Michelle Mitchell

CEO, Cancer Research UK

4 August 2023

Michelle Mitchell


Succession Planning

Michelle Mitchell

Can you tell us about your personal journey?

So, I was the first in my family to go to university, and I studied at Manchester University to do an economics degree. And from that I moved to London after that period and worked in Parliament while studying for my MSC in public policy. And it was at that time, I really became incredibly passionate about a number of the big social issues that the country and the world faces and decided that the future for me was really working in charities with like-minded people who have a vision, and a view, and the skills to change the world.

What do you think are the key skills for a CEO?

Well, I would start with a deep understanding of the impact that you want to create with your team, with your stakeholders, and with the people you’re there to represent. So having a clear vision, understanding the purpose and setting a long-term, ambitious direction for any organisation is critical. I think the second part is really mobilising, using those resources that you have, the resources that you have in-house, making sure you have the right finances, your income is growing, you’re spending the money well, is critical.

And then the third element is mobilising people, being able to inspire, to engage, to create working environment[s] which get the very, best out of people.

And by people I don’t mean just the people we employ, who are fantastic here at Cancer Research UK, but also, we have the huge benefit of 25,000 volunteers. So, people who volunteer and inspiring people to support us at every level and any level that they can afford to do so.

So mobilising people and connecting all of those things together to create a sense of team, togetherness and common purpose, I think is what makes a successful CEO at Cancer Research UK and many other charities.

What does Succession and Talent Planning look like at CRUK?

We take succession planning incredibly seriously from our Board of Trustees [perspective] and each director and head has very clear objectives around succession planning. So several times a year we take stock of our talent at a board level. We take stock of the incredible talent that we have at heads and director level.

We assess and rank the talent in the organisation. We have a collective discussion. So, there’s a rounded view of the potential that individuals have, and we agree resource allocation, training, coaching, mentoring. Sometimes it’s one on one support or increased access to leaders and then we touch base every six months with a proper review annually on this.

So, I spend a significant amount of time, personally, focusing on talent management and succession planning. And I have every confidence, because I’m part of these discussions, that I am held to account by my Board of Trustees for the plans that I have in this area and my directors have.

Does CRUK face problems in terms of managing its talent?

One of the new challenges we’re facing, having felt that we had a very strong pipeline of internal talent, we’ve got very high levels of engagement, expert talent, people we would have been working with for years, to come on to different levels within the organisation and they are now saying perhaps I want more of a portfolio lifestyle, that they want to balance their home life, their professional life and their interests a little bit more. So, we’re seeing a shift in the market, potentially, and we’ve got to, I think, challenge ourselves about what are the roles for the future and how do we attract and maintain the best talent as they are perhaps not repeating the same patterns that I would have worked in, or potentially people at exco at the moment.

Why do you think 25×25 is important?

25×25 matters because whether you want to change the world working in a charity or you have a strong sense of purpose in a commercial company and are motivated by the commercial performance of that organisation, you will only succeed if you have the broadest range of talent.

You have to get the best women into the workplace, support them, enable them to do their best work, and ensure that there’s real thought that goes into creating, planning, talent planning, succession planning. Because if you don’t do that, your results will suffer.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the charity sector?

I think the bigger challenge for us is around significantly improving the numbers of excellent high-quality candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds and particularly at the top leadership levels.

So, some of the ways in which we’ve sought to do that is introduced, for shortlisting, diverse panels.

So, we ensure we have diverse shortlist panels at that point and we’re learning how to do that. We’re learning how to make sure we’re bringing in excellent, diverse talent, which is of course there, we have to work harder to bring it in.

And I think the third issue for us is one of the things that happens in charities and this organisation is people are so committed, right? We talk about impact, often there’s a personal motivation, but we have to make sure that this is an environment in which people can do their very best work, that they’re enabled to do that, they have good levels of autonomy and high levels of productivity. But they’re not working ridiculously long hours. So we have to constantly work at how we balance our passion, our ambition, our impact with reasonable working hours, prioritising what we’re going to do, making sure our people have the support, the equipment to do the right processes, to do the job as well as they can.