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Home > News and views > ‘Helping people discover the agency they have to shape their lives is the most extraordinary thing’

‘Helping people discover the agency they have to shape their lives is the most extraordinary thing’

Charles Byrne, Director-General of the ESU

Meet Charles Byrne, Director-General of the ESU

Charles Byrne, the new Director-General of the English-Speaking Union, has curiosity in his DNA. The son of a travel writer, his earliest memories are of camping holidays in Britain and later abroad where, once the tent was pitched, his mother would go off and start interviewing people. ‘At the time, my brothers and I found it unbelievably embarrassing,’ he says, ‘but, looking back, there was always this idea that exploring and getting other people’s views and opinions was just what we life was about.’

Janet Cockin, an ‘inspirational’ English teacher, nurtured this love of stories and, although Charles jokes his degree in English and philosophy, while hugely enjoyable, had little obvious practical benefit, it seems to have stood him in good stead. Retail – where an understanding of human nature is key – was his first port of call. He talked his way into a job in the wine trade, and before long was running duty free shops all over Europe. ‘That was an eye-opener,’ he says. ‘I realised that every culture, every language, embodies a different perspective on the world.’ It also taught him the need for a constant dialogue between central office and local delivery staff with more grass-roots knowledge. ‘What might make sense from a central efficiency point of view, might not work in practice at the front line – and the reverse can be true too,’ he says.

Dialogue was another key theme in his next role as Head of Retail at Heathrow Terminal T5, ahead of its opening in 2008. ‘There was an existing conflict of interest when I started,’ he says. ‘The operations staff, quite rightly, are focused on getting people through the airports and onto the planes as quickly and efficiently as possible, and there was a perception that retail would inevitably interfere with that.’ What could have been a fractious few years was instead turned into a hugely positive experience thanks to a powerful collaborative relationship with the Head of Design, David Bartlett. ‘I realised we both shared a vision for the terminal – to create a great passenger experience and something we could all be proud of – and we managed to unite the disparate teams behind it. It taught me that if you want a project to succeed, you need to listen and bring people along with you,’ he says.

Sadly, not long after T5 had opened, Charles’s father died of cancer, which sparked a career pivot into the charity sector to work for Macmillan Cancer Support. ‘I just wanted to do something more meaningful,’ he says. Highlights included being involved with the World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, running several marathons and setting up some high-profile corporate partnerships, including one with Boots. ‘It generated a lot of money each year,’ says Charles, ‘but, more importantly, we got cancer information out onto the high street via leaflets and through training pharmacists, helping us to deliver on our mission.’

Throughout all these roles, Charles’s oracy skills – formally acquired as a student at Bromsgrove School – had served him well. But it was at his next employer, the Royal British Legion, where he felt the need to develop them further. ‘I’d done debating competitions and whole-school poetry readings, and had always felt pretty comfortable with public speaking,’ he says. ‘But when I started as Director-General at the Legion, for the first time, I was speaking to the prime minister, secretaries of state and members of the royal family. I realised that public speaking to an audience is one thing, but engaging with people in formal settings like these was something else entirely.’

Not one to be deterred, Charles contacted the renowned voice coach, Patsy Rodenberg, who was at the time in the papers for her ‘Cicero Curriculum’ – an initiative designed to help students gain vital oracy skills. ‘She taught me that there were three modes of communication.’ he says. ‘The first is where you withdraw into yourself, you speak into your chest and you’re not really heard. The third is where you are broadcasting and speaking out, but with little listening. And the second – which is where you really want to be, whether you’re on stage or speaking one-to-one – is where you stop performing, start listening and have a genuine dialogue.’

And it is this appreciation for the power of voice that is what excites Charles most about working for the ESU. ‘What I love about the ESU is that we’re not doing things to or even necessarily for people – instead we’re helping them to find their voice and their agency,’ he says. ‘I think we often underestimate the opportunity we have to shape our own lives, but if we can give people the skills to make the most of theirs, I think that that is just the most extraordinary thing to do.’

‘The potential is enormous,’ he continues. ‘The skills of listening and respectful debate are more critical now than they’ve ever been. Young people everywhere need to know how to avoid the trap of populist arguments and the trap of algorithms that drive more extreme positions through social media. And once they know that, and know what they want to advocate for, it makes their day-to-day lives more fulfilling, it changes their careers, and it gives them the ability to make a difference in their communities. Stepping up a level, if we have people listening to one another and engaging respectfully, then we can make our nations better. And if we have nations speaking to nations, then there’s a chance to shape the world.’

Like the Legion, the ESU has a dedicated membership ready to support this work, both here in Britain and across the world – another aspect of the role which Charles is keen to embrace. ‘The ESU was set up to promote the use of English as a language for the international exchange of ideas, knowledge and friendship,’ he says. ‘Delivering on that international opportunity and responsibility is a key part of our mission. Finding your voice and your agency matters here, and it matters around the world too.’

Charles describes the chance to lead the ESU into its next chapter as ‘the most exciting role I will ever have in my career’. ‘No-one could describe my career path as linear, it’s more like that GK Chesterton quote, “A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire”,’ he laughs. ‘That said, all of those different things I have done will be useful to me here, whether that’s working in sales and marketing, raising money, my experiences in the third sector, of large-scale project management and transformation, or my personal knowledge of the value of listening and speaking. All of that – combined with my love of words and my abiding interest in people – all of that comes together here.’

CHARLES BYRNE AT A GLANCE

What’s the first information you consume in the morning?

The weather – to decide whether I’ll walk or cycle to work – closely followed by articles on Substack. I particularly like those by Lawrence and Sam Freedman.

Tell us your guilty pleasure.

Alcohol – especially Green Chartreuse – and dark chocolate.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Combining family and career and trying to lead a balanced life.

What’s your biggest regret?

I don’t think I have one. I did consider joining the military, but if I had, I probably would not have met my wife and had my family.

Tell us something surprising about you

Tai Chi is one of my great pleasures – it’s good physically as well as mentally. Everybody mocks me for it though.

What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?

That there’s a sweet spot between trying really hard and not tying yourself up in knots.

 

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