Interim Insights: Life after being a CEO

Interim Insights: Life after being a CEO

Louise Beales, Consultant, Charities Practice, spoke to Mike Adamson about his career as a Chief Executive Officer at British Red Cross and his decision to step down to explore new ventures.

What was life like in your early years?

I was born and bred in Newcastle, went to Grammar School, then Sheffield University to study Economics, then to Oxford to complete a Masters. I grew up in a middle class family and my parents instilled a sense of fairness that had helped to shape my outlook, but I wasn’t an activist. The only campaigning I did was entirely self-interested, joining a student demo in London to campaign for an increase in grant funding! But apparently at some point, I said to some friends that I might want to be a charity CEO.

Once I graduated, I went to Coopers & Lybrand and enjoyed a stimulating seven years, gaining a breadth of experience across a range of clients in the public and commercial sectors, both in the UK and internationally. My secondment as an economist to Eswatini in Africa for two years gave me my first exposure to developing countries, the aid system and the challenges that such countries face. I thoroughly enjoyed the work – it was interesting and came with social purpose.

What attracted you to join British Red Cross?

However, at 31 my ambition to help to change the world and really make a tangible difference led me to seeking out new opportunities. I saw a job advertised in The Economist for a Development Specialist for British Red Cross. I applied for the role and was really excited when I was offered it, when I rang from a phone box in Northern Thailand, where I was on holiday. I joined the international team initially, then became a Regional Director in the UK before ending up as Director of Strategy – I was there for 10 years!

With the desire to move out of London with our young family, my next career move took to me into the NHS, to a Gloucestershire Primary Care Trust as Director, Commissioning. This was a massive learning curve in how do get things done in complexity. But, having agency also really matters to me.

What I love about the charity sector is the strategic freedom of the private sector and the social purpose of the public sector – it’s that strategic flexibility that I craved. I joined RNID as Managing Director, Services. Working within the regulated services environment gave me vital experience that I am still able to put to good use.

Why go back?

In 2010, an opportunity to go back to the British Red Cross, as Managing Director, Operations came up. This was my chance to combine responsibility for UK and international programming as well as influencing and advocacy. I was still a passionate believer in the purpose and values of the Red Cross. I was encouraged to apply for the top job when Nick Young stood down, and I acted as interim CEO during the recruitment process. I found that the “holding the fort” role is far trickier than simply keeping the lights on. You are being observed because everyone presumes you will be a candidate and speculate about how you would approach it and what you would bring to it. To be honest, I would have been devastated if I hadn’t have got it. But, in hindsight I should have taken a break, a holiday before formally taking up the reins – something to define the end of one period and the start of another. I’d ended the previous week as interim CEO and started on the Monday as CEO. I went straight into it – there were some tough decisions to make, but my mantra has always been “Be the best that you can possibly be” and so this spurred me on to deliver a set of iterations to develop the organisation’s strategic focus and relevance.

How did the decision to step down from British Red Cross come about?

I led the team through the Grenfell disaster in 2017, the intensity of COVID in 2020 and like many other charities, we faced an existential threat with the commitment to be relevant in the biggest emergency to face the UK in decades while coping with a rapidly changing income mix. We had a business plan in place to support delivery of our exciting 2030 strategy, but COVID meant we had to change course practically but stay true to our strategic intentions. In 2022, we saw the escalation of the war in Ukraine and the challenge to provide support in Ukraine itself and neighbouring countries while also supporting those who had fled and were arriving the UK. In that period, it was emergency after emergency. At one point, we launched three appeals in 10 days – for Libya, Morocco and Afghanistan. It was really intense, relentless. During the second half of 2022 though, I started to think, “what’s next?”

I thought – how will we ensure continuity if I step back? But I sensed in my gut that the organisation needed a fresh pair of eyes, a fresh perspective. I’d also started to think about what would I do for the next stage of my career to make a difference. In January 2023 I made my decision to resign.

So, what now?

Initially I spent my time having lots of conversations and developing relationships – reaching out into and broadening  my network and connecting with head-hunters, writers and academics. I knew that I wanted to do new things, but things that really interested me. I knew the space that I wanted to explore.

I was offered an opportunity through my network to work with Theresa May on a part-time basis to support her as Interim Director, Global Commission on Modern Slavery & Trafficking – such an important cause and an opportunity to work with a former prime minister. I couldn’t not do it. Additionally, I was keen to build my non-exec portfolio, but again to find something where I would feel inspired.

As time has gone on, month by month my headspace frees up. Ideas and opportunities that I had not entertained, now become possibilities. I think you need to allow time and to allow yourself to unwind. It’s about that period of decompression that then leads to you being ready for something else.

It’s now six months since I left. My wife and I are taking some time off over the summer to have a complete break. Then, when I return I’m looking forward to building on my coaching qualifications, consultancy and non-exec work. Was I apprehensive about leaving British Red Cross? No, it was time for a change, but I did feel daunted about what I would do next. I’m delighted to share that I’ve been appointed Chair at St Mungo’s, an organisation and cause that is very close to my heart. I can’t wait to join the board and use my experience and connections for social good.


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