Kate Lee: 'I have seen more innovation in the last month than in my entire time in the sector'

From arriving a month early after allegations rocked her new organisation to navigating the grip of a global pandemic, the new chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society reflects on leading through a crisis. Emily Burt reports

Kate Lee and Smudge (Photographs: shot by her children, Pippa and Spike)
Kate Lee and Smudge (Photographs: shot by her children, Pippa and Spike)

"How weird is fate?” Kate Lee asks, over a glitching Zoom call. “No one ever wants to start a new job under the circumstances I did, but in some ways thank goodness things unfolded that way. I was only 10 days in when things started to go completely crazy.”

There is nothing ordinary about the circumstances of our conversation. Rather than sitting near me at her office, she is speaking from her home in Coventry, where she is isolating with her husband, two teenage children and the schnauzer, Smudge. And, typically, Third Sector runs interviews with chief executives only after they have been in post for a while.

But the first 10 weeks of Lee’s tenure as chief executive at the Alzheimer’s Society has thrown enough curve balls and twists to merit a feature film, let alone a 2,000-word interview. “It’s been the strangest of times,” she says.

Lee was in her fourth year of the chief executive’s role at Clic Sargent, the teenage cancer charity, when the Alzheimer’s Society announced last September that its chief executive, Jeremy Hughes, would be stepping down in 2020 after a decade in post. It triggered a minor internal crisis for Lee: “If I was being really honest I wasn’t quite ready to leave Clic Sargent,” she says.

Yet the chief executive role at the dementia charity was one of a “very tiny list” of jobs Lee says she had always wanted to get a shot at, and she knew it was unlikely the opportunity would arise again any time soon. She filed her application the day before the closing date and grew to know the organisation better as she moved through the subsequent recruitment process before her appointment was formally announced in December.

“I knew that culturally there was a lot that needed to change,” she says, “but I talked to a lot of people and thought I was going into it with my eyes open.”

But it is unlikely that any amount of due diligence could have prepared Lee for the circumstances of her transition. The need for a culture change at the Alzheimer’s Society escalated into crisis in February when The Guardian published allegations that the charity had spent £750,000 on non-disclosure agreements with staff in recent years. The story further claimed that Hughes had allegedly displayed bullying behaviour towards staff: complaints that had first surfaced on an anonymous Twitter account the previous autumn, but died away again, seemingly without incident.

The Alzheimer’s Society strongly refuted all of the claims, but it faced a widespread backlash. Within a matter of days Hughes’s appointment to the chief executive role at Samaritans had been withdrawn and he stepped down early from his post. After swift discussions between the chairs of Clic Sargent and the Alzheimer’s Society, Lee began her new role a month early.

Deciding how to pitch her arrival in the middle of an organisational crisis was a challenge. “I couldn’t charge in with a cape and a mask shouting ‘ta-dah! I’m here!’,” she says. “Framing myself as the saviour of the situation would have been really patronising, particularly when a huge amount of staff didn’t recognise the criticisms that had been circulating.”

She was also conscious that her responsibility would be to move the charity forward, rather than throwing her energy into trying to unpick the past. But action was nonetheless needed: beyond the allegations that circulated around Hughes’s behaviour was a broader dissatisfaction with leadership at the charity. Months before, an internal staff survey had found that just 38 per cent of staff held a positive view of the organisation’s leadership, 15 percentage points lower than the benchmark median average for similar charities. Even fewer respondents (28 per cent) said the leadership was in touch with its employees.

“The board had been very honest with me that they wanted a chief executive with a strong track record on internal culture,” Lee says. “I didn’t feel completely naive about what was needed.”

Handy platform

There is no easy fix for repairing a loss of trust, but transparency, honesty and accessibility are good places to start, and it quickly became clear that Lee’s well-established Twitter account, followed by more than 6,500 people, would prove a handy platform for building those foundations.

She shared photos of her new Converse trainers on her first day, admitted four days into the job that it was only at this point she had learned to spell the word “Alzheimer’s” (“it was getting embarrassing”) and publicly acknowledged past failings in a message to the author of the dementia memoir Somebody I Used To Know, Dr Wendy Mitchell: “We clearly could have done better in the past; we will try harder in future.”

And this energy goes far beyond big public gestures. On her desk Lee has a box full of thank-you cards, handwritten and posted to Alzheimer’s Society employees on a daily basis. “I say things like ‘hey, I heard you had a go at this and it went totally tits up, but I’m still so impressed that you tried. Have another go, given what you’ve learned. Try it again’,” she paraphrases. She stresses that these efforts are not about her looking “amazing”, but that this is simply the work you need to put in if you want to shift the culture of an organisation.

“It’s not by complete luck that the board has ended up choosing a chief executive who has never been accused of being out of touch,” she says. “If anything I’ve been accused of being too accessible. When I was at the British Red Cross my old boss told me there were some days I had to be serious.”

Invaluable role-modelling

Role-modelling accessible leadership from the beginning would prove invaluable. Within weeks of her arrival, Lee faced decisions that even a chief executive who had been in post for years at an organisation would be challenged by. The coronavirus pandemic was accelerating in parallel with her transition into the role. At the end of her first week in post, discussions were beginning about working from home, with people who didn’t need to travel staying away from the office. By the Tuesday of her second week, Lee was sharing the office with less than a handful of people: “I was looking around this huge empty space, still not even knowing where the toilets were, and thinking ‘what on earth have I got into’. Within a fortnight the country was in lockdown because of the pandemic.”

Lee continued to work across her role at Clic Sargent for two weeks while it waited for the appointment of a transitional chief executive, simultaneously restructuring the Alzheimer’s Society’s senior management team, trying to get to know her new directors and juggling the financial futures of both charities.

“I can only describe it as trying to do the job underwater,” she says. “It was like drowning, with a load of people yelling at you. I was getting the relevance of every third word anyone said to me.”

She is emphatic in her praise of the Alzheimer’s Society’s board, directors and senior management team during this period. “They went from ‘Guardian complaint’ to ‘new chief executive’ to ‘coronavirus’ and now to new strategic directions in the space of about a month. You couldn’t have planned a bumpier road if you’d tried.”

Evolve and innovate

Like so many other charities, the pandemic has forced the Alzheimer’s Society to evolve and innovate rapidly in order to keep functioning. As well as research and helpline activities, the charity runs national services ranging from its popular “Singing for the Brain” gatherings to home-care services and peer support. Many have been upended or suspended at a time when demand has gone through the roof. “We placed 60,000 outbound calls to people with dementia and their families to see what they needed and logged more than 8,000 inbound calls in March alone,” Lee says.

I couldn't charge in with a cape and mask shouting 'ta-dah! I'm here!' Framing myself as the saviour of the situation would have been really patronising

Kate Lee, chief executive, Alzheimer's Society

The difficulties that arise when you combine a degenerative neurological condition with a highly infectious virus are myriad. “How do we help people with dementia to remember to wash their hands regularly? Any ideas?” Lee tweeted on 9 March. The need for continuity and structure is critical, she argues.

“Routine is so tightly linked to what you remember,” she says. “If you get the bus every day you’ll remember that process of getting the bus: where the stop is, how much you have to pay, when to get off. There’s a severe risk that by the end of this period there will be a huge number of people who totally lose their independence as a result of that loss of routine.”

Her knowledge of the subject was personal long before it was professional. Lee’s mother has lived with dementia for 16 years and, with the disease now in its final stages, is living in a nursing home. April marked her parents’ 59th wedding anniversary, the first they had spent apart since the day they were married.

“My dad is really struggling,” she says. “With the risk of the virus spreading around nursing homes, mum is probably being sedated at night to stop her wandering, but that means she’s tired during the day, and that makes it difficult for my dad to even speak to her face-to-face over Skype. It’s just,” she pauses, “so awful.” She is hanging on to the hope that they will be able to celebrate their 60th (diamond) wedding anniversary next spring.

The knowledge of what is at stake for its service users is a constant driver for the charity to keep going, she says. Some front-line services cannot be carried out under social distancing rules, but others have made the shift online.

A team of volunteers is spearheading “keep in touch” companion calls to check in with dementia sufferers, recall routines and talk through what they’re struggling with. Singing for the Brain gatherings have moved to Zoom, with a Big Sing broadcast hosted by the actress Vicky McClure at the end of April, and the charity has been at the forefront of a campaign to ensure social care is supported through the pandemic.

“The culture of the Alzheimer’s Society is now shifting almost daily,” Lee reflects. “In the last month people have become massively innovative, dropped their silos, started taking risks. It’s so strange that we’ve been banging on about experimentation and failure for ages and not been able to crack it, but the last month has seen more evolution than in the entire time I’ve been in the sector.”

And how has this manifested at the top of the organisation? Clear delegation has been instrumental: director of operations Helen Foster is reshaping the organisation’s model of working, chief financial officer Robert Butler is overseeing the charity’s emergency appeal and HR director Corrine Mills is making the difficult internal decisions about employees (the charity has furloughed almost a third of its staff over the course of the pandemic). As for Lee, she is focused on two core areas: morale and “the future”. She says: “My head needs to be six months ahead of everyone else. Almost daily I’m now looking at what shape we will be in come Christmas.”

Record income

There is a lot of extrapolation involved in the second point. The charity posted a record income of almost £112m in its 2019 accounts, after an increase in its fundraising and trading income every year for five years, and although the organisation had been hoping for a double-digit rise in the year ending March 2020, Lee says, its situation had been a positive one. But as with so many charities, the pandemic is likely to have a significant impact on its finances in the coming months.

“We stand to lose at least £7m,” Lee says. “If we wind up in a scenario where we are dealing with three more months of highly restricted movement, that will rise to about £26m or £27m. If restrictions continue for a full year, and certainly if events don’t restart for a full year, the impact could be as much as £50m, which is half our income.” She has taken a voluntary pay cut, along with other members of the senior management team – “there’s no way I would ask staff to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself” – and is preparing herself for tougher decisions “about redundancy and other options”.

Talking about income is incredibly difficult at this time, she says. Honesty is crucial, but so is recognising the work of the fundraisers who have been working flat out to bring in funds during an impossible time: the charity’s emergency appeal has raised more than £1m, “which is incredible”.

Now Lee is asking herself what the society will look like if it takes five years to rebuild that lost £50m – what services might have to be cut, and in what order – as well as the agile innovations to come out of the pandemic they should keep. What had she planned for the organisation, setting the disruption of the pandemic aside?

“I want to really hone down who we are here for and what difference we are trying to make for that group,” she says, pointing out that people who are affected by dementia make up a huge demographic, with the society trying to cover everything from finding a cure to end-of-life care for all 850,000 people in the UK registered with dementia.

“How can you honestly promise to be there for everyone when you are delivering a portfolio of only 60 to 80 services?” asks Lee. “Bringing focus and clarity back to where we could make the biggest difference is important.”

She is also interested in the role of the group as a partnership organisation: “I don’t like duplication between charities. It’s a waste. We should never be asking the people we serve to make a decision about which charity they use just because we do the same thing.” She believes one positive aspect to emerge in the years pre-pandemic, and acutely throughout the crisis, is a growing desire to work together.

“If people need to expand and there is no money, where are we going to find capacity and resources?” she asks. “It’s in other organisations, partnerships and saying ‘let’s not just do this ourselves’.”

But she adds that although it’s important to think about the future, and the role of a chief executive does mean considering every possible scenario, maintaining resilience often means you have to be able to switch off and “focus on getting through today”. “People are – rightly – inwardly focused on helping their charities survive right now,” she says. “But there has been so much innovation and people leaving their egos at the door, and I think there will be more of that to come.”

‘No evidence of wrongdoing’ at Alzheimer’s Society

The day before the interview with Kate Lee, a Charity Commission investigation concluded there was “no evidence of wrongdoing” at the Alzheimer’s Society and that claims the society had spent £750,000 on non-disclosure agreements with staff “were not substantiated”.

The regulator had reopened an investigation into the charity after the claims made in The Guardian, but found no evidence that confidentiality clauses used by the charity would have prevented staff from reporting any whistleblowing, bullying, harassment or discrimination. Trustees at the Alzheimer’s Society had “acted in line with their legal duties”, the commission said, and it was satisfied there were processes in place to ensure settlement payments were properly scrutinised.

“I’m pleased the commission didn’t uphold any of the allegations,” Lee says. “But, equally, it’s a good time to reflect and evaluate: I don’t think we should be complacent, because some people clearly still had a bad experience of being in the organisation.”

The charity has since been conducting an independent review of its policies and the processes by which people can raise organisational concerns, as well as evaluating previous decision-making processes.

“We need to take a step back now and ask what we’ve learned,” Lee says.

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