Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, Lynda Thomas, began her career in marketing and PR before making the transition into the third sector by volunteering for a children’s charity. Since then, Lynda (BA Psychology, 1986), has dedicated her professional career to helping others. She spoke at our webinar on Careers in the Third Sector.
Can you tell us about your current role as CEO of Macmillan?
I believe I have the best job in the world. No two days are the same and my work involves many different elements which keeps it varied and interesting. My role encompasses everything from devising strategy, leadership and budgeting to attending high-profile events and fundraising activities such as the World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, where I get to drink lots of tea and eat too much cake in the name of charity.
Policy and advocacy are also a large part of my role. Careers in the third sector are often overlooked, but the incredible thing about my job is that I have access to places such as Downing Street and royal palaces where I speak on behalf of Macmillan service users. I regularly work with the Department of Health and Social Care and all four nations of the UK, and advise on how support and care for cancer patients can be improved. Everything we do at Macmillan is underpinned by thinking about what it’s like to be a person affected by cancer and how we can support them.
Can you tell us about your career since graduating from Warwick? Why did you decide to move into the third sector?
I left Warwick with a 2:2 degree in Psychology after having far too much fun and not doing enough work! I started my career in PR and marketing, mainly working for high-end brands. It was great, but after a while, I realised that I didn’t really care about whether people bought one pair of fancy jeans or another. While working at an agency, I had the opportunity to work on an account for a third sector project, which was about a political prisoner of war in Beirut called John McCarthy. It was while working on this project I realised I could use the skills I’d gained and do something really worthwhile and interesting.
After having my first child, I knew I didn’t want to go back to working in the commercial world, so I began by volunteering for a children’s charity dealing with poverty and homelessness, which led to a part-time job. Starting off as a volunteer was fantastic because I now work with 20,000 volunteers at Macmillan, and I can truly say that I understand their perspective. There is nothing like having first-hand experience of what people are going through to understand how they are feeling.
What challenges have you faced during your career and how have you overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges in my career was being a working parent. I got to a point where it became difficult to progress without taking on a managerial role. To take the next step, my colleague and I applied for a role at Macmillan as a job share. Job shares were practically unheard of at the time, but for some reason Macmillan decided to take a chance and it was the start of something great. The role enabled me to be part-time and also be in the playground two days a week to pick up my children.
I’ve been a huge advocate for women’s rights and equality in the workplace throughout my career. I was thrilled to be the first female CEO of an organisation that’s over 100 years old. It’s a shame it had to take that long, but I’ve definitely seen a significant shift in women in senior leadership roles in the sector. However, there is still a long way to go on inclusion, particularly for people with protected characteristics.
One other barrier to my career has been myself. I experienced impostor syndrome, especially when I started as CEO at Macmillan. I doubted my own abilities. It has taken me a lot of coaching to get over those feelings of self-doubt and I hope that young women today don’t doubt themselves in the way I did.
What advice would you give to students and graduates looking to pursue a career in the third sector?
Go for it. The sector has something for everyone and it doesn’t matter what degree you have. There are lots of gradate trainee schemes available, but you don’t have to limit yourself to these as there are plenty of entry level roles suitable for graduates. There are so many organisations doing brilliant work, so follow your interests and do something that you feel passionate about. Both larger and smaller organisations have something to offer. At a larger charity, such as Macmillan, you may specialise in a particular area such as events or fundraising, but smaller organisations will offer more general entry level roles where you can gain experience in lots of different areas.
At Macmillan, we tend to recruit colleagues based on values, so it’s a good idea to research organisations before applying and find out about their principles. For us at Macmillan, our values are ‘Heart, Strength, Ambition’ and these are what we look for in new recruits. I’m a firm believer that you can teach skills, but you can’t teach values.
What are you most proud of and what are your hopes for the future?
I’m incredibly proud of everything the organisation has achieved, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. There is never a good time to be ill, but the pandemic has been especially tough for cancer patients. I’m so proud that we’ve been able to put our arms around people who have been living through some of their darkest times and provide them with support and reassurance. We’ve supported people in so many different ways, from emotional and psychological support to financial and practical help, such as taking patients to and from their hospital appointments.
From a personal point of view, one of my proudest career achievements is doubling Macmillan’s fundraising income in five years from £125 million to £250 million. This was a fantastic journey to be a part of with a great team of people.
Regarding the future, I am passionate about inclusion and believe that everyone should receive the same treatment and support, no matter who they are or where they’re from. My hope for the future is that we no longer need to talk about inclusion as the playing field will finally be equal for all.
Why did you choose to study at Warwick?
I come from a small town in South Wales called Porthcawl and although I love my hometown, I knew I wanted to leave and spread my wings. Warwick wasn’t too far from home, but it was far enough to make it perfect. It’s also a campus university, which made me feel safe and secure, especially since I was coming from such a small place. I chose to study Psychology as my A-levels were mainly arts-based, so I wanted to do something a bit different.
What was the most important thing you learned from your time at Warwick?
Warwick gave me the opportunity to broaden my horizons. My hometown was not particularly diverse. I went to a Welsh-speaking school of 1,000 pupils and there wasn’t one non-white face, so it was fantastic to study on campus with students and academics from different backgrounds to me. This is something I’ve carried with me throughout my career as it’s so important that we’re engaging with people from all walks of life.
Do you have a favourite memory of studying at Warwick?
On my second day at Warwick, I looked across the market bowl and saw the man who’s now my husband. At the time, he was a maths student in his third year. He had black, spikey punk hair and was wearing PVC trousers and an enormous jumper – I thought he was so cool! It took four years until we got together, but we’ve now been married for 31 years.