Transformational Leaders: Hugh Fenn, Executive Director of UK Services at Leonard Cheshire

14th November 2019

In the latest instalment of our ‘Transformational Leaders’ series, we talk to Hugh Fenn, Executive Director of UK Services at Leonard Cheshire, about his transition from a corporate role to the not for profit sector, and the difference he has been able to make since joining Leonard Cheshire in November 2016.

Hugh is responsible for leading the delivery of social care services to disabled people in the UK. I first met Hugh earlier this year when we discussed how the world of social care for disabled people is evolving and being challenged, both financially and socially. In a world where the public resources available for care are ever more constrained, Hugh’s role is to help deliver Leonard Cheshire’s aim to change the lives, opportunities and ambitions of disabled people by developing projects and services.

As Executive Director of Care Services, what areas does your role cover?

I look after the UK services, which means all of Leonard Cheshire’s social care across England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland; ranging from nursing hospitals at one end, through to traditional residential care facilities for people with disabilities and independent living accommodation. Ideologically, we are all about supporting people to increase their independence and take their place within our communities.

Having spent most of your working life in the commercial sector, what was the trigger to make the move into social housing and then the ‘charity’ sector? What stood out about Leonard Cheshire in particular?

It’s funny how these things happen. I wasn’t particularly looking to move on from BAA, but the UK airports landscape was changing, airport portfolios changing hands and the business changing shape. As this was happening, I was approached for a role at Moat Housing. I knew nothing about social housing at all, however I am always hooked by interesting stories and challenges, and interesting people.  I was inspired by the passion of the CEO around turning a fairly old-fashioned social housing provider into a more customer focused organisation, but also one that generated its own income through changing its focus; the opportunity to be involved was one I couldn’t pass up.

That was my first experience of not for profit (NfP), not a charity, but NfP. I thought it was interesting, and I found the fulfilment of doing something with a better output rather than a large share capital was a huge draw for me.  I liked Leonard Cheshire’s values and heritage, as well as the individual and collective output of the work it was doing. Again, I was inspired by the people I met; Neil Heslop, the CEO, is an incredibly inspiring and successful businessman. I was impressed by his ambition to change the organisation and transform it whilst respecting its rich heritage. I thought it would be a real challenge and fulfilling to be part of that journey, which is proving to be the case.

Has there been a transitioning period? Have you taken any specific approach or had certain priorities?

From an operational perspective, I’ve done multi-site operational jobs for many years, so the transition felt comfortable. One of the things I implemented quite quickly was the addition of a bit more structure to ensure a clearer definition of roles and responsibilities. As well as this I wanted to help the team become more ‘commercial’ and see the true value of the money, both coming in and going out. What surprised me was that everybody was very keen to learn. They didn’t see me as someone who had come from a ‘big corporate machine’, they were just ambitious for the brand and its values and wanted the charity to succeed, realising they needed some help to do that. There was already a strong focus on the customer and excellent customer care, however the systems and structures to support this wasn’t something they had a huge amount of experience of, so adding this was a good step forward.

Compared to three years ago, we have a much stronger staff base; a more knowledgeable and engaged workforce than we had before. This has meant we are able to take some of the big steps forward into the future. We’ve got significant ambitions for the business which take us into new areas of opportunity alongside the traditional delivery of high-quality social care.

Since I joined, the senior management team has been through a business viability exercise, and it became clear that unless we realigned our estate, we were going start to consume our capital very rapidly over the next 5-10 years without increasing our reach. As part of this realignment, we’ve just been through the process of selling 16 of our larger care homes and have one more left to sell. This has allowed us to focus on developing our services and programmes in areas which enable supported independence into more communities and to reach and support many more disabled people.

Coming from outside the sector, what do you think you have brought (beyond just another perspective) that the more ‘traditional’ candidate might not have?

I think that the business rigour point is important. The charity was run well but it wasn’t as focused on the numbers as it should have been. Tightening up the numbers (and ownership of the numbers) was one of the first things we did; this in turn allows you to focus on the most important thing, which is the care for the customer. We also tightened up the customer focus. The ‘customer’ word hadn’t been used too much in the organisation before I came which was quite interesting – instead, people were ‘residents’ or ‘service users’ – but effectively they are customers, and ‘customer’ is now core to the business. This is an important mind set.

Over the last few years we have worked hard on giving people more autonomy and responsibility within the organisation, which has meant the pace of the organisation has increased and things get done more quickly. This, alongside clearer role definitions and a bit more freedom, has helped towards becoming a well-managed commercial business. I think that my mantra to everybody when I joined was that we need to have a business head and a social heart. If you run it that way, you will maximise what you can deliver for the customer.

Was it as you expected and, if not, what was unexpected? With hindsight, how could you have better prepared yourself?

The culture is quite different. It felt like a step further going into a full charitable organisation with a different way of working. It was a run at a different pace and people’s focus was rightly on care, but without recognising you can do the care better if you structure yourself differently.

I think we’ve been very lucky here but it’s not all been luck. Neil Heslop has had a clear vision from the beginning. The members of the senior management team started roughly at the same time and had a shared vision and mission. We were able to stand together and take that forward to speak as one. I expect not every organisation will have the luxury of that.

What can you advise future employers who haven’t hired an individual outside the sector before?

Gosh. Don’t be afraid. My advice to any charity would be absolutely go for it but, from my experience, if they don’t show their ambition to potential candidates, then they don’t sell themselves. The output through this organisation, like others, speaks for itself, but the brand is silent. If an organisation can get its brand to shout about its ambition and sell itself to potential candidates, it will bring people in. As always, the right people make a difference. Maybe slightly more prosaic but don’t be afraid to pay.

What are the fundamental prerequisites for those coming over to the NfP sector (attitudes, values…)?

You need to be a self-starter and need to have some energy, because from my experience when I first came in, there’s so much you can change and get involved in, and that’s not necessarily a challenge but quite invigorating. You need flexibility to be able to dip your toes in lots of ponds, but also pick out those that are really going to make a difference.

This sector is going to change over the next few years and you’ll need to be adaptable and have an appetite for the challenge. Particularly with a funding role in the public sector or charities, you must be resilient, and I do think it helps to have values that focus on output rather than profit. But having said that, you can have both. Organisations need to get the right people and pay them the right money. The exciting thing about coming into the charities sector is that there is a real opportunity to think big because you can make a real difference.

Leonard Cheshire Disability is one of the world’s leading charities for disabled people. Leonard Cheshire seeks to strengthen its mission in achieving even more for disabled people in the UK and across the world, ensuring they have the freedom to live their lives the way they choose – with the opportunity and support to live independently, to contribute economically and to participate fully in society.

Categories: Not for Profit