In our second episode of Meet the CEO, Yolk's Isobel Richards, Charity & Voluntary Specialist, spoke with Judi Rhys about the work she does as Tenovus Cancer Care's CEO.
As they approach their milestone 80th birthday celebration, we discussed the incredible work the charity has achieved in this time, Judi's personal big achievements and challenges at the charity, as well as career advice Judi has for anyone looking to join and grow within the charity sector.
Watch the interview here
I'm very lucky to be joined by Judi Rhys today, who is the CEO of Tenovus Cancer Care.
Hello, Judi and thanks for coming on here and taking the time to be interviewed today. First of all, tell us about Tenovus, who they are, and what do they do?
Thank you very much for inviting me. It's lovely to talk to you today.
Tenovus Cancer Care, to give us our full name, was founded in 1943 and we’re 80 years old this year. It's quite a significant milestone for us. We were founded by 10 Cardiff businessmen, hence the name ‘ten of us’. They came together because they wanted to do good things for people who needed good things done for them.
So it started off as a very general charity, then over the years it grew and it evolved and became a very big and significant Cancer Research charity. Anyone who's ever been to the University Hospital of Wales, you'll see one of the buildings is still called the Tenovus Institute because that's where our scientists were.
They did some amazing work there, including early work on the breast cancer drug tamoxifen, most people have heard of tamoxifen and it's been used by millions of women around the world and is responsible for helping people to live longer lives. We're very proud to have that association.
They also worked on a drug called zoladex, which is for prostate cancer, which again has been used extensively. There’s a real strong history of research at Tenovus, and then also over the years we branched into doing a lot more on screenings. Tenovus Cancer Care was ahead of its time in taking mobile screening services into communities, and this was specifically in the 80s for women and for cervical screenings.
We were up there really innovating all those years ago. And from there, we have grown and we now have three state-of-the-art mobile support units that deliver all sorts of cancer treatments and chemotherapy, immunotherapy, lymphedema treatments, right up and down the country.
We also have a suite of services that we can provide that give people the practical and emotional support that they need when they are first faced with the devastating news that they have cancer. So for example, we have benefits advisors, we have a team of counselors, we have a nurse led helpline. We have 16 ‘Sing With Us’ choirs up and down the country and obviously then we've got the work that we do around policy and influence.
We have developed something called an All Wales Cancer Community. So that's people around Wales who've been directly affected by cancer who can tell us how it is, what they need, and we can make sure that we get their voice heard at the highest levels in Wales.
It is truly an amazing charity and as a recruiter, when I've spoken to people about Tenovus, you’re such a well-known charity and everyone always says about the amazing work you do. I think that the growth there is amazing and that you've grown in such massive ways in different ground breaking areas.
Yes, and I think we're proud that we are continuing to innovate so we are not standing still as a charity, but always remembering our roots in that way. What started us off all those years ago, I've often wondered about those 10 businessmen, who have sadly left us now, and I think they’d probably give us the thumbs up and say ‘yeah you're doing a good job.’ I hope they would anyway.
Definitely. And now you’re the CEO, so how did you get there? Tell us about your journey.
I have to say, this is my dream job. I feel like it's absolutely what my whole life has been leading towards. I started off born and bred in Wales and I was brought up in Porthcawl and I have lived all of my adult life in South Wales. I started off in the NHS, I'm from a family of NHS lifers as I like to call them, and they went in and they stayed there and then they came out when they retired at 60/65.
I really enjoyed working in the NHS, I did a lot of work in the health promotion field and primarily working in the South Wales valleys where there's quite a bit of deprivation and a real need to work with those communities. And out of there my career grew and I actually went to work for the Open University for a while, which was amazing as a switch in career.
I worked specifically in the field of health and social care, helping to develop their courses and to teach them as well. And then from there I put my first toe into the water with the charity sector and my first job was actually Director of Wales of Diabetes UK. It was that feeling, I think when you first come into this sector of feeling that you've found where you need to be, and I certainly did.
I've had a number of roles from there and working mainly in long term health conditions, I've been Chief Executive of a couple of other organisations, one arthritis, one liver, and now here I am, as I say, in my dream job.
It's been an interesting and wide career. But I think that there's something running through it, it’s always been that concern about communities, inequalities, and helping people to have better lives.
Yes, when I’ve spoken to other charities when they're finding someone, they have to have that real desire and passion for the main aspects that you just mentioned to work within the charity sector.
That's how you know it's a good fit and how you end up in a dream job like you are now. You've touched on it in terms of your earlier career, and you started within the NHS. Was it quite early on that you thought about moving into the charity sector?
Yes, I think I sort of happened upon it really, and I always thought because I've worked roles similar to public sector roles, it was making that leap across to a different sector. There's always something in you that’s saying “What if I don't like it”, or “What if it doesn't work?” and “What am I leaving behind?”
While you know there are lots of challenges in the public sector, there are also benefits of course. You say goodbye to those when you move into the voluntary sector and I guess I was at that stage just thinking about it. I thought that I've never actually worked with volunteers, so it's that fear of the unknown. I was probably a little bit later coming into it than I should have been even though I'm nearly 20 years in the sector now.
It's a fair time, but I knew it absolutely from the moment I got here that it was a feeling that I'm in the right place completely.
I can imagine that's a lovely feeling knowing that and just really settling where you are and just running with it.
What's been your biggest lesson that you've learned as the CEO at Tenovus Cancer Care?
One of the things I’ve learnt is that I'm a people pleaser. I like people and I like people to like me. One thing that you have to learn as a CEO is that you can't actually please all the people all the time.
We've got well over 200 staff at Tenovus Cancer Care, and we work with in excess of 1,000 volunteers, they're not all always going to agree with me. You have to learn to accept that sometimes you will do things, make decisions and drive things forward, that will make people not like you as much. It’s about rising above that and accepting that and understanding that it's often not a personal thing. It's just an opinion that people have. One of the things I remember being told a long time ago is that leaders need followers. You can't just charge down the road doing things, you have to take people with you.
I think one of the things that I've learnt in relation to all of that is when you're doing any sort of change project, anything that's different from what's gone before, you have to keep explaining things to people so that they can understand why you're doing it and what's your rationale. People listen to the facts and can see that you're not doing it because of any personal gain. You're doing it because it's the right thing for the charity and it's the right thing for the people that we're here to look after, to represent and to support.
I try and make all my decisions based on that; what's in the best interest of people affected by cancer. And the answers to those questions then help to drive your decision making and I think most people, when you explain that, will understand it, even if it doesn't suit them personally.
That's good advice for anyone who wants to one day be in this role. You have to think what is good for the charity and what is good for the people who you're helping.
Can we also talk about what’s been your proudest moment during your time as CEO at Tenovus?
Thinking about my career generally, getting my first Chief Executive role, which was Chief Executive of a UK wide charity called Arthritis Care. It was a moment of being proud but also terrified at the same time, I can't lie.
I was thinking “Am I going to be OK at this?” Everyone gets a little bit of imposter syndrome. And you worry about being good enough and am I going to do the job properly.
But I'm really proud of what I achieved at that particular charity, and not least because I led the charity in quite a high profile merger with an Arthritis Research charity. It's something that other people had tried and failed to do before and it was probably one of the most difficult and challenging and complex things I've ever done. But actually we did it, and I say ‘we’ because it wasn't just me, it was the team.
I'm really proud of that. What I was able to do was to give both charities a really firm footing for the next level and to do much better work.
On the back of that, I was awarded the MBE, it was for services to the voluntary sector, and that was a very proud moment for me and my family too. To have the award and then to visit Windsor Castle and to be presented with my MBE by Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal. That was a lovely thing because clearly she knows the charity, so that was a really proud moment for me.
I think here at Tenovus Cancer Care we've had some really challenging moments like a lot of charities over the last few years. Facing the pandemic affected everything that we did and how we did it including our fundraising and our retail. We have 58 shops so that was all really affected.
I’m proud I got us through it. I took the steps that were not easy steps, but that were necessary steps to keep us afloat and to restructure, to strengthen us, to really focus what we can do that nobody else can. And actually, what are the things that maybe other people do that we could leave that to them and we could stop doing it. That was a difficult thing to do when you stopped doing something and people you know want to preserve the status quo, don't they?
We did have to make some tough decisions but I think we've come out of that stronger, more focused and we’re just steaming ahead now, which is fantastic.
Through speaking to so many charities, I know the pandemic hit them hard. I came into it as things were starting to pick up again. For months what I heard was how difficult it's been for the charity sector. It's starting to turn around now, and being successful through that is a big achievement.
Speaking of, you're celebrating your 80th year, which is amazing. I know you've got a big extravaganza coming up and some good things to look forward to.
We have some great news about the extravaganza event because not only is it going ahead with some amazing acts, but we will have our patron, the Princess Royal, in attendance. She's going to be there so we are really pleased with that. What a lovely way for us to celebrate with our volunteers and our staff and everyone involved with the choirs. We'll have over 300 of our choristers there performing in front of her. It's going to be amazing!
Amazing news. You mentioned the pandemic being one of your biggest challenges. What are some of the other challenges you've faced during your time as a CEO?
Now we have the cost of living crisis and clearly that affects everybody. In terms of their capacity to give to charities like ours. And I think fundraising remains a challenge and will remain a challenge for a lot of different organisations because people in Wales are incredibly generous, it's wonderful and humbling the support that we get.
But obviously your money only goes so far and some people are having to make very, very tough decisions about where they spend that. So I think that would be something that will continue to be a challenge because of everything that's happened over the last few years and some of the decisions that have been made in the NHS in order to keep it going and to protect it has meant that perhaps some people have suffered as a result of that. People who have been affected by cancer, maybe getting a later diagnosis or maybe having their treatments stopped or modified.
We've definitely got this increased need now, so we have to do more for more people with the same amount of money. That was always a challenge and you have to make decisions about where best to put it. We have to be realistic about our workforce as well. We have to make sure that we're not just recruiting the right people, but that we retain them.
That gets more challenging as there are other offers outside the charity sector. There are certain specialist skills that command an awful lot more money outside of the charity sector.While we may not be able to match those salaries in some of those specialist roles but what we can do is give you a fantastic place to work and to join the community of people who are so dedicated to what they do and you won't ever feel like you don't want to get up today. I just get out of bed and I just think how I'm going to make a difference. So you know, you don't often get that in some of these other roles, however much money you get.
Definitely agree with that and it's what I preach every single day recruiting in the charity sector.
Looking to the future, what are you excited about?
In the shorter term our 80th celebrations will be fantastic. And then we've got our event, as I said in St David's Hall on March the 3rd, which is going to be great.
We're also focused on driving forward our strategy. We're really seeing an increase in our profile. We're really getting the voice of people heard, I mentioned the All Wales Cancer Community and we're really developing that from very small beginnings, now that's becoming a thriving community of people. So I'm looking forward to developing that.
Then there's other work that we're doing specifically around lung health checks as we know that lung cancer is one of the biggest killers in Wales and it affects communities in different ways. So if you happen to be in a more deprived area then you’re much more likely to have lung cancer.
We've been working really, really hard to get lung health checks implemented and that is going to happen this year. And it's a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get that over the line. And we work very closely with colleagues from the NHS for public health and also from the pharmaceutical industry who are helping us to fund it and to shape it. That for me is going to be a really big tick in the box when we actually do get that launched later this year.
What three top tips do you have for someone who wants to join the charity sector?
I think the first thing is do your research because we talk about the charity sector as if it's just one thing. Of course it's not because you have some charities that are absolutely enormous and massive businesses, and then some that are very local and niche with a very small staff team. So I would say to people first of all think about what size of charity you would want to join. Do you want something a bit corporate or do you want something a bit more local?
And then linked to that, what are your values? What's important to you? I've always said I’ve worked in long term health conditions and that area where I feel it's something I'm interested in and I really wanted to do that. I personally would find I would struggle working in International Development or something that's out of my expertise. Pick a cause and then do your research about what charities are out there.
I think the second thing is do some volunteering. I think we should all do that at some point, have a look at it from that volunteering side because you will learn so much about the charity and if you do that it's such a lovely thing to give back.
The final thing I would say is that within the charity sector there is this huge variety of roles. There is probably a job for everybody in this sector. My advice would be don't get pigeonholed, if somebody comes in and says things like “I'm just an administrator”, I say you should drop “the just” because actually you can learn so much in that role. That can actually lead you on to other things
And another little tip related to that is to try and put yourself forward for stuff. If there are things like special projects or opportunities to shadow or anything like that, put your hands up, have a go. You never know, you might really like it and think that's what I want to do.
I completely agree with that last one. I've seen some of my own candidates who have gone on to develop within other areas just because they had to help and then they decided they really liked it, and it is such a good way to up-skill.
On volunteering, I'm quite vocal on LinkedIn, and I reach out to the community and I ran a poll the other day about volunteering. My poll came back and it was 88% of people said they wanted to volunteer this year. I think that's a massive drive this year, especially that I think we'll see a rise in volunteering roles, which I think is a really lovely thing.
We've got one more question. What advice would you give to your younger self knowing where you are now?
When I was younger, I suppose I thought I needed to know everything before I committed. But actually what I've learned as I've got older is that you actually don't need to know everything and it's fine sometimes to say I don't know, and to then delegate.
So don't feel that you need to know everything before you have a go at something. You know none of us are the finished article and I think that's really important. There's a famous book and the title is, Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.
I think that is great advice. I've taken a few leaps of faith in my life about changing sectors, changing roles, putting myself forward for things that I definitely wasn't the finished article for. But that's how you learn and that's how you grow. I guess what I would have told my younger self when I was feeling the fear is, you know, mostly it's going to be OK.
I think that's it. It's going to be OK. You might have a few ups and downs, but on the whole it's going to be OK. And you know what? If you don't like it, there are always other options or if it doesn't work for you or if you fail at something, there's always another way.
Some really good advice there.
It was really great to hear about the ins and outs of your journey at Tenovus Cancer Care. It looks like you’ve got some really exciting things going on which I can't wait to hopefully be a part of. Thank you so much, Judi.
Thank you for inviting me. I've really enjoyed talking to you.