Name: Dr Andrew McCulloch.
Job: Chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation.
Qualifications: MA, PhD, Member of the British Psychological Society.
Last job: Director of policy Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.
First job: Laboratory assistant.
Any new appointment to the top job in any organisation will want to make their mark, which makes change and all the anxiety that implies inevitable. But while a course is being feverishly mapped for the future, it’s critical not to rubbish the past.
Bringing leadership and a clear vision are important but you must also bring the staff with you – because, simply, they are the ones who will people your brave new world. They can save it but they can also destroy it.
In 2002 that was part of the challenge facing Andrew McCulloch as he took over at the Mental Health Foundation. There was most definitely a future to secure but, having been established in 1949, there was history walking the corridors.
“When I arrived the organisation didn’t have a clear identity in the crowded mental health sector,” he says. “It had a good brand because of the work it had done on issues such as user empowerment, but it wasn’t clear what was on the agenda or what we should be doing in terms of research, service development, awareness-raising and training.”
The loss of legacies had pitted the foundation into a financial crisis resulting in cost-cutting and job losses which damaged staff morale and the organisation’s cohesiveness. Fortunately – and McCulloch admits the luck – by the time he arrived income improved enough to increase staff.
He says: “It had been downsized so much as to become non-functional. I could think about how staff could be more effective; bringing people in with the leadership skills required and moving some people into jobs to which they were more suited while not devaluing what went before.”
Indeed, an obvious example of holding hands with the past is retaining the foundation’s name. “We re-branded but kept the name to emphasise how we have modernised but have also retained the core values,” McCulloch says. “So, although we have professionalised to some extent, we are still a lay expert organisation in that we still have strong service user involvement; we still want to talk to the public as an audience.”
McCulloch’s first task was to set a better vision by redefining the organisation. “A report tended to be seen as an outcome in itself, whereas it should be just one stage along the process of changing policy and practice. I like to have a coherent work programme that takes the research or good practice product and looks at what are the policy and practical implications: how do we follow it up? How do we communicate it?”
Critical to this was putting in place a policy capability. “If you are unable to interpret in policy and practice terms to the field and opinion formers you don’t have any real impact.” He cites a recent example of a report on exercise and depression which courted a large media profile: “Not really like an old MHF report,” he says, smiling.
The number of staff (56 permanent and about 65 overall) has nearly doubled since McCulloch arrived. Three years in, he feels 80 per cent there: “Some further teambuilding is required and we have a director of mental health programmes post to fill – to provide very senior leadership on the mental health side.
“Morale has improved through having a sharper brand, a higher profile, better support services and a move to better accommodation. Our estates strategy was about getting out of the dump in London’s Victoria [in the attic of a Victorian mansion block] to a more settled environment that was less rabbit warren and more open plan.”
Now from his office on London’s South Bank, McCulloch recognises the need to bed down and make an impact. He says: “We’ve got some exciting new products coming out around diet and mental health, and on self-harm. And it’s really about building on those to say, what are the next steps on the mental health agenda? How are we going to be influential and change people’s thinking on this issue?”