So how was your first day? ActionAid UK's new CEO talks transition

Girish Menon, chief executive at ActionAid U.K. Photo from: Twitter

At around 10 a.m. Tuesday, Girish Menon found himself standing in front of a hundred strangers — his new colleagues at the London offices of ActionAid U.K. He was asked to say a few words in what was his inaugural officewide address as the international nongovernmental organization’s new U.K. chief executive.

“It was definitely the best part of the day,” Menon told Devex, adding that what struck him most about this first encounter was the warmth and passion of the ActionAid U.K. team, allied to their “very strong sense of the alignment of the organization’s mission.”

ActionAid is the only U.K. INGO headquartered in the developing world, operating as a federation of affiliates and associates united by a federal secretariat in Johannesburg, South Africa. While it works in more than 45 countries, the organization’s U.K. presence continues to serve as a financial front line in the global mission.

Although the majority of ActionAid funding — around 34 percent — came from individual charitable donations in 2014, 13.3 percent came from the U.K. government and European Union sources, according to the 2014 Trustees’ Report and Accounts. A strong focus on committed giving maintains the organization’s independence in the face of political pressure and shifting government priorities, although it also places ActionAid at risk as donorship continues to slide from pre-2010 levels, especially in the U.K. At the same time, the tide is turning. U.K. and EU funding to ActionAid rose 1 percent from 2013, nearly replacing the 1.2 percent loss in committed giving. While the shift is slight year-on-year, it could indicate a trend as ActionAid pursues government and multilateral funding more aggressively.

As funding from government sources and committed giving are shifting, Menon enters ActionAid at an exciting moment for charities in the U.K.

“It means not just being the spokesperson and ambassador for the organization in the U.K., but also growing that organization to be in a much stronger place,” he told Devex. “And hopefully see [ActionAid U.K.] play a stronger role in the global ActionAid international federation.”

Menon is well-versed in the nuances of the U.K. INGO landscape. He joins ActionAid after more than 10 years at WaterAid, a U.K.-based international nonprofit, where he served most recently as director of international programs. He told Devex he feels the move is a “big step up,” not only because he will build on his experience overseeing program delivery in 23 countries, but because he will “work closely with the U.K. board and my senior leadership team on how the U.K. fits into the global strategy.”

An executive transition

The transition from one executive role to another, Menon said, was made easier by a combination of preparation and input from friends in the development community.

“Within the organization you don’t have peers close by, so it can get lonely,” he said. “It’s important to find your peers outside, and so I sought help from a close friend at [another] organization.”

Getting an external perspective, he said, is also crucial to understanding how an organization’s work is perceived.

“More importantly, I went through a range of key documents — some of the more historical ones, as well as some on the current strategy, the trustees report, some of the more legal documents about our [memorandum of understanding] with ActionAid international — that helped bring me up to speed in order to frame a few questions that I’ll have to get to grips with really soon.”

‘100 percent face-to-face’

Menon said early preparation allowed him to “focus on being 100 percent face-to-face” on his first day, which was fortunate, he joked, as he is trying to learn the names of all 180 staff.

“I was lucky, because it’s August and about 80 staff are on holiday right now so I don’t have to try and learn everyone’s names at once,” he said.

For Menon’s first weeks, interim CEO David Alexander will continue to manage operational issues while the new CEO gets up to speed, Menon said, another reason he’s able to focus on getting to know the office.

“I can’t think of a time in my recent past when I’ve had a no-email day,” Menon said. “So I could afford to focus on my new colleagues, just meet and talk to people and ask all the questions I’m allowed to ask in my first days.”

Menon added that in an executive role, researching not just the organization but the trustees and their expectations is crucial, he said, “so you know what you’re walking into.”

After early conversations with ActionAid’s chair of the board of trustees Margaret Casely-Hayford, Menon said she had given him “an idea of opportunities and challenges, what we’re expected to deliver and what the board expects of me.”

But the most valuable advice Menon received, he said, was “to remember that you cannot possibly achieve much in your first 100 days, even if there is an expectation of you to demonstrate tangible results,” he said.

Still, the first weeks and months will present many of the opportunities and challenges one might expect at a top international NGO, and will serve Menon in establishing himself at ActionAid.

“There will be some discussion of ActionAid’s contribution to the [COP-21] conference in December, looking at issues of climate change, humanitarian work and resilience,” he said. He’s also preparing for the Sept. 9 talks with development executives from other U.K. organizations, namely Save the Children, WaterAid, Christian Aid, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development and Oxfam. Finally, he said he’s looking forward to his first country program visit, likely in Myanmar in October.

Still, Menon said, he hopes to follow the advice given to him and keep engaging on an interpersonal level with his new surroundings, and “to focus on listening, understanding and learning.”

Asked how the day went overall, he said, “Fantastic day, very busy,” adding that he returned home to find emails welcoming him from ActionAid staff in some of the more than 45 international offices worldwide.

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About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.