a lightweight and [00:13:00] I don’t think looking good is the most important thing in the world. I then started to go into these companies. That’s where positive presence really began, but very, very soon I realized that there was so much more in me.

That hadn’t really been allowed to come out. And that was from my intuitive side. And so positive presence moved very quickly to where it’s been for a long time and evolve to where it is today, which is really working on presence. Every element is about personal effectiveness? Yes. how you look, but far more important or with more weight is how you sound, how you behave and a great deal around behavior. So that became international, working with teams, with groups and with men. I suppose a lot of it was with professional service firms or professional people, and looking back, and I don’t mean this in a conceited way, I think I became known for, of my discretion, my connections.  Perceived wisdom, experience, whatever it is, and understanding people and trustworthiness. And so I was very [00:14:00] lucky that several accountants and lawyers and people like that actually introduced me to their clients, which is quite something because they don’t normally. I know it sounds funny cause that could be anything to do with their personal or working life, but they knew that, I am Mrs common sense, which is what I am.  So P P prive, which is the private client practice grew up dealing with.anything, and that’s the only way I could say it. Dealing with anything or helping people deal with anything. And then aspierations.

Sue : [00:14:28] So tell us about that, cause I think that’s got something that’s very close to your heart with your family.

Laurel: [00:14:34] They’re all close to my heart and  I realized that because they’re all helping people with what I would say problems they didn’t know they had come to sometimes what actually happened 20 years ago, my perception of autism, if I had a perception with either Rain Man or a child knocking its head on the floor  of the supermarket having a meltdown. I don’t even know I had a perception because it didn’t touch my world. One of my sons was diagnosed [00:15:00] with Asperger’s at the age of 30. Now, looking back at that time, I live in Hampstead which I was told is the psycho capital of the world. If you want your fish to be psychoanalyzed. You bring it to Hampstead because there will be a shrink in Hampstead who will do it. We’ve got the Tavistock Institute. Freud, my doctors never heard of Asperger’s. I’d never heard of Asperger’s. I’m savvy. I’m out there in the world. We couldn’t get him diagnosed. We had to take him to Cambridge, so that tells you in 20 years what has happened. But it was a great shock for me being seen as this expert in behavioral communication to think I had an autistic child because of my perception of the word autistic. How could I not have realised? Just because he looks like you and I. So I had to come to terms and thought we had to do a lot of soul searching, going back over the years with a family. It was a really difficult time at that point, and again, it’s a long time ago because I knew nothing I started going to conferences to find out more about what autism is.

And I started to then realize what it was all about. I now know there were a lot of [00:16:00] people like me on the same journey because actually Aspergers had only being given a name in about 1995 this high functioning where people who just were a little bit different, the are a bit odd as a bit quirky, eccentric. Whatever  word you want to put to it. Probably didn’t have great social skills that they had a different way of thinking. And what I began to realize, Sue was quite interesting that some of the people being sent to me, top executives actually presented that way of thinking. So the analogies, they didn’t get them, they said give me a rule. Well, there wasn’t a rule actually  but I could see that’s how they were thinking.

Sue : [00:16:34] You’d seen that behavior in some of your clients?

Laurel: [00:16:36] I began to learn because I was learning about autism and this kind of thing, and as I then began to talk about that, because I’m interested in life and people, to other people. More and more people not knowing I had anything to do with autism actually starts telling me their own stories. And I began to realize as I opened the conversation, how many people in the world that I work in, actually have a connection through children, through [00:17:00] partners, male, male partners, particularly through siblings, whatever, even parents and definitely colleagues.

And the more I talked about it, the more I began to realize why isn’t anyone actually realizing this except me? What was really important to me was that cause I didn’t know anyone with Asperger’s when someone said they had a son. I said oh great. What is he doing? Oh, he’s got a first, got a PhD, whatever.

Yeah. And then their face would fall because actually they started to tell me he was in the post room. He is at home with depression, all kinds of sad things. I didn’t hear a happy story. I began to realize what is going on here. These are people who are quite able as I could see my own son but society didn’t accept them.

So society didn’t accept anything slightly different and awful things happened. Now, what I’ve now realized, which is an interesting, I suppose, that you call these light bulb moments in your life because it’s an invisible difference. It’s only actually discovered when something goes wrong. [00:18:00] If you have a child that has a disability, you know, and you deal with it. But If you’ve don’t so when things go wrong, and then it’s discovered by either a doctor or a teacher or whatever already other problems have come because the person themselves has this different way of thinking has a different lens on life. I know that now, therefore they actually see the world differently, but they get the concern why the world isn’t understanding them and therefore you get the depression. The breakdown. Drink and drug dependency and crime. All the hackers of the world have got aspergers, why didn’t somebody put them in MI-5 instead of putting them in prison. And then suicide. There are 15% suicidal tendencies and the more I learned about  this because I worked in big organizations, I began to understand that actually the recruitment process was daunting for those on the spectrum. That often they wouldn’t apply at all. Or if they did apply, they never got it. And if they did get in by default and years ago, [00:19:00] they would have done. What often happened was because of unusual behavior, very often, eventually people didn’t tolerate it for some reason, and then it was what I call the slippery spiral down, probably never to work again.

And the more I heard that, because people began to give me stories, so I knew something had to be done. So being the interminable mrs fix it. Who comes up with practical solution. I decided I wasn’t going to start a charity because to me, a charity means, because of my work in the corporate world, you go and say, please do this to help us.

You come from the point of these are disadvantaged people. I was too proud and I’ve got too much dignity which is just the same as my work. I spoke right the way through and I did something different. I think this is a business case because at the end of the day gets money that makes the world turn around. I don’t see that as a bad thing. So I got the great and the good around a table, many of whom were parents of people with Asperger’s or people who are just good people and realize something had to be [00:20:00] done or enlightened people who will ask maybe a skill shortage and they could see this as a hidden pool of talent.

And I said exactly that. I’m not Mother Teresa I’m not here to change the world, but you’re missing actually something that would really help. This is a business case. There’s a hidden pool of talent that you could use and they listened and aske questions and Aspiereations was born. In 2017 we became a CIC, which is a community interest company because we want to be seen by business as actually being business led and not ask them to do things that they didn’t want to do or couldn’t do. And so we’ve moved from there to where we are today.

Sue : [00:20:38] So you’ve had a real amazing career there. And I guess the things that are really striking that come out is your ability to be opportunistic, to observe connections and patterns that other people aren’t seeing,

Laurel: [00:20:51] Which is interesting because that’s what an autistic mind is. And I’m definitely, I’ve learned, not autistic, I’mtypical that that’s actually very difficult sometimes for [00:21:00] me with people on the spectrum. But yes, I definitely, I do see patterns and I realize that without knowing, I’m seeing them. And I do see. Opportunities, and I don’t necessarily in a business sense, but something has got to do something.

Sue : [00:21:12] So that desire to help the fascination for people has really driven you to take action and make things happen over  your career

Laurel: [00:21:20] in a way that I believe is going to work. Because part of aspierations is balancing the needs and expectations of business, but also the community. In other words, the community would really probably like lots of things in an ideal world, and business probably doesn’t want to give anything in an ideal world because it costs money, but if you can balance that. That’s perfect, that’s what we do.

Sue : [00:21:43] It is a catalyst to bring together business that can see there’s a pool of talent perhaps they are not tapping into and those on the spectrum that actually want to work in those organizations and maximize their potential

Laurel: [00:21:53] Or might even not know they want to work in organizations because very often they don’t know this is the thing because they don’t know their career [00:22:00] prospects. They don’t know because they’re seeing the world differently. So yes, bringing them together. To everyone’s advantage because there is a great advantage to be had if people  understand the way to do it and that it’s very important. It’s the way to do it.

Sue : [00:22:14] So for any of the listeners to this podcast, who perhaps maybe those people that are on the spectrum that have been identified as such. What could they do? Can they be part of the organization? Do they get support? How would they take it forward?

Laurel: [00:22:27] So much actually happened over the past few years. We’ve worked very hard with organizations to open doors and to actually build revenue because we need money. We don’t have any funding at well. We believe that organizations, in order to attract, to recruit and retain and grow autistic talent have to be ready to do otherwise it’s probably not going to work. So our work has been primarily on that side because that brings us revenue with the enlightened organizations. So we’ve done some fantastic work. Meanwhile, we’ve been [00:23:00] working with people who are on the spectrum who approached us, and we’ve been doing that pro bono to help them because we can’t ask them if they’re not in work to pay, but we cannot continue because we’re actually not being approached almost every day by somebody. So at the moment, we’re building a very interesting, comprehensive model of a development program for people on the spectrum.

This program is being developed at this very moment by our psychologists and by business leaders putting it together and the autistic voice as well, because that’s everything we do has the three voices. And that has to go out for funding, and that’s our next thing to try and get proper funding so we can really roll it out because it’s so needed.

Sue : [00:23:39] So it’s been really brilliant to hear your journey in your career, all the different activities that you’ve done. Looking back on that career of almost 50 years, what have you learned about you during that time?

Laurel: [00:23:48] I would say that nothing is wasted. So when one thinks that something has gone wrong, that people are made redundant, my work is to inspire them and make them realize that. I know it’s lovely to use the cliche. Everything happens [00:24:00] for a reason, but I believe it does. It might be difficult time, but you’ll get through it. You have to be resilient. You have to know that you will get through and that you have to look at the positives bits. So I think it’s all learning. And Ive  used every portion of it. So that for me has been what has happened. My journey when I look back, it’s all connected. I didn’t realize it at the time, but each bit has added something to what’s happening next.

Sue : [00:24:26] Wise words. Laurel Herman, thank you so much for your time today.