When leadership becomes personal

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, the CEO of the British Heart Foundation, tells MT how she led the organisation through the Covid pandemic and how her professional purpose became personal.

by Kate Magee
Last Updated: 27 Apr 2023

Dr Charmaine Griffiths always knew that her job was personal, after losing two of her grandfathers to heart conditions. But if she ever needed a reminder of the purpose of her work, she received a powerful one during the Covid pandemic, when her dad became unwell and was told he needed a triple heart bypass.

He spent eight months in the queue for care and treatment - a queue that currently comprises 340,000 people. “Living with the anxiety for those months was one of the hardest things we’ve ever experienced as a family, truly,” she says.

When he came out from the surgery, he was clutching onto a little plastic folder full of British Heart Foundation booklets about how to recover. “He was holding on to it for dear life. This was the information and support he was going to read to get through this,” Griffiths remembers. “That moment truly brought to life for me how the things we do every day make a difference to people. We’ve got so much more to do.”

Indeed, she says the British Heart Foundation, which is the second most popular charity in the UK according to YouGov, is “deeply scared” by the crisis in emergency care.

“We know that ambulances should reach these people within 18 minutes to give them the best chance of recovery. During the recent peak disruption, ambulances were taking more than an hour to get there,” she says. It’s not due to the lack of care from the NHS staff, but a lack of funding.

She also believes it is important that the Government sticks to its promises to invest in UK life sciences, which she believes is a big success story for the country.

Griffiths rejoined the BHF as CEO in February 2020. Her 100 day “listening” plan and her thoughtful induction process were scrapped as the organisation went into crisis mode. The UK’s biggest charity retailer had to close its 730 shops for 8 months, which left it with a net loss of £10m a month. “We’d stress-tested a drop in income, but no-one had ever stress-tested a world in which we couldn't trade for eight months out of 12,” she says.

To help make some of the necessary difficult decisions, she set four guiding principles for the organisation (to look after its staff, heart patients, researchers and to ensure the organisation remained sustainable in the long-term) and set about rallying colleagues, stakeholders and supporters around them.

Impressively, despite financial difficulties, the BHF continued to fund the researchers that are working to improve outcomes for those with heart conditions. Next year, as a result of the ship steadying, the charity is planning to make its biggest investment in research in its history.

“I can tell you there has never been more determination to make a difference for patients than there is right now,” she says.

In the latest episode of Management Today’s Leadership Lessons podcast, Griffiths explains how it felt to be a new CEO during the Covid pandemic, what she did to stabilise the charity and how her scientific career impacts her leadership style.

Alternatively click here for more details on her leadership journey.