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Leadership Insights….. Judi Rhys


We sat down with Judi Rhys, CEO of Tenovus Cancer Care, to talk about her career in the 3rd sector, the challenges she faces and the leadership lessons she has learnt along the way.

What are your current role and responsibilities?
I am the CEO of Tenovus Cancer Care which is a Wales-based cancer charity. We have an annual income of just under £10m which we invest in research to find a cure and better treatments for cancer. We provide a suite of services including our famous Sing with Us choirs, mobile support units, benefits advisors, and a nurse-led support line, as well as raising awareness of the risk factors of cancer.

How did you know you wanted to get into this line of work?
I started my career in the NHS, primarily in health promotion. For a few years I went to work for the Open University where I was responsible for all the health and social care courses that they produced. I then found myself in the 3rd sector and worked for a range of charities including Diabetes UK, MS Society, Arthritis Care, and the British Liver Trust. There’s a theme through all of this – mainly around health and social care related causes – but a lot of them are around prevention as much as anything else and that’s always been a big interest of mine. I’m drawn to the 3rd sector because it’s very much aligned with my values and the great thing and the big difference compared to the NHS is that it’s much easier to see the impact that you make. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

What is the biggest leadership challenge in your current role?
For the whole 3rd sector, we rely on charitable donations. At Tenovus Cancer Care we have very limited statutory funding, as with a lot of the charities I’ve been involved in. There is something about motivating staff to go out and get the money in – without the money we can’t have the impact we want. It’s also about the leadership necessary to convince the public that we’re a worthwhile charity and it’s worthwhile them giving their pound to us rather than another charity. That’s the biggest challenge for me.

What’s the biggest learning you’ve had to get to that point? Have you had to change your approach and your style or is that very much who you are?
I’m getting much better at being less fearful. I’m a people person and I want people to like me. Unfortunately as a leader you sometimes have to make decisions that will make people actively dislike you in terms of changing structures and focus, stopping doing things, starting doing others. I’ve had to dig deep to learn to “feel the fear and do it anyway” but also to have the conviction that what I’m doing is the right thing. These decisions are always difficult to make, but knowing that it’s the best thing for the beneficiaries of the charity rather than just the right thing for me, gives me the strength to carry it through.

What gives you satisfaction in your role?
Making an impact and using charitable donations to the best effect. Seeing the difference we can make to the people who are affected by cancer – that’s a huge motivator and permeates the whole organisation. So many people get that and that’s when you can be hugely powerful together.

Does everyone who works for you ‘get it’?
If they don’t then they don’t tend to last very long as we obviously don’t pay the best salaries in the world…. People come to us for all sorts of reasons – either driven by their values or because they have been personally affected by the cause. And while some administrative roles may not have as much understanding of our impact as a front-facing role, my real observation is that most people do align their values with that of the organisation, and if they don’t they leave.

When do you know you’re doing a good job?
That’s a difficult one. When I’m told!
There’s something about not being afraid to ask for feedback and actively seeking it out. I’m responsible to a Board of Trustees and have a key relationship with the Chair. He gives me direct feedback, but I also get feedback from my senior team or via a 360 feedback route and that’s really important. But it’s not just about the people at the top of the organisation – I want to hear feedback from the volunteers, from the people in the shops, and in our clerical roles. Do I inspire them? Do I motivate them? Have they got respect and confidence in what I’m doing?

Do you actively seek out that feedback?
Well, it’s early days in this role – I’ve only been doing it for 6 months. In other roles, yes I have. My experience with volunteers is that they will give you the feedback whether you’ve asked for it or not and that’s great – they are not afraid to tell you if they don’t like what you’re doing.
Being a leader is understanding that people’s perspectives are very different. If their only contact with us is through a choir or as a volunteer then that is how they see the organisation and those different lenses are important to understand the whole.

Are more leaders asking for feedback and acting on it?
I think things are changing. Thinking of some of the Chief Executives that I’ve worked with, there has been a history of leaders in the 3rd sector traditionally coming from the military and with that comes a very command and control leadership. I guess that’s not wanting to show a chink of vulnerability, and that’s perhaps more so with male leaders than females, although not exclusively so. You have to be acutely aware that it can be quite difficult, unless feedback is anonymised, for some people to speak truth to ‘power’. We have to accept that sometimes people will be unwilling to do that because they are afraid of the consequences. We have to develop a culture that allows people to speak freely without fear of reprisal.

What are the key skills and qualities you have to demonstrate in order to be effective at a senior level?
Other than the obvious competence which comes from your track record, I think it’s a hugely overused word but there is something about authenticity. It’s absolutely about being open, and showing vulnerability is important without collapsing in a heap. The flipside of that is showing a bit of bravery and making difficult decisions even knowing that it may not land well with some people. But I think the most important part of doing that is making it very clear that you’re doing it for the best possible reasons, to make the charity more impactful and more effective. That’s important too.
Culturally things are changing and it’s easier for men and women to put their hands up now and say “it’s not working for me” and we’ve had a few role models at senior levels who have taken time out or who have put their hand up and said “I can’t do this anymore”.
It’s also about the value of having a really good network of people. Being a Chief Executive, there are certain things that I can’t share with my team and it’s searching out those personal as well as professional networks. I’m fortunate to be involved in an organisation for voluntary Chief Executives and that’s a wonderful forum to come together and to be honest about some of the problems we face. It all comes down to a fundamental few things that we’re worrying about and most of that is to do with relationships – it’s all about the people.

Your job is going out and forging relationships, so if you haven’t got that fundamental interest in people and that need and want to connect with people, you can’t get your message across.
Exactly. And it’s something I’ve really noticed – I started my career in Wales and have been working in London more recently. Now I’ve come back and the great thing is that I can call on people from 20 years ago who still have fond memories of me from the relationships I’ve built over the years and connections I made. There’s a real lesson there not to leave anywhere with a bad taste in your mouth. I can find links with people in Wales in about 3 questions! But the thing is to really nurture those relationships because you never know when you’ll cross paths again. And within the 3rd sector and the NHS, people pop up in different roles and that’s quite fascinating for me.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in a career that emulates yours?
Well you’re talking to someone who never really had a plan! I think the most important thing is to find out what you like and then do something you like because if you do that, going to work never feels like going to work. It’s always, or mostly going to be enjoyable. Find out what your values are and follow those.
I’d also suggest that you never know what you can do unless you give it a go. So there is something about ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen?’ Volunteer for things – put yourself forward so people notice you but also you’ll get that broader experience. I’m not an expert in all parts of the business – I know a bit about everything, but that’s all I need to know. And so again, it’s about not limiting yourself. You can learn as much from failure as you can from success, that’s for sure. And I’ve gone for many jobs that I haven’t got, but you take what you can from the experience and do better next time. The most important thing is to follow your heart and give of your best. I use the phrase at work that I expect everyone to show up at work and when you’re there, give it the attention it deserves and do your best.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
If at first you don’t succeed…! I think that’s probably it! And don’t let failure limit your ambition. Just don’t be afraid – you have to be in it to win it. Put yourself forward and get yourself noticed – that profile is so important.

What are some of the hurdles you’ve had to overcome and what did you do to stay on track?
I think one of the biggest hurdles in my career was merging a charity with another one. It was extraordinarily complex and stressful and involved really changing mindsets and influencing a whole Board of Trustees, particularly the Chair who was absolutely dead set against it. I had to draw on all of my skills and all of my reserves and I very nearly didn’t do it because it was so stressful. I look upon it as one of the lessons I’ve learnt the most from in terms of what I learnt about myself. What I learnt was that I had to constantly ask myself if I was doing the right thing and the answer was yes, so that gave me the strength to carry on. It was hugely tiring and exhausting but ultimately successful so whilst that’s one of my biggest hurdles, it’s also one of my proudest achievements.

How do you look after yourself?

I love running – that’s my thing. I’ve been a runner seriously for the last 20 years although I’ve always done sport of one kind or another, that’s definitely my number 1 stress reliever, and sorter-outer, and I guess linked to that is remembering to take breaks. That can be quite hard to do and life can be full-on, but making sure I get those breaks in and having networks around you of people who can support you – your family and the people who really get you – that’s really important as well. I’m also quite partial to a glass of red wine as well!

What keeps you awake at night?
What I mentioned before – it’s about the fundraising – will we bring in enough income to help all those people we want to help and to fund all that research? That’s my biggest issue. And every now and again when there is a crisis, that can sometimes interfere with my rest. But the main thing is, really, in this sector – are we going to raise enough money. It’s as simple as that.

Can you ever get that the answer to that – it’s never-ending? How did you make your peace with that when it seems such a big task and you can’t control it all?
First of all, it’s about getting the right people in the roles. My job is to be the Chief Cheerleader. I have a Director of Income Generation and Heads of Retail and Fundraising, as well as the teams that sit beneath them – so we have people whose day job it is to go out and do that. So we have strategy and plans and we’re constantly looking to improve those and to do better and to get more people to know who we are. I don’t think it will ever end. I’d be lying if I said we’ll ever sit back and say it’s sorted.
It’s also about giving the fundraising and retail teams the space to do what they do best and to empower them to go for it. And developing a culture that it’s ok to fail. Let people try new things and rely on their expertise and innovation with the understanding that not everything is going to work. But don’t give up…. Dust yourself down.

How do you balance home and work life? A lot of your work is attending events in the evenings so you have the day job that turns into an evening job…
Badly! But that’s my choice. Being a Chief Executive in this sector is something of a lifestyle. And that’s something that I’ve bought into. I do other things as well – I sit on a couple of Boards so I do have a very full working life but that’s my choice. And I’m really fortunate because I have a very understanding husband who is retired and knows his way around the kitchen which is helpful! My children are grown up and I do have grandchildren but they have other people who are involved in their day to day care so, touching wood that I don’t have to worry about my father at the moment, I operate very much in the way a single person might I suppose, so I can give my work a lot and I do give it a lot. I completely understand that for some people my work schedule would be completely unacceptable but it’s my choice.
And I still make time for my running and having breaks. I always want a holiday planned so there is something in the diary and periods to take a break.

Here’s your opportunity to give a shameless plug for something you’re proud of
That would be bringing those two charities together. The other Chief Executive who took over the newly formed organisation gave me some wonderful feedback and said that it never would have happened if it hadn’t been for my leadership and bravery. That was a nice thing to hear. It was a hard thing to do but hugely worthwhile.

What’s next on the agenda?
Next year is the 10th anniversary of our Sing with Us choirs. We have a very exciting research strategy which will be unveiled early next year. Linked to that, we have some exciting developments with our mobile service units and the possibility of using them in a way that will make a greater difference to people affected by cancer. I can’t say any more that that!

Lastly, can you finish these sentences?
I couldn’t do my role without… My husband’s support
If I won the lottery I would… Give Tenovus Cancer Care a massive donation for its research
My friends always tell me that… I’m good fun
My goal at work is… To be the best I can be
What makes me happy… Running
I can’t live without… My wristwatch

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