Liam's story: Finding a more meaningful career

Changing Direction – After Liam McPherson left university, he landed a role in a grad scheme and was living in London for the first time. He was working in the sought-after Finance industry and enjoying life. But after a couple of years, he had an unshakable feeling that there was more to a successful career than money and status.

He’d learned a lot, but it was time to do something different.

We connected with Liam, who has been a part of the Escape the City Startup Accelerator and On Purpose Associate Programme. Here, he chats about the career change journey he embarked upon, how his life has changed since changing direction, and the advice he has for those who want to make a change.

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Had you always wanted to work in Finance when you were younger, or did you fall into it?

I hadn’t always wanted to work in finance. At different times growing up I’d thought about becoming a graphic designer, studying Spanish at University, and briefly about going into wildlife conservation (thanks to my aunties for adopting that orangutan for me). When it got to crunch time and I needed to decide what to study, the sensible young man in me followed the sensible decision of choosing a sensible career path via a good University – and I went for a degree in Business Administration. This was when The Apprentice had started on TV and the winner could arguably have been described as a role model!

Before University I hadn’t really considered working at a bank, but my degree really encouraged students into consulting, finance or professional services, and I was no exception to that rule. I started a grad scheme in banking and at that point after the financial crisis I was just happy to have a secure job.

Changing Direction - Liam McPherson headshot

What made you start to look at other options apart from Finance?

For the most part I enjoyed working in finance. I was on a grad scheme straight out of uni, living in London for the first time, with a secure job and, all in all, having a great life. I learned a lot from it and a huge amount of transferable skills that have served me pretty well in everything I’ve done since. So it was a really useful experience. 

After a couple of years though this feeling started to grow, and it was a feeling that I realised I’d had for a long time, where I wasn’t solely motivated by money, or prestige, or simply by career progression. Other elements of a successful career became really important to me; namely working on a greater variety of projects, developing people and working towards a cause that wasn’t primarily focused on financial gain. 

I worked with great teams of people in finance, but I realised that I didn’t want what people 10 or 15 years ahead of me had in their careers. I made a pretty big decision relatively early on to take a different direction, otherwise I feared getting stuck by the trappings of a career I didn’t want. That’s not to say it was easy – it was a really anxiety-inducing time – but I knew I could use all the skills that I’d developed and put them towards other options in other industries. I’d have more control over the impact that my work had in the world, and most importantly have a positive impact.

 

Following Finance you worked on a CSR programme and then came onto the Escape Startup Accelerator. Why did you decide to do the Accelerator?

Yes, with the skills I’d got from my experience in finance I moved fairly easily into other sectors, working in change management in the NHS and a project management role for a CSR programme focused on employment opportunities for young people. So instead of a big shift in my career I’ve made a pretty gradual move towards roles with positive social impact, building on skills I’ve gained along the way. 

Escape the City has been a great source of advice and opportunities for me throughout this change and I heard about the Startup Accelerator programme through the newsletter. It was in spring 2019, when I was looking for new opportunities to take my career even further into the social impact world, that I applied for the Accelerator. I was interested in social enterprise and entrepreneurship so it was a great chance to explore both.

 

How was your experience on the Escape Accelerator?

It was a great three months of new experiences and challenges – all with a genuinely good group of people going through the same process. Everyone was in it together and supported each other, despite having a variety of different backgrounds and interests. We’re still in touch today and keep each other updated, ask questions and offer help.

I started without a fixed idea but that wasn’t a problem, as all of the value of the Accelerator came from the process itself – generating ideas, developing the concept and testing it in the real world. I developed skills and new ways of tackling problems that are useful in any role, whether that’s setting up my own social enterprise or working somewhere. I was fairly realistic that I wouldn’t set up a money spinner from day one, so I applied to the On Purpose Associate programme at the same time (which I’d also seen advertised on Escape the City). On Purpose is a 12 month leadership development programme for people looking to move into organisations with social or environmental impact. Hedging my bets like this worked, as I started the programme in October 2019. 

So the last year has been great for my personal development. I’ve had the chance to learn about starting a new venture and feel well prepared to do that in the future – and now I’m part way through the On Purpose programme, learning more about leading positive social and environmental impact.

Changing Direction - Liam McPherson OP1

And how has your experience of the On Purpose programme been so far?

I’m seven months through the 12 month programme and it’s going scarily quickly, which I’ll take as a positive! It really has been a valuable experience, not only for my personal and professional development, but also for building my network within the sector and developing really good relationships with other people in my cohort.

I’ve had a pretty unique opportunity to work in impactful roles in two different organisations so far. My first placement was at the National Children’s Bureau – a great charity advocating for the rights of children and young people in the UK – and now I’m in the social mobility team at King’s College London. 

On Purpose is very clear on its role in creating an economy that works for all, and developing leaders to enable that change – so it’s great to be part of that. Its strength comes from the people within it and with the huge number of people it interacts with in the world – and its value is based upon those people sharing. Sharing their knowledge, time and support is key to making it work, and I’ve definitely benefited from that so far.

A lot like the Escape Startup Accelerator, the On Purpose programme has been a chance to try a lot of new things, ask some questions about myself and what I want to do, and focus on my own development. It’s been an intense but rewarding experience so far. 

As well as our placements we have training sessions every week on leadership and social and environmental impact, delivered by experts in the sector. We also meet with mentors every two weeks and coaches quarterly. It’s just the variety of things to get involved in, and the range of people I’m coming into contact with, which amazes me. 

I get to do all of this as part of a group of other Associates, all of whom are great people and I learn as much from them as I do from the other parts of the programme.

 

If you could give one piece of advice to somebody reading this who is considering a career change, what would it be?

Don’t do it alone! It’s so much easier when you surround yourself with people who can relate to your situation and can support you, whilst you support them in return. A huge part of my experience on the Startup Accelerator, and now during On Purpose, comes from the cohort of people that I’m going through it with.

 

Thanks Liam. Is there anything else you want to share with other Escapees?

If you’re considering a move towards organisations that have social and environmental impact then check out the On Purpose programme I’m currently on – it’s a great transition involving two paid 6 month placements, with so much support and training along the way. If you want to know more about my experience on the programme then I’d be happy to have a chat: liam.mcpherson@onpurpose.london

A few extra bits:

  • Head here to find our Top 100 Progressive Companies of 2019.
  • Nominate a progressive company for the 2020 campaign here.
  • Explore a range of roles at socially impactful organisations on our job board.

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