How will ex-investment banker and former Chief Executive of the UK’s largest charity funding pioneering eye research make the transition to leading an organisation whose mission is to advance health, through education and innovation? New RSM Chief Executive Michele Acton sets out her stall.
Stepping across the threshold of the Royal Society of Medicine for the first time was an awe-inspiring moment for new chief executive Michele Acton. “One Wimpole Street is an imposing building, housing a historic institution with a fantastic brand name. It’s a privilege to be joining an organisation that means so much to so many generations of doctors and healthcare professionals.”
It’s a far cry from the world of investment banking where Ms Acton began her career. After reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford, she entered the City of London where she worked in the world of high finance, selling businesses across Africa, floating football clubs when they were flavour of the month on the stock market, and orchestrating any number of exciting and interesting deals.
“After 15 years I felt that there was more that I wanted to do with my life. I needed to work in an area that I felt very strongly about. After thinking long and hard about which direction to go, I was drawn to medical charities, specifically those working alongside clinicians to deliver better health outcomes.”
Her first job after leaving the City was chief executive of UCL Hospitals Charitable Foundation, the main fundraising charity for key research, building and equipment projects across all University College London Hospitals. After two years at UCLH she was appointed chief executive of the eye research charity Fight for Sight, where she led the transformation of an organisation that brought two separate charities together to form a national charity focused on addressing sight loss. At the end of her 12 years at the helm, Fight for Sight had an £8 million research commitment to scientists and healthcare professionals at over 40 universities and hospitals.
Making the leap into the charity sector was, she says, a tough transition. “Not only are you moving from a global bank with almost limitless resources, but you need to adapt to a not-for-profit with very limited resources and a completely different culture.” Over the years she has developed a much more collaborative management style. Managing a not-for-profit is, she says, a complex business with people making contributions to the organisation in many different ways, not just in delivering the bottom line.
“People contribute to charities for lots of different reasons. For a charity chief executive, being adaptable is an essential quality — it helps you get the best out of people.” Turning to the task of leading the RSM, Ms Acton’s experience in developing strategy will, she believes, stand her in good stead. At Fight for Sight she describes drawing up the strategy for a new national organisation from scratch. “That meant understanding the landscape, understanding what was needed and understanding what other organisations were doing. At the RSM we have an established education strategy and a library strategy. What I need to do is understand what we have in place and lead on developing an over-arching strategy that will draw all the activities undertaken by the Society under one cohesive plan.”
She is relishing the challenge of unifying the many RSM stakeholders around an agreed vision for the future and how it should be implemented. “Section councils, members, trustees, directors and staff will all have different perceptions, views and ideas. I’m looking forward to hearing them and developing them into a strategy that will allow the Society to flourish as an impactful and effective organisation.”
Developing the RSM’s philanthropic fundraising will also be in Ms Acton’s sights, as will generating other sources of income. Fight for Sight was one of the few medical research charities to receive revenue from intellectual property, an area she is keen to explore at the RSM.
Impact, a watchword for all charities, is another priority for the RSM’s new chief executive. “Our mission at the RSM is to advance health through education and innovation and we need to ensure that we have relevant, appropriate education and innovation programmes that engage the healthcare workforce of today and tomorrow.”
She says it doesn’t take much scratching beneath the surface to discover the quality of the education programmes taking place at the RSM and the treasure-trove of content delivered. “People tell us that what they learned has been used in practice and is being shared with others. We need to be able to tell these stories and amplify what we do much more.”
Besides the cohort of people who know the RSM well, not least the 1,000 or so volunteers on Section councils who play such an important role in developing the education programmes, there is a wider group of people who could benefit from what the RSM can offer. Making the RSM’s educational offering as relevant and as accessible as possible is clearly another of Ms Acton’s top priorities.
“There is so much to celebrate about the history of the RSM and where it stands in the landscape of medical education. My job is to make sure that we stay relevant to the doctors and healthcare professionals of today and tomorrow.”