NEWSMAKER: Out of the shadows - John Low, Chief executive, RNID


It would be fair to say that jaws did not exactly drop in the disability sector when John Low was named successor to James Strachan, the charismatic chief executive of the RNID who is moving upstairs to become chairman next month.

A Strachan appointee, Low joined the charity in 1999 and the two worked together on the RNID's revolutionary digital hearing aid project. As an insider committed to the incumbent's vision and methods, he was widely tipped to succeed.

But Low, still the charity's director of research, technology and health pending the hand-over, rejects the preferred candidate tag. "I know from personal experience that I wasn't James's choice for the job," he says. "That doesn't mean he is unhappy.

"The trustees considered 28 people in-depth, interviewed a smaller number and had a very formal interview process. As I saw it, they set me higher hurdles than anyone else because they knew I had the advantage of knowing the organisation and they expected a great deal from me. It was a daunting process."

Nonetheless Low, who admits that Strachan's dynamic presence was one of the reasons he joined the RNID, has no qualms about working with his former boss in his new incarnation as chairman.

"He is very demanding, he expects a lot. Some people say he's impossible to work with. I disagree. I've worked with the man for four years and we have achieved a huge amount together. I'm pleased that he's becoming chair. I know I'll have someone who knows what's going on. I can't pull the wool (over his eyes), I have to be honest and I can't be hypercritical of the past because it's things we did together."

Low's tenure promises to build on, rather than tear down the edifices constructed during the Strachan years.

The charity's most feted and innovative work in the past five years was its digital hearing aid campaign, a mass lobbying effort which convinced the Government to provide digital, rather than analogue hearing aids free on the NHS. The RNID was then asked to manage the project to modernise hearing aid services in England. By April 2003, almost a third of people in England will have access to digital aids.

"We had to put our head on the block, to do things we'd never done before," says Low. "It's about putting your energies where your mouth is. And there are many more areas where we can do this. The climate is right, there is an openness, a willingness and we've proved we can do it."

The charity is already working on a pilot with the Department for Education and the Department of Health to provide educational support to deaf children under two and Low promises more public-voluntary sector partnerships, but with a caveat. " We would only want to deliver a service if we were the best way of doing it," he says. "We are not interested in accumulating services just for the sake of it."

However, although continuity is to be maintained in RNID projects and campaigning, the style of Low's leadership will certainly be different.

Low is no Strachan clone. A 49-year-old softly spoken Scot with a careful, considered manner, he is a far cry from Strachan's ebullient, dominating presence. To the dismay of deaf groups, he is also not deaf.

What Low does have is a scientist's passion for the use of technology to transform the lives of people with hearing loss. In the private sector, he developed innovative imaging technology for both the oil and food industry and is frustrated that science has done very little to improve the lives of the deaf. "There have been major scientific breakthroughs in medicine and technology, yet for some reason deaf people haven't got much out of it," he says. "All the promise of cell regeneration, restoring hearing to deaf people. Nothing happened. Research isn't being taken from laboratory to clinic."

Low's style of management may well bring welcome stability to RNID's senior management team. Under Strachan's results-led regime, blood was certainly spilled on the carpet with eight executive directors leaving in four years, and finance directors seeming to perish every six months.

Voluntary-sector recruitment agencies reputedly refused to recommend candidates for senior management positions.

Low hints at a culture change. "James's style is different to mine. Whether mine is more likely to produce stability is hard to say. I don't come with that kind of agenda. Certainly there has been some turnover and there is value in having competent people in the post for a number of years.

I would seek to employ people who will stay. I don't think that is particularly different from how it's been in the past. The kitchen has been a bit too hot for people who have moved on."

Low may also have some bridge building to do with the deaf community. Many groups have questioned how representative the RNID, with 28,000 members out of a total 9 million deaf and hard of hearing people in Britain, actually was under Strachan. The Deaf Liberation Front even picketed RNID offices to protest at Strachan's appointment as chair and to call for a deaf chief executive.

Its wish wasn't granted, but Low promises to listen. "I have taken a lot of care to go to deaf conferences, and create focus groups. I can never be part of the deaf community, I can never hope to make the RNID exclusively for the benefit of the deaf community because it has a broader remit than that. But I would seek to make it relevant and for them to have an influence," he says.


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in
RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners

Third Sector Logo

Get our bulletins. Read more articles. Join a growing community of Third Sector professionals

Register now