Shelly Thake is Chief Executive of Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust. She joined the charity in 2017 as Interim Chief Executive before taking on the role substantively a year later. Her background is in HR within the commercial sector having worked for Logica for over 10 years. Here, Berwick Partners’ Hannah Wade talks to Shelly about her move into the charity sector, her reasons behind the move, how she has adapted and where she feels she has added value over the last three years.
What inspired you to want to work in the not-for-profit sector, and for Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust in particular?
I was fortunate to undertake some contracting work with the executive team in the hospital. Through this, I got to know more about what happens behind the scenes at a hospital. It is quite different to being a front-end user, and unless you work there it is difficult to understand that difference. I felt very strongly that the NHS could learn a lot from commercial organisations where every penny is profit – the behaviours that it leads to are very different; equally so, a lot of commercial organisations could also learn from the NHS.
During this period, I got to work with the charity and I really valued the role that the charity played in supporting the hospital – making a huge difference felt right; it gives patients and their families a platform to express their gratitude for the exceptional care they receive. I could see that there was so much more potential that the charity could fulfil in supporting heavily under-resourced hospital teams. I have had a good career, but I have had to work extremely hard at it, often making personal sacrifices. Finally, I could see how my hard work could achieve something that does extraordinary things, driven by the impact you have rather than rewarding shareholders.
What was your approach to transitioning to a new working environment?
One of the key factors in this role has been about relationship-building. Not only have I moved from private sector to not-for-profit, I have also moved away from my professional discipline of HR to being CEO. I was fortunate to be able to undertake the role temporarily to start with, when I covered for the then-CEO. This was a gift, having a fixed amount of time to make a difference and boldly delivering things to make the difference.
Another key factor, and one of the most important things I have learnt is not to assume things – we assume how we are perceived, we assume what people need – taking away assumptions and just talking to individuals and asking questions gave new insight into our challenges and our opportunities. The most powerful question is ’why?’. It was also important for me to be honest about the things I didn’t know; this helped to build trust with the staff in both the charity and the hospital itself.
What do you see as being the advantages of coming from outside of the sector and what have been the main challenges you’ve faced?
Quite quickly I called upon the ‘commercial’ experiences I had had, applying previously utilised strategies to get ahead. Most importantly, this also meant that I could bring learning that the charity didn’t need to pay for as every penny counts.
I had a steep learning curve in understanding fundraising (it’s not just about cake sales) in order for me to challenge, support and contribute to the team. I wasn’t full of preconceived ideas or prejudices, so this really helped. Being open to learning is really important when faced with such a change. Ironically, as an HR Professional I am not big on prioritising my own personal development. I had to work hard to gain a base knowledge of running charities to ensure that I had all the governance angles covered, – which is vital. If it wasn’t for my team being so professional, I think I would have truly struggled with this.
What are the key principles to remember when moving to a new sector?
- There is a sense of pride that people who have done their jobs for a while have. Learning through and with them is key to building strong, trusting relationships.
- Don’t challenge everything from the beginning. Seek to understand, asking why we do things, or why we don’t.
- Make sure you know the rules (governance is crucial for charity leadership).
- Have a great team around you.
What should organisations/employers bear in mind when considering a candidate with no prior sector experience and what are the risk and rewards?
When considering candidates, I would suggest:
- Check the candidate’s understanding and passion for the cause and what the charity is there to do (and being realistic about it).
- Understand individuals’ motivations for the role and the work itself.
- Consider the skills they bring compared with those most needed for the charity at the time of recruiting.
The risk is that you recruit someone who doesn’t last in the role – resilience is key! The rewards far outweigh the risks. I might be biased but I like to think I bring something unique with my experience and my strategic focus, and I am sure many others could do the same.
What would your advice be to those looking to make a similar move?
It is highly rewarding, and all principles of business leadership apply; however, you always know that this is making a difference in a way that commercial roles often don’t. If money is important to you personally then don’t do it, but if you want your work to have lasting impact on the world about you then I would advise you to do it.