Alun Thomas on becoming the boss after ten years as the deputy

The new chief executive of the mental health charity Hafal tells Annette Rawstrone how he coped with taking over from his long-standing predecessor

Alun Thomas of mental health charity Hafal
Alun Thomas of mental health charity Hafal

What is it like when a long-serving deputy chief executive of a charity is appointed to the top job? This happened at the end of last year at the Welsh mental health charity Hafal, where Alun Thomas stepped into the shoes of his former boss.

Bill Walden-Jones had been chief executive of the charity for 11 years and built it up to 200 staff and a turnover of £500m a year. Thomas was deputy chief executive for 10 years and says he now has a hard act to follow.

"There was some fear attached," he says. "The initial period of settling into the role was a bit lonely, but fortunately I have a good team of directors. I can speak to them and ask for help and guidance if I'm not sure of a decision."

More consultative

Thomas says he's introduced a more consultative style to offset the potential problem of losing the good relationships he has with colleagues. "My predecessor came into the organisation at a time of crisis with underfunded services, and there was a need for him to take significant charge," Thomas says. "He therefore did a lot on his own, whereas I see my role as developing services and managing.

"For that, I feel I can build up closer working relationships with other managers. Instead of making all the decisions, I feel it is important to take more of a collaborative approach. I like to let ideas evolve and share the decision-making, although ultimately it's me who carries the can."

But Thomas says he is not afraid to disagree with the way the charity operated previously. "I am happy to look again at certain things – for example, technology options, recording systems and HR," he says. "If the staff make a good case to me, I will listen; and if they argue their case well, I will change things."

He says he will be making fewer day-to-day decisions and more strategic ones. "It can be difficult when staff members come to me and think we have the same relationship that we had when I was in my previous role," he says. "I have to ask them to speak to their line manager."

He advises other new charity chiefs to discuss their management approach with their trustees. "This helped us to develop a shared understanding of how I operate," he says. "A new chief executive – even if it is an internal applicant – will always behave differently and the board needs to have confidence in that person."

Informal help

Thomas is also looking outside the organisation for guidance by making more use of external specialists such as its accountant and solicitor. He has also sought informal help from the director of a centre for mental health services, whom he meets for a monthly coffee and chat. "He is a useful sounding board and it's good to talk to him about team structures and how I manage relationships with senior staff," Thomas says. "It is an informal relationship with someone who has experience of the sector, and he proves a helpful listening ear."

Thomas regrets accepting too many invitations when he took up the new post. "As the new chief executive, I wanted to get out there and meet people, but I've realised that this can wait," he says. "It's important to have time to reflect and to do the day job."

He says the four-month handover period, although managed amicably, was too long and it caused confusion with decision-making. "A two-month handover would have been more useful, or we could have asked the trustees to give the chief executive gardening leave so he was not in charge but was available to answer questions."

So what was the biggest problem in taking over from a successful chief executive? "You don't get to say that it was rubbish before and I'm the one to fix it," says Thomas. "It keeps you honest."

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