Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

As a girl, Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, was an expert gymnast and a county-level netball player. One pastime called for self-discipline, the other for collaboration.

Reflecting on her adolescent sporting prowess, and its connection to the challenges confronting a CEO in the age of Covid-19, she says: “You have to be calm in the face of pressure and you have to contemplate and perform. You’ve got to think about where you are and what’s needed to be done in that moment.”

She has deployed this combination of inner focus and team work as she has sought to steer her organisation through a coronavirus annus horribilis unparalleled in CRUK’s 100-year history while sustaining its animating purpose: to develop breakthrough cancer treatments and save lives.

Since the pandemic struck in January, Ms Mitchell has stabilised the organisation financially, making 25 per cent of “non-trading” staff — those who do not work in its shops — redundant, while supporting frightened cancer patients across the country whose treatment was halted during lockdown and lobbying government to safeguard its role as the biggest charitable funder of cancer research in the country, and the second biggest in the world.

Ms Mitchell, 48, grew up near Liverpool, north-west England, during the 1980s when the area was afflicted with high unemployment, and she was the first in her family to attend university, reading economics at Manchester.

“I would say at a very young age you could see injustices at the bottom of your street and around the world and I’ve always felt passionate about doing something about that”, she says.

After initially working for an MP, her career has been focused in the charitable sector where, through “hard graft over a few decades now”, she has learnt “the tools and methods you need to bring about change”. A series of executive and non-executive director roles — in think-tanks and the NHS — shaped her conviction that reaching across the divides that can separate different parts of the polity can deliver results.

“I’m a great believer in the role of not-for-profits and charities collaborating and convening with people from business, from science, from the NHS, other charities to effect change and bring about a better world,” she says.

When Covid-19 struck, she knew it would test her century-old organisation as nothing had done before. “We’ve been through world wars, recessions, but I knew this was going to be a huge issue on so many levels because of the external impact, the economic shock caused by Covid and our reliance on fundraising.”

Thanks to the pandemic, fundraising events such as CRUK’s annual Race for Life, have been cancelled or postponed © Cancer Research UK

In taking action she has kept two horizons in mind: the short-term need to protect the organisation during the pandemic and its aftermath, and the simultaneous imperative to ensure that no steps she took would compromise the organisation’s long-term impact or ambition.

Facing a £160m drop in income this year, and £300m over three years, she furloughed 60 per cent of staff and personally took a 20 per cent pay cut.

Perhaps the most painful cuts of all, however, have been to its research budget. CRUK has been responsible for taking 160 drugs into early clinical trials, and is a key part of an R&D infrastructure that, with further investment, can form part of “Brand UK” when the country leaves the EU, she suggests. “If we get hit, it devastates one of the strongest bases we have in the country, which is around research and innovation and world-class science and cancer research.”

Ms Mitchell has also positioned her organisation as an advocate for cancer patients, many of whom have seen their treatment postponed during the lockdown.

CRUK estimates that about 3m people in the UK missed out on cancer screening between March and September and more than 350,000 who would normally have been urgently referred to hospital with suspected cancer symptoms were not seen.

“We were already challenged in relation to our ability to meet the government’s target of 75 per cent of cancers diagnosed at an early stage by 2028, so there needs to be a plan around workforce and diagnostics . . . if [the government] is going to address the cancer backlog,” she says.

As requests for information spiked to record levels — the charity has had 37m hits to its website this year — “we needed to provide the most up-to-date information we possibly could for people affected by cancer because of Covid and to act as their voice in the media and with government”, she says.

After implementing an immediate in-year cut of £44m to its research budget, the organisation has a plan to reduce annual research expenditure from roughly £400m to £250m. While Ms Mitchell remains hopeful that the government will use a forthcoming public spending review to make up the shortfall, she is clear about the consequences if they do not: “fewer breakthroughs, fewer treatments and a slowing down of our ability to improve cancer survival in this country”.

She and many of her staff feel their responsibility to avoid such an outcome deeply and personally, she suggests. “My mother’s family, particularly, were blighted by cancer and that was quite tough in my teenage years and early 20s . . . I get very motivated by the bigger ambitions and the bigger beliefs about what’s possible when people come together.”

Three questions for Michelle Mitchell

Who is your leadership hero?

Nelson Mandela. His fight for justice, his struggle for freedom and equality, the dignity with which he held himself, was incredibly humbling. It was a long and winding journey for him to achieve and he displayed incredible leadership skills, as well as humility.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

Be really ambitious and be true to yourself and have confidence in your own views because the forces of opposition and resistance are a lot weaker than you think.

What would you be doing if you weren’t chief executive of Cancer Research UK?

What I would like to be doing, in a hopefully post-Covid world, is to be Phileas Fogg. I would love to travel the world in 80 days. I don’t know how I’d fit my children and my husband into my rucksack but I think I could be a professional traveller for a year or two.

Ms Mitchell has been determined that the pandemic should not derail initiatives that she had seen as crucial to its future work before Covid-19 emerged. She cites the recent launch of a Cancer Grand Challenges programme with the National Cancer Institute in the US which aims to stimulate novel multidisciplinary approaches to the disease around the world.

Pondering the future for a sector which has been so badly hit by coronavirus, she suggests the charities that will emerge stronger will be those that have used the crisis to innovate rather than retreating into defensive mode. CRUK, for example, has developed new forms of digital fundraising.

“Those that will succeed are those that quickly adapt, that have a strong and clear view on the big shifts and long-term moves that they’ve got to make but are adapting quickly today, especially looking at data, digital, thinking globally, [finding] new models of collaboration and staying really, really close to the people you’re here to serve, your beneficiaries and your supporters.”

Ms Mitchell adds: “I think they’re all valuable leadership lessons that go beyond charities.”

Lauding CRUK’s support from millions of ordinary Britons, she says: “This is a great British movement that underpins the belief in science and in research to save lives. It’s so special. But, we are redefining what it means to be a charity and what it means to succeed in a global and a UK context.”

Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article