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Where else can you go to immerse yourself in what it means to be a successful leader and take forward a strategy?
Growth through mergers and acquisitions is a high-stakes game. When Elizabeth Robertson left London Business School (LBS) in 2014, she joined Breakthrough Breast Cancer as Director of Research, Policy and Information, a charity which quickly merged with Breast Cancer Campaign.
It was one of the largest mergers of its kind in the UK’s third sector. The two charities, with a combined income of £28.3 million and with 212 staff, brought together some of the brightest scientific minds to discover how to detect and prevent breast cancer, and how to stop it taking lives.
Tasked with bringing the research portfolio together, Robertson, who completed her PhD in Cell Biology at Queen Mary, University of London, in the early 1990s, calls it an “enormously challenging time.” She credits the Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy programme, which she studied in 2013, for boosting her knowledge and confidence during the merger. Being appointed as the first director of research for the newly-named charity, Breast Cancer Now, signalled her success.
Trace the story of Robertson’s life and you’ll see that research and “making a difference” are part of her molecular makeup. Previous roles include Dean of the Graduate Research School at Teesside University and Post-doctoral Research Associate at the University of York.
“My whole life has been absorbed in research in one form or another,” she says. After becoming the inaugural dean of Teeside’s graduate research school, she made a conscious decision to move into the non-profit sector continuing with the theme of rigour.
“Sloan,” she says, “is a world away from the other degrees I’ve taken. It was refreshing to have rigour and also relevance. It’s designed for experienced people who are engaging with real challenges in the world.”
Faculty, such as Dominic Houlder, Richard Jolly and Marcus Alexander, helped drive debate among the seasoned leaders, she says. “They posed questions that made us think about some of the issues of working in complex organisations – and how to make a difference.”
Robertson opted to study at LBS where she could dive deeply into leadership and strategy. “Where else can you go to immerse yourself in what it means to be a successful leader and take forward a strategy? The more senior you become, the more you need to step back and be challenged.” Taking a year out for her own development, she says, felt “indulgent” and at times “terrifying”, but it’s one of the best things she’s ever done.
Over the years, Robertson’s roles have involved balancing strategy and leadership. The launch of Breast Cancer Now‘s Catalyst Programme, an initiative that invites the world’s leading researchers and pharmaceutical companies to pool resources, is a case in point. When Pfizer approached the charity to fund pre-clinical trials, Robertson was tasked with convincing a board comprising members that, thanks to the merger, were just getting to know each other.
“It was a big opportunity and risk. If I hadn't gone through Sloan, I would have been more risk-averse. It gave me the confidence to translate Pfizer’s offer into action.” Robertson even enlisted LBS classmate Jim Schmitz to offer his counsel. Schmitz flew from Dallas, in the US, to meet Robertson, who had travelled to Texas for a conference. “He's a cardiologist by background so he's got that relevance and understanding. It was so helpful talking to someone impartial who I trusted,” she says.
Today, Robertson heads up research for Diabetes UK and is “constantly reflecting on programme knowledge, skills and insights”. Studying at LBS has, she concludes, given her the tools to be “more effective as a leader in the charity sector.”