Shirley Parsons: the woman behind the business
Shirley Parsons Ltd is a company forged in the image of its founder, Shirley Parsons herself.
It’s high time we shared more about our leader’s journey to becoming a visionary in the health and safety industry and an advocate for Helping everyone lead safer healthier lives.
The person behind the corporate executive
Shirley grew up in West Yorkshire, and the traditional Yorkshire characteristics – particularly “grit” – have stayed with her since.
Considering both parents were doctors, a career in the medical sphere seemed likely. But a spell working in a hospital as a ward orderly gave rise to a quick realisation. “Medicine wasn't the right path for me because it got quite upsetting, especially seeing children who are really poorly”, says Shirley.
Seeking an alternative career, she went to Manchester University to study an MSc in pollution and environmental control. She explains: “this is the early ‘70s, so people were just beginning then to start thinking about the environment… that shaped my career, really.”
Shirley then became a Scientific Officer with the London Borough of Hillingdon, dealing with noise and pollution complaints made by the public – “of which I have to say there were many”.
That wasn’t to be her final calling though; later, a chance meeting with somebody running a small environmental consultancy led to a change of career. “I joined with a view to becoming a partner in the business,” explains Shirley.
But trouble was ahead: “six months later, the owner told me I wasn't partner material, and I was incapable of running a business.”
A journey into health and safety
Of that watershed moment, Shirley reflects: “looking back on it in some ways she was probably right because I hadn’t really had any business experience up until this point.”
Yet the die was cast: “it was like a red rag to a bull”, Shirley admits. “It was really the kick I needed to start my own business.”
When she was 28, Shirley set up her business with her partner – who later became her husband. “We started off as an environmental consultancy and an IT recruitment company, and we ventured into health and safety really by merging with another small company. We built the company up, mainly by supplying a very successful COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) helpline after the COSHH regulations came in.”
Later, there was a lightbulb moment: “we could actually offer recruitment to our key clients for health and safety people because a lot of them had already been asking us if we knew anybody who might be interested in joining them.”
So that’s exactly what Shirley did. “I found that I really found my niche, because with my health, safety and environmental knowledge, the ability to get on well with people, and also the ability to remember, unique things about people really helped me in terms of matching the skills of the candidates with the requirements of the clients”, she explains.
A focus on health
Throughout her career, Shirley has been passionate about the health in health and safety: And while it’s been a rising topic and area of focus in the industry, she believes there’s still lots to do.
“A lot of people are talking about mental health, but it's not translated into the job descriptions at the moment”, she says.
She continues: “I believe strongly if you look after your employees, they will repay you in spades with loyalty and hard work. My way of doing that is leading by example; I like to be quite hands-on but also encouraging people to make their own decisions. They all know that they can come to me if they need to discuss anything or for advice.”
In 2009, Shirley was recognised as a voice of authority in HSEQ, penning a regular column in Safety Magazine.
The health of the planet has also been a big passion; in 2013 the company diversified into the environmental and sustainability sector with the creation of a dedicated team to recruit candidates with these specific skills sets.
The offshore wind market has, over the last decade, become the company’s fastest growing market, leading to international expansion. In the past couple of years, we’ve set up divisions to support the renewable energy markets in overseas territories including Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark and Taiwan.
Stress coping mechanisms for coping with work/life demands
When it comes to practising what she preaches, Shirley uses a variety of coping mechanisms to ensure a healthy work/life balance. She says she’s “a bit old school” and with a determination to pull herself together “and get on with it.”
She recalls one particular anecdote: “I remember a particularly stressful time in my life when I went on a client visit feeling extremely low. When I got to the client meeting after a while he said to me, ‘that's what I really like about you Shirley, you are always so cheerful.’
“Obviously my unknown acting skills must have kicked in. I didn't really have much sales training but the training I had was basically one sentence: ‘always be cheerful because nobody wants to see a miserable person.’”
Work is an outlet for Shirley to keep her balance. “Immersing yourself in work can really help”, she says, before a reminder that talking is good for the mind.
“A lot of people that you meet at work can become good friends that you can talk to. If I'm feeling down sometimes, I'll ring clients, just for a chat to see how they're getting on. I find that very uplifting because a lot of them have become old friends and we can confide in each other”, she says.
The quotes in this article are taken from Shirley Parsons’ interview with Karl Simons on Men’s Radio. Listen to the full interview here.