HR Director, Macmillan Cancer Support
Irrefutably, cancer is increasingly likely to impact on lives, and one of the first aspects of normal life it disrupts is the ability to continue working to the capacity that before diagnosis, was taken for granted. Such is the almost omnipresence of cancer, that employers must step up to the plate, to better understand and support employees dealing with cancer as a patient or, as is increasingly the case, a carer.
Kathy Tell us about your early career and what it was that made you decide on a career in HR?
Well for me, it certainly was not what you would call a typical route into HR, nor was it my intention. At 17 years old, I joined House of Fraser as a management trainee, and initially, I wanted to be a buyer, but the training programme, which was very comprehensive gave me exposure to just about every side of the world of retail, and the experience was really enlightening for me. The training was very thorough and allowed day release for qualifications, I stayed for five years, became departmental manager and when I left, I got a position at what was then a fledgling retail brand, Next, and I started six months after the launch in the UK. This turned out to be an incredible experience, significantly more seat-of-the-pants than the more traditional and refined world of House of Fraser, but truly dynamic, not just in the fashion and the way it was delivered in stores, but also the makeup of the operation. It was young, vibrant and enthusiastic and clearly destined for a great future. Then in 1991, I joined Sears’ Women’s Wear, which encompassed brands such as Wallis and Warehouse. Wallis was going through a transformation and so I was part of that, and was integrating with a brand new team in the head office, which again was terrific experience, having been on the shop floor for most of my career to date, working on retail support looking at retail operations, and the head office environment, this was really my first experience of managing in an overall strategic way.
My previous Operations Director went to Hamleys, and invited me to join as Head of Retail Support, saying he had every confidence in me for the position and I didn’t hesitate. Initially, I was focussed on operations, which was bread and butter to me, but the majority of my focus was core HR issues, and I went on to become HR Director. We were a new management team and we were trying to turn the business around and I realised that in HR I had finally found my vocation. The move to Hamleys was unquestionably key to my eventual career path, because my input was impacting on core HR areas, but my learning curve there was very steep, because the people agenda was best described as unrefined, and I really was learning as I was going.
After Hamleys I had a spell as a freelance consultant, and then I got the role of HR Director for shoe chain Barratt’s, based in a very traditional organisation in Yorkshire. Again, this was a wonderful, long-standing business, with a real family environment, local, and with many generations having worked for the business. When I joined, the business was struggling with the hard challenges on the high street, and it was having difficulty with its identity in the context of competitors, and the business went into administration in 2010. It came out the other side with a more slimmed down profile, and it was tough going. But life and career is about managing the tough times as well as the good, and for me, the people management challenges were the heritage issues and the fact that so many employees had based their whole career with Barratts. We needed to get people moving in a new direction, but very sadly, it was too late to bring through recovery.
This was a catalyst for me in many ways, not least that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Much has been said about being told you have cancer, and yes, it is a life-changer and all the clichés do ring true. But like most people, I felt compelled not to let it get the better of me and a big part of me was my career, so I was determined it wouldn’t derail my ambitions. But for sure, it puts things into context and focuses the mind on the future. First though, I had to face up to the fact that my treatment would take precedent over my next career choice. Once you get over the shock and the realisation that you are as susceptible to cancer as anyone else, you get on with the treatment. It can be gruelling, but once diagnosed, there is a pretty well-oiled system and an expert team on hand. When the treatment stops and that team of experts isn’t there anymore, suddenly there is a realisation of what you’ve just been through and it’s extremely hard hitting emotionally, almost like being diagnosed again. But the positive thing is I was through my treatment and survived. Thankfully more people are surviving cancer than not, although we can’t ignore that many have to live with the side effects of cancer and its treatment. Top of mind for me was, do I now want to get out of bed in the morning with the ultimate goal of optimising returns for shareholders? Of course, I realised that having experienced what I had, I wanted to do something with more meaning and purpose, so when the role of HR Director at Macmillan came along, as you can imagine, I felt that the role suited me very well.
Tell us about Macmillan, and its place in cancer care and treatment today.
We are a source of support for people living with cancer, using key data and our experience as a force for improving care. The cancer landscape is constantly changing, and there are 2.5 million people living with cancer in the UK today, but this is predicted to rise to four million by 2030. Macmillan’s core strategy focuses on nine very clear outcomes that people affected by cancer have told Macmillan matter most to them; clinical outcomes, as well as the impact of cancer on the whole of a person’s life, and these are: I was diagnosed early; I understand so I make good decisions; I get the treatment and care which are best for my cancer and my life; those around me are well supported; I am treated with dignity and respect; I know what I can do to help myself and who else can help me; I can enjoy life; I feel part of a community and I’m inspired to give something back, and I want to die well. With this framework, we’re clear with what we need to do, but it’s a huge challenge.
The ambition is to support people through their cancer experience, and the people around them, families and friends, have a journey of their own too, and so our goal is to be there at every stage. The organisation also plays a significant role in campaigning publically and politically, lobbying for key issues, such as reducing late diagnosis and investing in care after treatment. Of course, another significant element of the organisation is fundraising, which enables us to deliver our current services and also develop new innovative solutions. For example, we’ve just launched something called The Source, a digital platform through which we share advice and experience from people who have been there. All-in-all, the driving goal, one of our core values, is to demand better and that is evident throughout this building.
Give us a white board outline of how the operation works and how you got to grips with the organisation.
I recall that when I first joined Macmillan, everyone said to me that as an organisation, Macmillan was complicated. I took that onboard, but when I was scratching beneath the surface, I could see that in reality, it wasn’t that different to other organisations I had been involved with. The organisation is split into four directorates; Services & Influencing, Marketing Communications, Fundraising and Corporate Resources. Then there’s our Fundraising Director, responsible for all the ways and means that Macmillan raises funds, whether that be through events such as ourflagship fundraiser the World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, or challenge events such as marathons, or through legacies and corporate partnerships. Obviously, this is the driving force of everything. The reality of course is, we would not exist without money.
Given that we are wholly reliant on people giving their time and money, brand protection and promotion is vital and this is where the Marketing Communication team lead. On the brand front, most businesses would give their right arm for the brand profile we enjoy, we’ve just been voted Marketing Society Brand of the Year and named top charity brand by YouGov for the past two years – but we are not complacent about it and so it is constantly being monitored, benchmarked and reviewed. Back to your point about getting to grips with the operation, I understood the nuts and bolts of it fairly rapidly, the bit I had to really get an understanding of was our Services and Influencing directorate, which is indeed multi-faceted and, to the outsider, somewhat complicated. In terms of direct cancer care, we fund and support thousands of professionals including; nurses, GPs, dieticians, physiotherapists and many others. We also fund a spectrum of services providing; healthcare, financial, practical and emotional help and support, which were used 9.08 million times in 2013. Plus we work with many bodies and external stakeholders, which has taken a great deal of groundwork for me to understand.
You've talked about brand, so how would you define Macmillan as a brand?
I think where Macmillan stands out is its direct link to supporting those affected by cancer and its value as a bank of information and knowledge to help improve cancer care. Macmillan is there from the diagnosis, through treatment and beyond, whether end-of-life care and increasingly survivorship, and this is reflected in how we proposition the charity work and fundraising. We are looking at the need, and as there is no one-size-fits-all. If I was to put into one sentence, Macmillan exists to help ensure no one faces cancer alone and to be a constant source of support.
It must be a massive undertaking to deliver people that have the right expertise and mindset.
One of the first things that I did when I first arrived was spend time talking to people right across the organisation. I felt I needed to get out and find out what people did, how they fitted in and also, what had been their experience of HR, and crucially what their future needs were. It was incredibly revealing and by and large, I had positive feedback about the support the organisation and particularly HR gave them. Encouragingly too, there was some terrifically positive feedback about how things could be made better, which has resulted in a pretty considerable to-do list. The great thing is, our staff are passionate and the critical feedback was given in a positive way, you could tell that the will to do the best was foremost in the mind, which has made the task of meeting these improvements so much more rewarding. It’s a reminder that we are working together for a common goal, and that we are accountable for a lot of money that is donated by the public and businesses. Unquestionably, it’s the spirit and culture of the people that is driving this organisation forward in tremendously compelling and positive ways. Nobody hides behind the processes, and it is humbling to observe and a privilege to be a part of. In every shape and form, it’s a valuesdriven organisation and everyone, without exception, has a strong reason for working for Macmillan. Most, if not all, know somebody who has been affected, and the real test, the engagement survey shows that 96 percent say they are proud to work for Macmillan and 80 percent would recommend it as a great place to work, which is hugely impressive.
You have pointed to data being an increasingly critical tool, what is it providing you that gets translated into HR policy and procedure, as you go forward in the rolling objective to improve?
As with all data, it has to be real and believable. There is absolutely no point in polishing the veneer, and conning yourself everything is fine if it is not. We have over 1,500 employees and we need to understand their current and future needs to help us all do the best job possible. Every year we conduct a staff survey, and I’m delighted that 87 percent responded, giving us rich data to help us review our strategy and improve where needed. I’m realistic though that the surveys are snapshots in time, so they’re just one of the interactive communications platforms we have to engage with staff across different teams and departments. I feel very lucky to be supported by a great HR team who share my passion for providing the best HR function we can. We cannot, and do not, shirk from looking ourselves in the face and being completely realistic and critical, and I believe, as a team, we’ve improved how we work. It relies on really great dialogue, on transparency and common goals and there’s a true belief that if we work together, to the best of abilities – without fear – we will succeed, and that travels from the most senior leadership team, to the people on the ground, where service is delivered.
Tell us about how Macmillan is reaching out to businesses in the UK.
We have launched Macmillan at Work to help employers to support employees affected by cancer in the workplace. The fact is, every year, there are 120,000 of working age diagnosed with cancer and a further half a million people caring for someone, whilst juggling a job. That’s why we launched this initiative, as a credible offering to go to businesses with, and advise them from a position of strength, of knowledge, and listening to people who have tried to work through cancer. Again, it’s about going back to what we said earlier, helping businesses to prepare for and manage it, helping employers understand and support the employee through the cancer journey, and responding to the potential challenges they and their colleagues may face.
What is the feedback you’re getting so far from employers?
Right now, the team are engaging with thousands of businesses, and they report that employers care and want to provide support to staff affected by cancer and other long-term illnesses. Encouragingly, with our help, many businesses are recognising how they can play a supportive role and how they can positively influence situations. As well as support for large corporations, we also have free resources and training available for small companies without the money and resources of big businesses. Just look at the statistics, 25.2 million people in this country work for SME’s. With one in every 100 people of working age predicted to have a cancer diagnosis and the increasing number of carers, it is a huge number for employers to consider.
Readers will, of course, be able to empathise with the Macmillan nurses, and considering the statistics, many will have experienced their care at first-hand. What is HR's role in making sure the experiences of the nurses and other Macmillan service teams are heard?
You’re right, you cannot help but be touched by the realities, and working for Macmillan, you are never far away from that. We have a very strong line management structure in place and these are people that are prepared to give support in whatever form is needed. If I use my HR team for an example, we are split into clusters, and they partner in specific areas in the business, so resilience has to be a pivotal part of the HR agenda. I really do think people are used to talking about their experiences and that’s important and has to be encouraged. At Macmillan, you cannot be someone who leaves your issues at the door, because too many waves crash in on a professional front. There are some difficult situations to deal with in structured formal and informal ways, and it is important there is that flexibility. In order for us to be of use and service, we have to practice what we preach, in terms of understanding and actions, otherwise the whole thing folds on itself.
Give us an idea of the next stages to bring the organisation on to its next objectives?
At the beginning of the interview I mentioned our “we demand better” mantra – it’s not a just a handy little soundbite, it’s writ through the organisation like a stick of rock, it’s one of our five core values. Change is something that’s a part of our everyday regime, and we’re very mindful of supporting our people, as well as the people we are here to help. For me, HR must keep stepping up to the plate and asking for more, in order to have any impact on delivering change and improvements. We also focus as a team and organisation on making ourselves fit for the future and we invest significantly in our people and ensure we equip them with the tools and knowhow to always go beyond their reach. There is a fantastic career path here for people who join, so attracting new talent and getting them to work for an organisation like ours is about making sure people are aware of the opportunities. We aim to retain talent by focussing on support, engagement and inspiring our people to deliver their best. We revamped our recruitment technology and equipment and we’ve done a lot of work on that, to the point that 95 percent of our candidates surveyed feel positive about their experience. There’s a massive challenge here and we will never give up. In our favour is the bank of expertise and knowledge our staff bring, plus our supporters of course. As I mentioned earlier there are currently 2.5 million people living with cancer in the UK today and that this will increase to four million by 2030. Like the seasons, the cancer landscape continues to change. It is critical to use our knowledge and be as targeted as we possibly can to keep making impacts. A big part of that awareness and understanding is that we listen and respond to people who have cancer and experience it, from positive outcomes to end of life care. We are fully engaged in a very clear objective that and will continue to persevere to keep working to improve what we deliver. Visit the Macmillan Cancer Support website to learn more about the many and varied ways that you can support this inspirational organisation and its much-needed and appreciated activities.