Lynda Thomas jokes that she "ripped out the old boss's desk" to mark her confirmation as permanent chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Support last month. She stepped into the interim role at the cancer charity when Ciarán Devane left to head the British Council in late 2014.
She has spent 14 years at the organisation – which had an income of £189.7m in 2013 and employs 1,581 staff – starting with a jobshare as head of media and campaigns in 2001. "I feel the only reason I'm here is the success of that jobshare," says Thomas, who worked in consumer PR before starting a family. "Hilary Cross and I had six children between us and worked so brilliantly together that people would mix us up." The pair still work closely because Cross is one of the four executive strategy directors.
"Macmillan was a sleepy organisation, very different from how it is now," Thomas says. "I thought I'd have a lovely time for two years, but then there was a massive explosion in terms of how we work and how the organisation has grown."
Thomas was personally affected by cancer when both her mother and sister were diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. It's the knowledge that 2.5 million people live with cancer that drives her. "We have a phenomenal fundraising machine and brand and it is incumbent on us to raise as much as possible," she says. "It's high pressure, but the stakes are high – this is about people's lives."
She is credited with developing the charity's campaigning arm and believes in telling real stories, as in the Not Alone campaign, rather than using gimmicks. She says: "The best way to get what you want is by talking to people, explaining the need and how they can help." She was also part of the team that oversaw the development of Macmillan's award-winning brand – which she attributes to front-line staff who "drive the love and emotion that people feel for the brand along with hard-hitting adverts and brilliant marketing". In the past three years, while Thomas was director of fundraising, the charity increased fundraising income by more than a third.
Rather than itching to make changes now she has the top job, Thomas is going on holiday to think. "People often assume that internal candidates have all the answers, but that's not the case," she says. "The perspective I had was as director of fundraising – I need to step back and take a holistic view of the organisation. It is important not to make knee-jerk decisions."