Talking with Liam: The Social Entrepreneur’s A to Z

You can now listen to the two podcasts mentioned in this post: ‘Meet the mentors’ and also ‘What would you do if you had a year to live?’

Liam books

That looks good doesn’t it? I’ve always mildly envied people who are the ‘wise words’ at the top of chapters in a book. But not being a saint or a noted philosopher I’d never expected the words would be any of mine. But now they are. Here’s how come.

A few weeks ago I spent the afternoon in a recording studio in London. No, don’t worry, Apple Records hadn’t finally sent for me to be an unexpectedly late addition to their Merseybeat catalogue. I was there in Maple Street Studios to talk, not sing. And the talking was with two other people. Lucy Adams who, amongst many other significant things, has been Head of Human Resources at the BBC, and Liam Black, who has written a book. This one.Mentoring1

We got on like three houses on fire, easily filling up the afternoon with conversations on three of the letters in Liam’s book.

It's an A to Z as you can see.
It’s an A to Z as you can see.

And we breezed through letters K, L and M, which will soon become a couple of podcasts (links below)

'K' for Know yourself.

Mentoring6Mentoring7There’ll be Podcasts on all of the letters in the book, including one by Professor Muhammad Yunus, the social entrepreneur, banker, economist and civil society leader who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance. Yes, probably the most acknowledged and admired social entrepreneur on Earth. So what am I doing sharing space with him in Liam’s book?

Well, a good long time ago now I used to be one of Liam’s mentors. That’s why my words appear at the top of the ‘M’ chapter.

Liam Black

We first met 20 years ago when Liam started working at the Big Issue in the North. Me and Sarah were just getting ‘a sense of place’ going and some of our earliest work was with the Big Issue. Then when Liam got his first Chief Executive job at the Furniture Resource Centre here in Liverpool we started working with them too. All kinds of work: team development; values and values systems; events and later on films. And threaded through all of this was mentoring. Never called that as such, never mentioned on an invoice, but there all the same. Me and Liam sitting in our house talking, or as he says ‘walking the streets of Liverpool.’

“Ronnie Hughes with his sandals and beard could not have been more different to Graham Morris (Ex Rolls Royce FRC Chair and Liam’s other mentor). He left social housing to set up as a life coach and social enterprise developer. But he was great for me too, helping me weather the emotional and personal resilience challenges which come when you take over the hot seat. His support and gentle but persistent questioning of my motives and responses was invaluable and helped get me through some very tough times.”

What mentors do. One of Spike Gerrell's lovely illustrations from the book.
What mentors do. One of Spike Gerrell’s lovely illustrations from the book.

Get through the tough times he did too, building FRC into a significant and sizeable social enterprise before going on to be Chief Executive of Jamie Oliver’s ‘Fifteen’ restaurants and, since 2008, co-founding and running his own Wavelength. Along the way he’s been a constant and irreverent commentator on society and all things social in his regular Pioneer’s Post columns. Including recently and gloriously being a thorn in the British establishment’s side wondering about all that Big Society money. He’s no day at the beach and he wouldn’t want to be. So I’m proud to know him.

His book with its lovely and cartoonish illustrations appears at first to be a light hearted stroll through his opinions and recommendations. But of course it’s not light-hearted at all. Though thankfully, coming to no grand, smug and over-arching conclusions, the book presents the hard learning of an adventurous lifetime, even if lightly said.

Beginning with ‘A for Anxiety’ and the ‘bowel melting worry’ of sleepless nights learning to cope with the growing size of FRC’s monthly salary bill:

“What if we don’t achieve £40k? We’ll have to let people go…What about all those unemployed people we’ve recruited?…What will everyone say…about the business? About me? In and out of half sleep, coming wide-awake at 4am…it’s always 4am for me.”

So twenty six letters-worth of memories like that. Experiences, reflections and advice which I think you’d be well advised to have a look at. The book’s out now available from here and I highly recommend it.

Well I would recommend it, wouldn’t I, being his friend? Well no actually. We’ve had a tough sort of friendship that’s had its ups but also several downs over the years. Tough enough, I’d say, to survive me telling him if I didn’t rate his new book. But when Liam sent me an early proof I knew I did like it’s humorous and realistic way of dealing with life’s lessons, and so I was pleased when he asked me if I’d come to London and do an afternoon’s podcasting with him about it.

Lucy Adams
Lucy Adams

So what did we talk about that day, Liam, Lucy and me? Can’t remember. I remember the laughter, the reflecting, the mutual insights and mystifications. And I remember the bit where Lucy took over Liam’s discussion-leader role and interviewed the two of us about when I was one of Liam’s mentors. But the actual words? I’ll have to wait for the Podcasts like everyone else.

Except I have kept these words. Liam had given us both some notice of a couple of the things he wanted to talk to us about and I thought my answer to one of the questions needed to be written down in advance, so I’d do both myself and my younger self justice with my answer on the day.

Liam – “What advice would you give to the 20 year old young version of yourself?”

Ronnie – “Since you were 12 you’ve known you wanted to make housing conditions better and sort out homelessness. Good, you’re on the track of work you will love. As you now do that work look out for the bits of it you absolutely love (there will be no mistaking them) and the bits you really don’t.

And as your experience grows work on filling your job with as much of the stuff you love as you can. Try and avoid wrong turns, especially ones that tempt you with temporarily better pay.

In the end your true fortune, even if it’s not financial, will come from doing the work you love. It’s what you’ll always be best at. But know also that what you love will change over time. So your life is likely to be a linked sequence of occupations. But if you can be doing work you love as much as possible than your life probably won’t feel like work at all.”

Liam’s book is out now.

You can listen to the podcast discussions described above at: ‘Meet the mentors’ and ‘What would you do if you had a year to live?’

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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  1. Well done Ronnie, you made a real difference to him. A great achievement.
    ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,’ Confucius

    1. Thank you Cathy. I suppose it’s the ‘job’ bit where I diverge from Confucius (if I may). Eventually, like Liam, my own collection of things I loved to do led me out of being able to even stay in anyone’s nine to five sort of a job. Becoming frankly and joyously unemployable.

      Like Liam and many of us I eventually had to make that leap of faith into the self confidence of employing myself. Only subtly different from unemployment some days and definitely not for everyone. But for me? Well yes.

  2. I was lucky enough to be able to do a job I loved…but I know that if my father hadn’t had a bit of pull I would have been stuck with a frustrating second best – and that is so wrong!

    1. It is Helen and society seems to be moving back to that sort of patriarchy now. Which is why it’s important that social enterprises retain their principles and continue to be genuinely better ways to do business and better places to work in.

  3. Ooh – book looks lovely Ronnie, and looking forward to listening to the podcasts. Also have an interesting project on the horizon that might be right up your street. It’d be good to tell you about when we next catch up…

  4. And about time your ‘mentoring’ talents were more widely known about!! Can’t wait for the podcast too.

    I still remember that day you gave to me just before we moved to France, over 10 years ago. A sort of leaving present which was a practical day-long tour of how to use a Mac. I had a secretary up until then who would not let me near her computer because she thought if I started to learn that stuff, she’d be out of a job! Anyway, it was a life changing day for me and you have such a gentle, intuitive and encouraging approach that without me even knowing it, you were pushing my boundaries, as it were. A rare gem of a skill and I have always clung to those words of yours about finding work you love and been boringly evangelical about it with people who wind on about hating their jobs or their work. It is so true.

    Will definitely buy Liam’s book…even though the b*****d didn’t give me the job that time at FRC!! Still, wouldn’t be where I am now if he had. Life might have been very different. Like you say in one of your replies Ronnie, I like employing myself too and seeing where it will take me and I too, revel in being frankly and joyously unemployable!

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