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MBA alumna leads humanitarian organisation

Refugees in a boat

16 January 2017

MBA graduate Henrietta Blyth talks about her role helping those in need in "dark and difficult" places.

As chief executive of a humanitarian healthcare organisation, Henrietta Blyth has just finished dealing with the Ebola epidemic and with organisations working in violent South Sudan, but the current European migrant crisis is throwing up new challenges for her about how to support “civilians” who are responding to humanitarian crises, at the same time as balancing her organisation’s books.

Since 2015 she has been in charge of Interhealth Worldwide (IHWW) - a Christian-based organisation dedicated to preparing people medically and psychologically for missionary and development work, especially in Africa and in the Indian sub-continent. IHWW also supports them whilst they are there, with vaccinations, travel advice, counselling, training and other income-generating services.

Europe’s first humanitarian crisis since World War 2 has created a new dynamic in her opinion.

“Aid organisations are recruiting ordinary people to help on the boats meeting the refugees,” she says.

“It is a big deal confronting need on this scale. Unless they are healthcare professionals, people find it very difficult to deal with the dead.”

Since agencies are recruiting people from within Europe to respond in Europe, there is no need for the usual travel health input before people are deployed. “That is a real challenge,” she explains, “because we still need to hit our income targets.”

A committed Christian, Henrietta has solid experience in health care, relief and development on which to rely, including six years as People and Organisational Development Director for the Christian relief organisation, Tearfund. She’s lived in Nepal for two years, worked as a consultant for the World Health Organisation in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe and has had a number of senior management roles in hospices and the NHS.

However, she is quite clear that the formal management know-how she gained studying for her MBA at Lancaster (2000), helps in her difficult day-to-day decision making.

She says: “It gave me the intellectual frameworks I need to analyse situations and develop strategies. There was also a lot of myth busting and we were given tools for management thinking, which I still find myself trolling out straight from the textbook in certain situations.”

She came to Lancaster from London at the age of 39, having worked at the Mildmay Mission Hospital focused on helping people with AIDS live well, and at St Christopher’s Hospice helping people with cancer to die well. It was time for a change. She was committed to working for not-for-profit organisations, but had found some of them disorganised. It was time to find out how to do the job better. An inheritance from her grandmother allowed her to leave the capital and sign up full time for the year-long MBA programme.

“I absolutely loved it,” says Henrietta. With her undergraduate degree from Bristol University in Engineering Maths as a foundation, she became fascinated with systems, inspired by Lancaster’s expert on the subject, Peter Checkland. She also learned about her own strengths and weaknesses.

Lancaster was her kind of place to live too - walking on the coast in the evenings, being able to see the hills from the city centre. She lived off campus and socialised with people from her course. She also involved herself in St Thomas’ church Lancaster.

Her MBA project was at Morecambe Bay NHS trust, looking at the flow of patients through orthopaedics, which she used as a template in a future NHS management role in Camden.

After completing her MBA, she went back to the NHS in two successive heavyweight management roles in Camden. Then her life took another change of direction when her church - St Mary’s Bryanston Square - asked her to take on a programme of community development for a congregation dispersed across a large geographical area.

Lancaster’s focus on reflective practice has made a lasting impression and Henrietta still uses the De Bono Six Hats approach as a means of giving herself perspective.

Stepping up from director at Tearfund after six years, to a chief executive role at IHWW has been a bigger step than she expected despite her coach’s warnings and her familiarity with IHWW’s services.

She said: “The DNA of an organisation should run the whole way through it – from how you work with beneficiaries to how you treat your staff. I recognise the need to love my staff not just because one has a moral responsibility to do so but also because it makes the organisation more effective – I am passionate about that!”

Faith drives her work to improve the lives of people living and working in horrifying circumstances, in that she calls the ‘dark and difficult places’ like Iraq, Somalia and South Sudan.

“I cannot imagine doing this role without faith because God is such a tower of strength. You need something outside yourself to do it well,” she says.

Having prepared 1,800 people to work on Ebola in Africa during the height of the epidemic, IHWW has learned valuable lessons about how best to prepare workers for tackling nightmare scenarios involving great loss of life.

Henrietta’s focus is now on capacity building at IHWW in its centres in London and Nairobi and also in the organisations IHWW supports, including developing staff care policies. This brings her regularly in contact with the leaders of other organisations,

“The real gift that Lancaster gave me is confidence that I know what I am talking about,” she says.

“And even if I do not know much about a subject, I know that I have the skills to find it out.”