Ellen Willoughby – Trust yourself. Your ideas. Your beliefs.

#YesSheCan has interviewed Ellen Willoughby, MD of Harmonious Improvement Group, here she talks about her career and her Bipolar Disorder diagnosis.


A bit about me


I am the Managing Director of the Harmonious Improvement Group, which is a management systems consultancy specialising in ISO standards implementation, maintenance and training. I have been involved in management systems for 20 years, working all over the UK as a quality manager and auditor. 


In my spare time I volunteer at the Nagarjuna Kadampa Buddhist Centre in Northampton in the UK. This involves teaching classes on meditation and buddhist ideas that can help you have a more peaceful and happier mind.  We cover a variety of topics, the next course I am teaching is on how to overcome guilt and self-criticism.  Others include reducing anger and improving relationships as well as meditation and mindfulness techniques.


8 years ago, I was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.  Turns out I most likely have had it since I was a teenager! Since then it has been a huge learning curve on how to manage life and run a business successfully with the disorder. Luckily I have great family and friends that have supported me through this journey. 


Is there a typical day in your career?


I run my own business so it is incredibly varied. Being a business owner you have to wear a number of hats! 


Most days, I wear my consultancy hat. I help my clients implement and maintain their management systems.  These can be quality, environmental, H&S or Information security depending on what ISO certifications they need.


When I wear my auditor hat, I spend the day looking around a client’s site, viewing documents, interviewing people and writing the report up. Being in auditor mode gives me a chance to be really nosey which I love!  It is amazing what you find out if you ask the right questions!


Then when I am running the business, my day can vary from finance to marketing and sales tasks. I recently employed my first team member, so I like to spend time working and developing them. We are busily creating our new online training portal. 


What made you choose this career and did you get to where you are now?


I didn’t! When I was 20, I started in my first office job as a PA to the Engineering Director.  He was an incredibly positive mentor who put me forward for many projects to progress my career.  When a role as Quality Manager came up he promoted me, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Since then, I have worked in a wide range of companies, all in quality management or related roles. Now I run The Harmonious Improvement Group which is my own Management Systems Consultancy.


The decision to become self-employed and run my own business is definitely the best decision I ever made.  However, the reason I started my business was unfortunately under the cloud of being too ill to work full time in the corporate world. 


I had a bout of chronic fatigue and was having severe issues with my moods.  Even though I was meditating regularly, had stopped drinking, drugs and smoking over a decade before, I was still all over the place.  Depressed chronically for months on end, then insanely high on energy, making interesting decisions and spending a lot of time at the gym working off all that manic energy!  In the end, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.  This really threw me at first as although it is manageable, it is ultimately incurable. 


We all have setbacks, how have you overcome yours?


With so many famous people like Stephen Fry and Carrie Fisher being quite open with their bipolar diagnosis, this gave me hope all was not ultimately lost.  You can have a fulfilling life whilst having a mental health disorder! With the right medication and psychotherapy, my bipolar disorder is now under control and life, whilst not easy, is way more manageable.


I have a support team which includes my mum, partner and key friends.  They keep an eye out for my mental health.  It is great to know you have people on your side keeping a lookout in case I miss the signs of mania or depression sneaking up on me. 


What do you feel passionate about in your role?


Due to having practised mediation and mindfulness for a couple of decades now, the initiatives around the world relating to this are close to my heart. I am part of the Nagarjuna Kadampa Buddhist Centre in Northampton, UK.  We have a wide range of meditation classes for all ages and interest levels.  Teaching everyone from 5 year olds at school to adults of all ages these techniques and ideas are very rewarding. The feedback is really positive and helps bring more peace and happiness into people’s lives. 


Within my role I always use what I have learnt with my clients.  Keeping calm, patient and compassionate works wonders when you are trying to introduce any management system or business change.


What drives you forwards?


I’m not sure I do have the drive and determination to succeed if I’m honest! Well, definitely not in the traditional ways of escalating up the career levels, getting bigger and better material things; those things just don’t really matter to me.

It is more like I want to live my life as harmoniously as possible.  What this means for me is doing as little harm in the world, helping where possible, whilst taking no sh*t! If I do that, then I have succeeded in my view.


Whilst I hate to say it, my mantra was nailed by L’Oreal in their adverts….


“I’m worth it” 


For many years I thought I wasn’t worth it for lots of different reasons. Now I know I am and I keep reminding myself of that. I am worth it, just as everyone else is. I am no less worthy of love or success, just as I am no more worthy than anyone else. Humility and equanimity are important minds to cultivate.


Also, it may sound bizarre, but suffering! It sounds miserable, but it actually isn’t. Because I know everyone suffers in life, it helps me be a better person and aim to reduce suffering for all where I can, both in business and in my personal life. 


What’s great about being a female in your role and has it held you back at all?


I am a rarity!  There are not many females in my field, although numbers are growing in recent years.  It is always great to meet fellow females, often through Linkedin, doing so well in this male dominated area of business.


I like to think I bring life, patience, compassion and understanding to the role of the management system consultant. 


The main challenge as a female has been getting taken seriously!  When I was first employed as a quality manager, right up until I first set up my own business, I found there were quite a few negative people happy to put me and my efforts down. Imposter syndrome, combined with my mental health issues meant I took a lot of that attitude on board and it affected my confidence for a long while. Those people have not disappeared, I just take no notice of them anymore!  I do what I do, no matter what other people’s views may be. Getting to that confident view took a lot of self-development work, but it was so worth it!


What are your biggest achievements?


Helping people change their life in positive ways….This has been a constant theme in my life, albeit often without realising, it has to be said!


Always trying to be the example you want to set for others. I know I make a positive difference in people’s lives at work and through the meditation classes. You never know who you will affect though! Often, feedback comes from unexpected sources about the challenges they have overcome from interacting with you. 


What helps you relax?


Over the years, I have done various fire walking challenges for charity, and recently went on a fire eating course.  I am keen to do more with fire, so that is my latest thing!


During the lockdown, I am improving my vegan cooking skills as I enjoy cooking for others and hosting dinner parties.  Improving cooking techniques will mean tastier and more varied dishes for them.   


Love swimming and Ceroc dancing so cannot wait till the pools and classes open again after lockdown has finished.


I am an avid reader.  Always have several books on the go from sci-fi to comedy and personal improvement books. 


What advice has helped you and what advice would you give?


My advice is simple:


  1. Go with your gut instinct. It is usually right!
  2. Find a decent mentor who is in your corner and provides advice that aligns with your values
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  If you get that right, everything else will fall into place. 


Always be kind and compassionate to yourself and others.  Everyone suffers in some way, no matter how wonderful their life looks from the outside.  You never really know what other people are going through, so always be kind and compassionate.

Communicate compassionately and honestly.  There is nothing worse than BS that people spout.  We see enough of it in the press and from our politicians.  People want honesty. Yet people take that to mean being harsh or non-diplomatic, it doesn’t have to be that way.  Combined with compassion, honesty works wonders and people appreciate it and will follow.


The best piece of advice I have been given is:


“Can you do anything about the situation? Yes? Then do it. No, then let it go.”


This has helped me let go of things that would usually have caused irritation, anger or anxiety and makes for much better mental health.


Is there one woman who is your inspiration?


My mum. She is amazing. She is so kind, non-judgemental and loving. Right now, she is helping so many elderly neighbours during the lockdown; just one example of her kindness. She has supported me no-matter what, and is always positive about whatever I do in life. Without my mum, I don’t know where or what I would be. 


Is enough being done by businesses to support women? What else could be done?


No, enough isn’t being done.


I appreciate we have come along in leaps and bounds since the initial days of the suffragettes.


At the same time, the whole society is set up towards the male gender. This is everything from something simple, yet deadly, like the design of stab vests which do not account for the female form, through to business working hours and structures, right up to the entire welfare and legal systems across the world. 


There is a long way to go before women and men are treated equitably in all areas of life including business. 


In terms of helping address the imbalance, enabling a flexible working environment that allows for women and men to work together to enhance their lives is key. 


Making sure the culture of the organisation does not allow sexism or misogynistic views to prevail. This needs to be supported by progressive HR policies and training initiatives. 


Keeping things balanced.  Positive discrimination, I believe, does not actually help, but hinders. People see positive discrimination as enabling people who would not get the job, to get the job!  This breeds discontent and anger.  Policies and procedures need to be in place to ensure the right person gets the right job on an equal footing. 


What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions?


Be yourself.  Do not try to be anyone else of any gender!  If you look at the female political leaders in this world like the PM of New Zealand Jacinda Arden, they are all unashamedly themselves.  As Jacinda said

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”


What would you say to your 16-year-old self?

Trust yourself.  Your ideas.  Your beliefs.  Your gut instinct. Your truth. 



Thank you Ellen! If this has inspired you and you want to read more blogs, click here!

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