Linda Walmsley is a professional interviewer and business owner of UK executive and management recruitment firm, Walmsley Wilkinson Associates. During 2020 she continues a series of interviews with Business Leaders who have innovated within their field of expertise and have warranted the description of being an inspiring leader.
Delyth became Chief Executive of Breakthrough Breast Cancer in 1996, when the charity was in its infancy. Since then, she has been committed to stopping women dying from breast cancer, working at the forefront of this critical field in a number of different capacities.
As CEO of Breakthrough for 10 years, she turned the organisation into the fastest growing charity in the sector and created a dynamic and ambitious brand that put breast cancer firmly on the public agenda.
In 2007, Delyth was appointed to Government. She served as Children’s Minister, Intellectual Property Minister and Government spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions in the House of Lords.
Delyth became Chief Executive of the research charity Breast Cancer Campaign in 2011 which went on to merge with Breakthrough to become Breast Cancer Now. She led the charity in its mission to find the cures for breast cancer, conducting a key Gap Analysis to identify the critical gaps in research and knowledge.
In 2019, Delyth was instrumental in bringing together the merged charities of Breast Cancer Care and Breast Cancer Now, to form ‘the UK’s first comprehensive breast cancer charity’ combining world-class research and life-changing care to build a complete view of breast cancer and make faster progress for everyone affected.
What were your career aspirations when you were younger?
Both my parents were teachers. My mum was a science teacher, my dad was a maths teacher and my oldest sister, who is six years older than me, went to Sussex University and did biochemistry. I always thought I would be a research scientist and that’s what I always wanted to do, largely influenced by my sister who was a scientist. She went on to do her PhD and to go into rheumatology and immunology. I loved science and went to university and did physiology. Although I loved all the science subjects, I found that I wasn’t really a scientist and that was partly to do with being highly gregarious and more interested in what was going on in the coffee bar rather than the lab. With a lot of help from my friends on my courses, I managed to get through my degree and get a good science degree. In that process I discovered what I was really interested in was the charity sector. Whilst I was President of the Student Union, we did a RAG week for the first time in years and we raised loads of money for charity. It was my first proper experience of fundraising. It was great fun and we were giving money to great causes. It just really opened my eyes at a young age to the charity sector, which I hadn’t even really thought about as a possible career. When I finished my time in higher education, I spent a bit of time working for The Labour Party, volunteering for a year as Women’s Officer for Labour students. When I knew it was time to get a paid job, I started applying through The Guardian. Wednesday’s edition of The Guardian had the public sector appointments and there was a little job that had come up at Shelter. I was always interested in tackling homelessness so I applied and got it.
What was your first job?
My first “proper” job was as a Campaigns Organiser at Shelter. However, prior to that I did actually spend two years as a Sabbatical Officer in my Student Union, which was paid. I did the standard thing of bar jobs and worked in our coffee bar in my college which was Bedford College at the University of London. I absolutely loved being in the coffee bar, organising the rotas, signing the menus and things like that. I was later elected as President of my Student Union and that for me was the first time that I had real responsibility and my first brush with the world of mergers because my college merged with another college, so it was quite a fraught time for the Student Union. It was an amazing experience for me as a young woman. As the President of the Student Union, I had a Secretary and I had responsibility for about six or seven staff that ran the Student Union, coffee bars, bars, activities, events, balls, bands, discos etc and it was a real responsibility. I learnt a huge amount and then I went on to be elected as President of the whole of London University, having done a year in my college. That then was responsibility for a much bigger operation of about fifty staff. I had a PA and two Vice Presidents that worked with me. I did it for a year, but oh my goodness what I learnt in that year about how academic institutions work, how to influence decision making, how to work with the media. I remember doing my first interview with the Evening Standard. It was terrifying but they were very kind actually. Time Out did a photo shoot about the student union officers. It was quite an interesting experience and there was also a lot going on at the time in student politics; although there always is. Actually, I learnt a lot about that aspect of work which is to do with getting up and getting to work, being reliable, being presentable, delivering what you are meant to be doing, objectives and so on.
Who / What has inspired you in your career?
I’ve always had a strong desire to make a difference, same as a lot of people who work in the charity sector. I’d always thought that in science, whether it’s medical sciences or not, it’s about trying to create a better world and a better future and that’s obviously what the charity sector is all about. It’s about having that positive impact on society and when I discovered that you can actually get jobs in the charity sector, for me, it was really just amazing. When I started work at Shelter, the Chief Executive at the time was a woman called Sheila McKechnie. She was a very feisty individual, a former trade union organiser and quite a strong feminist, and she was just very inspiring as a leader. I thought of her as a bit of a role model. I don’t think I remember an actual moment when I thought, here’s a woman doing an important job, or what a difficult job, or I’m sure I could do that one day. However, looking back, she was very inspiring for me. Sadly, she died a few years ago and her colleagues at Shelter decided to set up a foundation in her memory . There is now The Sheila McKechnie Foundation which is all about empowering people to campaign and influence to bring about positive social change. It’s a nice tribute to her and I support that charity when they need it.
What words best describe you?
Passionate, Humble, Calm, Kind, Determined, Empathetic, Optimistic, “Can-Do”
Do you have a favourite saying or quote?
I find myself saying “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” a lot, which might be linked to my “determined” and “calm” themes. I think that stamina and resilience are really important, particularly in leading an organisation. Perhaps that’s why I find myself saying it to people who may be at risk of getting a bit burnt out. We’ve been through two mergers here recently, there’s lots going on, lots of pressure and I find sometimes people are their own worst enemies in terms of needing to get things done. I tend to keep saying, let’s stay calm, it’s a marathon not a sprint and let’s look at the bigger picture. I think that may be the phrase I use the most, other than “I’m a glass half full person” and “in an ideal world” – I do tend to say that quite a lot too.
What technology are you passionate about?
It may sound boring but I’m passionate about data. In our work here, there’s a huge amount of really valuable data in the NHS which could help people affected by breast cancer and we don’t collect it properly and efficiently. We are really letting down people by not collecting the right information. For example, when you are treated for breast cancer, all your treatment is about trying get rid of the cancer and to stop it spreading to other parts of your body, your liver, your brain, your bones, where it becomes incurable (known as secondary breast cancer). For thousands of people, it does spread and those people are the ones that eventually go on to lose their lives. But information as to how many people are diagnosed with secondary breast cancer and where these people are, is still not routinely collected, despite the fact this group needs more complicated, specialist services and support. This information just isn’t collected. For me, therefore, technology is the enabler. We need to access and process and to use that data so that people can benefit from better services and better treatments. To make a difference, we need to know how many people have secondary breast cancer and at the moment we can’t reliably say how many do.
What is your approach to interviewing and hiring?
I am interested in how people respond when things go wrong, what they’ve learnt and how they’ve adapted. It’s often the case when people are part of the recruitment process, that they tell you about all the amazing things that they have done. Quite often that can be situational because they’ve been in the right place at the right time. Apart from the obvious things like being interested in how we can interact and how they can communicate, I am interested in how they can cope and deal with things when they go wrong, how do they avoid a blame culture, how they take the adversity and turn it into something positive. I’m looking for that insight into how people perform under stress or under pressure.
Do you have a favourite interview question?
I do always want someone to tell me why they think they are the best person for the job. My daughter is twenty-seven and she’s been through a few recruitment experiences and she’s telling me why she wants a certain job and I say OK that’s interesting but it’s really “why are you the best person”.
How should Human Resources function within a charity / business?
In today’s charity, it’s really important for the People, OD or HR Team, to provide that expert framework for staff to excel, to do well and be the best they can be. That’s the foundation for the organisation and then there’s lots more on top around how we do things, how we can help, how we can get from A to B, how can we create the kind of culture we want to see. It’s not just about signing off leave forms and collecting data on sickness, it’s much more than that. It’s about helping to create the culture. We are on the larger side of the charity sector, but we are not huge. Our people are the most valuable asset we have. I know everyone says that but, in our sector, there is a lot of concern about staff turn-over. We need to be focused on how do we make our charity sector organisations a fabulous place to work, somewhere that people are really proud to work, where it’s a really great addition to their CV, where they’ve come into a role, they’ve developed, they’ve given brilliantly to the charity. For me, HR is all about supporting that employee experience, that journey, making sure it’s the best it can be, and people are facilitated to give their best. It’s increasingly important, particularly as an organisation goes through change. It’s not just about process. Obviously, process has to be right, people have to get paid, it has to be right, the data is important, the legal processes have to be followed but HR is so much more than that.
Is diversity now fully embedded in the workplace?
I don’t think we’ll ever be done. I think there is so much more that we can do, whether its diversity around black and minority ethnic communities, LGBTQ, older people, learning difficulties. It just seems to me that we’ve got a long way to go. For us, OK, we’ve got a lot of women at the top of our organisation, but we have more diversity in parts of our organisation than others, so we’ve got loads to do. Also, in terms of what we deliver, then sadly it’s a fact that breast cancer diagnosis in people from ethnic minorities is less prompt compared to white communities. There are various initiatives in place, but there are still lots of issues around diversity and we should never stop trying to make a difference. There will be new ways of thinking that we haven’t got to yet. Traditionally the charity sector is very white, very middle class so we absolutely have our work cut out.
In your opinion, what elements are key to being a successful CEO?
Being authentic, particularly in my job, is really important. You are dealing with such an emotive issue and you are asking people to support you often for nothing in return. As a leader you also need to be passionate and committed, you are expecting a lot from the people around you, you want them to go the extra mile so you’ve got to lead by example, For me a really big thing is respect; being respectful to everyone and that’s also linked to humility. For everything that we achieve, it’s the team, it’s not one person who gets things over the line. Having a sense of direction is also key and I’ve always felt clear about what we needed to do and how we need to go forward, having a clear sense of purpose and direction, being calm and solutions orientated. A sense of humour is also important –you’ve got to have fun – most of us spend so much time in work; having fun and enjoying where you work is important too.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Hopefully like I’ve just described, very much leading by example. I believe strongly that the leadership behaviours that you display need to be consistent. You can’t expect people to commit to the values of an organisation unless you also display those values. I think I am authentic and passionate. I’m very committed; I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’m in for the long game. I think my style is democratic, I like to listen and involve my team. I’m believe I’m quite open.
What are your biggest career highlights to date?
I would like to say bringing the leading UK breast cancer charities into one organisation, into a united charity, feels like a career highlight but there is still much more to do deliver the success and impact that I know we can The other big thing, that naturally falls into that category for me was quite a long time ago when we opened the UK’s first Breast Cancer Research Centre; in partnership with The Institute of Cancer Research, London back in 1998. It was a very special moment.
What’s next for you and Breast Cancer Now?
We are in the final stages of agreeing our first strategy as a new charity with a united proposition, and a very ambitious vision that by 2050 everyone who develops breast cancer will live and live well. For me, getting that strategy together, making it practical and workable, making the strategic objectives really smart so that we can get on with delivering and ensuring that the benefits of bringing the charities together really comes to life
Walmsley Wilkinson Associates would like to thank Baroness Delyth Morgan and her team for welcoming us to their UK general office and for the time Delyth invested in undertaking this interview.
If you want to learn more, require support, get involved or donate then you can view more information about the amazing work undertaken by Breast Cancer Now by visiting https://breastcancernow.org