Karen Mellanby talks us through her strategy for tackling change

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Karen is a Director at Mind the mental health charity. She is responsible for the direction, management and development of the Networks and Communities Department leading a team of over 100 people to deliver a multi-million pound portfolio of community mental health services and programmes. This includes overseeing Minds programme of activities for young people and work with the sports sector. She also leads strategy, development and relationships with the £130million affiliated network of over 120 local Minds providing services and support across England and Wales. Here she talks us through the organisational response to Covid-19.

What were your immediate priorities to tackling Covid-19?

Internally – focusing on the internal organisation and how to respond to very fast-moving change.  We had to ensure that staff were set up for remote working and that our server could cope with the increased capacity.  The website was put under extreme pressure with the extra volume of enquiries.  We had to look carefully at our cash flow and financial position and to ensure that our HR policies were fit for purpose.

Externally – we had to be in close touch with our local Mind network and ensure that any immediate risks were being managed.  We had to consider the implications of transferring our services from face to face to on-line and digital approaches. It was important to focus on our beneficiaries and to consider what information that people with mental health issues need.  We had to ensure that our internal communications and information sharing were consistent and that we had our narrative in place.  We needed to ensure that we were well positioned to respond to need, both internal and external and be in a position to respond to any threats or opportunities that the crisis may present for the organisation.

What has been the biggest challenge to date?

The biggest challenge has undoubtedly been the uncertainty and the unknowns – how long? What impact? We are living it on a day by day basis, so it is very difficult to prioritise and plan.Ensuring we can manage our cash flow is a major priority, both locally and nationally.Some of our major income generation activities have taken a massive hit. For example, the retail network is closed so none of our 160 charity shops are open and therefore we are receiving no income from them.We rely heavily on fundraising from major events such as the London Marathon, and clearly, these events are now not taking place.

With respect to our staff, a key dilemma has been whether we furlough or not?We have to manage wellbeing in our organisation, be able to respond to increased need to be there for beneficiaries at this time, but also be mindful of the financial situation. Our values are important for guiding us through decision making in the crisis.

Another huge challenge locally is increasing our IT and digital capacity and know-how in order to transform services or ensure that we can respond to the increased need.For example, an immediate action for us nationally was to offer grants for our local Mind organisations to buy necessary hardware and software so services can continue.

What positives have your drawn from the crisis?

There are a number of positives:

  • The speed at which we can make change if we have to, for example making a shift to remote working or transforming delivery of local services within two weeks.  Instead of over-thinking the process, we have just done it, normally those kind of change projects would have taken much longer.
  • The increased emphasis and effectiveness of internal communications – recognising the need for regularity and consistency and strong internal communications.  I send out weekly emails across my department and have daily catch-ups with my leadership team.  We send out twice weekly communications to local Minds. We are all really supportive of each other, with more integrated working and the breaking down of silos across the organisation.  We are using Zoom for meetings which are clearly not the same as face to face, but the meetings start on time and the business of the meeting is conducted efficiently, perhaps more so than before.
  • And for us as an organisation it is positive that there is a strong focus on mental health; in the current crisis people are recognising the implications for mental health.

How will this period change the organisation?

It is likely to have an impact on our income and therefore have some potential staffing and resource implications. There will need to be sustained investment in our IT infrastructure.This crisis is likely to have some implications on our strategic direction, as we respond to new and increased need in our communities.We hope that we will be able to retain some of the positives identified in the section above.

What are likely to be your leadership priorities after the crisis has passed?

  • Being able to more accurately forecast the impact on our finances in order to determine our future setup
  • Being clear on what the crisis and post crisis world means in relation to future strategic focus and direction. We need to be able to respond to need and opportunities but being too reactive can also run the risk of taking us away from our core goals from before. We will need to establish a clear strategic focus.

What have you learned about yourself during this period?

  • I can adapt and chair a Zoom meeting with 16 people.
  • I recognise, because of being more isolated in our homes, the value of regular communications and a focus on people; learning to respond to a different working pattern and being able to reach out and empathise with others
  • The necessity of keeping a focus on the strategic picture rather than just the immediate response.

What advice would you give to others?

  • Very quickly mobilise internally and externally focused working groups, with the right people to deliver on clear tasks that support rapid change and response.
  • Focus on identifying and managing any immediate risks
  • Don’t lose sight of the overall strategic picture, purpose and the longer term aims of the organisation
  • Emphasise the need for communication and check-ins and understand the value of the leadership role – more frequent communication, being open about one’s own feelings and focusing on wellbeing and where people are.
Heather Greatrex is a Partner in our Not for Profit Practice and can be contacted at:  heather.greatrex@gatenbysanderson.com.