My first boss: Jean-Michel Grand, CEO of Action Against Hunger UK

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Jean-Michel Grand has been with the international charity since 1994. Photo: Action Against Hunger UK
Jean-Michel Grand has been with the international charity since 1994. Photo: Action Against Hunger UK

Jean-Michel Grand is Action Against Hunger UK’s chief executive, the international charity stopping life-threatening hunger in its tracks. He joined in 1994 as a field worker and spent nine years in some of the world’s most challenging environments, responding to a variety of humanitarian crises.

Grand plays an instrumental role in the charity’s mission of supporting communities throughout the world, but mainly in low-income countries. There are 8,000 staff across the Action against Hunger network, with 150 employed across the UK. The UK turnover went from £50 million in 2020, to £10m in 2021 and back to £35m in 2022.

November 2003 was a critical moment. I was still a trustee and an interim CEO at the time and it was my first interaction with Paul Wilson. Ever since it has been a long journey together.

We had a situation where two of our major donors decided to withdraw their funding. The board gave me four weeks to come up with a solution and I came up with four scenarios. These included liquidation, in which if we continued on the same model we wouldn’t survive. Or we continue almost as we are, try to improve and would be unlikely to succeed. The third option was to merge with another organisation, while the last proposal was redefining our rule within our network.

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The latter was the option that was accepted. At the first board meeting our influential chair immediately resigned. Paul was a trustee and he acted more of a board member and moderator. He convinced the chair to stay for longer and calmed him down. He was the one going into the details, driving the discussion so that we could make an informed decision. It saved the organisation and we worked together to opt for a board approach.

What I learned from Paul was not to fear change and take a bold approach. There was a lot of negotiation and Paul was instrumental in nailing down and helping get people on board. It was about thinking differently and that every crisis was an opportunity in Paul’s mind.

He said that crises are disruptors and we shouldn’t look at short-term solutions, but to look forward with a better analysis of where we want to be in a few years time. He instilled this thinking that every crisis shouldn’t be rushed, rather what we can learn and do better from them.

7 month old Noor Fatemah, a Rohingya refugee suffering from severe malnutrition is weighted at the Action Against Hunger centre where she and her twin brother, also severely malnourished, are treated at Kutupalong camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh December 8, 2017.    REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Grand's work has taken him to conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya and Tajikistan and severe droughts in north-east Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe. (Damir Sagolj / reuters)

Paul is a proud Geordie, is always calm and is a great listener and negotiator. He has spent many years advising big companies about their strategies. He has a capacity to absorb, process and drive the conversation towards an outcome that you feel that you own. We now have a board that has the same attitude which engages and listens to different opinions before taking decisions.

With our organisation, hunger and its prevention and mitigation is a lot about data which can be processed and modelled to anticipate some of the risk. Satellite technology is important for us to identify areas of risk and the level of water. Our teams collect millions of data and the access to food, its prices and what the level of malnutrition is in terms of the measurement of the children to see if they are malnourished.

It becomes more difficult with conflict and war, the main driver of hunger. It is less predictable but the technology is increasingly important. The charity’s work has never been more pivotal as countries around the world are caught up in protracted conflicts, whilst weathering climate change, and failing to get access to food in a system which does not distribute goods fairly.

At the same time we are going back to basic technology. We have a plastic tape with green, red and yellow colours which we put around the mid to upper arm of a child to measure malnutrition risk. Thousands are distributed to households and parents are told how to use it. We are working more and more with people becoming the source of the data, as we understand how critical the first 1000 days of a child’s life is.

A boy drinks water from a hose outside bunkhouses for Typhoon Haiyan survivors, which were built by humanitarian agency ACF (Action Against Hunger) International, in Tacloban city in central Philippines November 9, 2014. Almost 25,000 people still live in tents, shelters and bunkhouses in the hardest hit regions in central Philippines, including Tacloban City, considered Haiyan's ground zero as it accounted for almost half of the death toll. REUTERS/Erik De Castro (PHILIPPINES - Tags: ANNIVERSARY SOCIETY DISASTER)
A boy drinks water from a hose outside bunkhouses for Typhoon Haiyan survivors, which were built by humanitarian agency Action Against Hunger International, in Tacloban city in central Philippines. Photo: Reuters (Erik de Castro / reuters)

The question that we are asking ourselves is what are the accelerators or innovations that the UK can generate which will have the biggest impact in the fight against hunger? We are conscious about finances, but there are other ways to help people. Today, it's quite unbelievable that only 20% of children in the world who are seriously malnourished are receiving treatment – when we know the other 80% exist. It’s a standout which would never be acceptable in the UK. Imagine if the NHS was only providing a treatment to 20% of patients.

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It is often said that you should never postpone decision times for too long at any business level. There is nothing worse than not taking any decision. And Paul was just great at getting the right decision for the organisation. It is very reassuring for a board that the relationship between the chair and the CEO is critical for the success of any organisation.

There is a lot of deep respect between myself and Paul. We know the nature of our position comes with responsibility. While we have an excellent relationship, the social aspect is quite limited and that is best for the organisation. We don’t go to see Newcastle play football but we have a drink together from time to time.

It’s important for the board to look at the executive with a critical eye as well as to be supportive. We have succeeded so far and have found the right balance in our relationship, rather than have any special bond that might blind or affect any judgment.

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