Face to Face: Mike Morrissey

“Being shouted at in front of millions of people on television was great experience for management..."

Mike Morrissey

Mike Morrissey

From the umpire’s chair at Wimbledon to running the European Cancer Organisation, Mike Morrissey thrives on getting others to perform at their best.

A career in brief:

  • Chief Executive, European Cancer Organisation 2019 - present
  • Chief Operating Officer, European Society of Cardiology 2016 - 2019
  • Executive Vice-President & Chief Global Officer ICSC, 2012 - 2016
  • Managing Director, IFALPA 2010 - 2012
  • Head of International Operations, The Institution of Engineering and Technology 2008 - 2010
  • Administrator of Officiating & ITF/Grand Slam Official, International Tennis Federation 1993 - 2007

JL You became CEO of the European Cancer Organisation four years ago. What was at the top of your 'To Do' list when you joined?

MM I was hired because the organisation needed strategic renewal. There’d been a disruption to their business model that had taken quite some time to deal with, because other parties had been involved.

It had been very congress-centric and now they aspired to be a policy advocacy organisation, and because of the financial disruption to the business model, they’d gone from around 30 staff to four. So, it was a turnaround gig if you like. My job was to coordinate the development of a new strategic plan, which was approved six months after I joined, with understanding the operational side of the business and where improvements could be made.

JL Did the board give you a firm steer or
did you have to work it out for yourself?

MM For me it’s very important that the role I play is not senior to the board but something like a facilitation partner.

They’re the experts in oncology and my expertise lies in running organisations, which is nothing like as important as being an oncologist, but it’s a different skill and a skill that you need in a partnership model. I wouldn’t take a job if that kind of teamwork wasn’t ready to take place.

JL So there’s this refocusing on advocacy, but at the same time you have a pressing need to generate more revenue. What was your approach?

MM You always have some loyal funders, even in bad times, who believe in the mission and want to stick with you despite all the evidence.

So, I went and spoke to those that had stuck by us and realised that the business model that we had wasn’t one that was conducive to the future of the organisation. So, we created something called Community 365, which was a bunch of charities, foundations and healthcare industry companies who just wanted to be in the loop all year round.

They didn’t want to have their badge on a banner at an event. They didn’t want to be decision makers. They didn’t want to have any governance rights. They just wanted to be talking and listening to the oncologists and patients in our community.

So, we created the networks where that exchange could take place. And the great thing about a year round revenue model like that is that it’s not based on one moment in time where you’ve got to deliver something and if that something goes wrong it all falls into jeopardy. I was very fortunate this all happened in January 2020.

We launched a new strategy just before the pandemic!

woman holding brown glass
person in black long sleeve shirt holding persons hand
"Being tennis umpire is a great experience because you learn that there’s a time to be tough, there’s a time to be soft"
- Mike Morrissey
man sitting on couch with looking at his MacBook on table
man in black and white suit holding a microphone
brown wooden surface

JL And you were able to facilitate these
exchanges in a virtual capacity during
the pandemic?

MM Because it was new, there wasn’t really an expectation that it wouldn’t be virtual!

There were lots of downsides from not getting people together during the pandemic, but in advocacy terms, more people are now heard in the Brussels bubble than were ever heard before. I mean, you’d never get Eastern European input for example because it would be the usual suspects living and working in Brussels who would be attending meetings with members of parliament, with the
European Commission etc.

So, in a sense the pandemic made, or gave us, the opportunity to have a much louder and more diverse voice than ever before.

JL You said ‘fortunate’ earlier, but you
make your own luck...

MM Well I’m the chef d’orchestre, that’s all I am. I’m the one with the baton trying to get everybody playing well together. But when you’ve got an organisation that’s going through a tough time and somebody from outside comes along and says, ‘hang on a minute, what about this? What about that?’, all based not on your own thoughts, but what people are telling you, you often realise that people are telling you the same thing, but with different language.

And if you decipher it, translate it, you realise that 10 very influential people in the organisation are basically telling you the same thing, and then you implement it! But you need to do all this quickly in an organisation that’s struggling, you can’t be taking two years navel gazing.

"I’ve worked in bigger organisations, bigger associations in different roles, and you spend the bulk of your time managing the managers of managers."
- Mike Morrissey

JL So your members are oncology associations at a European level, representing different specialties. How many do you have?

MM We’ve grown from 27 to 42 members in my time. They’re all European in scope. We don’t have national oncology societies. So, if you take the surgeons, the radiation oncologists, the oncology nurses, they will have their national constituents, but our members are the European organisations.

JL And how big is your staff now?

MM We’re around 25 now including trainees…

JL And are you hoping to grow even more or looking to stay under 30, which I think puts you in the ‘medium sized’ category for associations?

MM I would be very happy to stay under 30. I’ve worked in bigger organisations, bigger associations in different roles, and you spend the bulk of your time managing the managers of managers.

And the distance from you to the shop floor, in terms of getting stuff done, is very long and there could be lots of misinterpretation of your message along the way.

Of course, when you’re mission focused and there are opportunities with EU funding, for example, you can’t easily refuse. You can’t be saying, ‘we need to do X and Y in cancer care’ and when somebody comes along with the money and gives you the authority to do it, turn round and say, ‘not us guv!’.

JL ...but that snowballing phenomenon
is another risk, isn’t it? Knowing when
to apply the brakes…

MM Yes, because all associations are about
people, the people who are working as volunteers, but also the staff and the team.

And when you are hiring new people who’ve worked elsewhere, or they’re in their first or second job, there’s a lot of coaching involved. We’ve hired some fantastic people, amazing people. Have I made perfect hiring decisions? You never do. So, the people side of any job is the biggest challenge and it’s the biggest risk for most organisations.

If you’re going from four people to 25 people in three or four years, that’s what keeps you awake at night.

man in black crew neck t-shirt wearing white goggles
a sign that says team work on it
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blue and white plastic bottle
person writing on white paper

JL And what’s the revenue situation like now?

MM Well, the first challenge was to get to break even again. I said I thought I could get it to break even by 2021 and halve the deficit in 2020. We’ve achieved that.

I think that breakeven model is always a safe place to be for an association, with at least one year’s expenditure in reserve. When you’ve got millions in reserves, or tens of millions in reserves, that raises other questions and problems.

So, although the scope of the relevance of the organisation and the scope of activities is much greater than when I first joined, the expenditure increase, which is matched by income increase, is mainly down to enabling people to do the stuff. It’s not because you’re being extravagant.

JL We’ve already touched on the pandemic. But how did it impact your organisation?

MM The pandemic disrupted cancer services in a massive way. Our stakeholders were going through a massive shock and readjustment, often taken off cancer services to go and work on COVID.

The EU lent on us, quite strongly during COVID because they could see the impact it was having on cancer and other disease areas but couldn’t tackle it all at once because they were managing a pandemic. So, we worked quite closely with them on some messaging: we ran a campaign called Time to Act, which was about not ignoring the signs of cancer. But generally, in the association community, the pandemic created a massive shock.

Most of us in the association community
have grown up, one way or the other, in
events and conferences. And so, those
seeds of doubt across associations, you
could feel the shock waves...

JL Did the pandemic fundamentally
change the association business model?

MM I think it must. It should. Of course, that’s not to say that we’re not all enjoying the resurgence of events because what we lost in that period was the human interaction, the buzz that associations need. But I think it’s fair to say that some associations relied on conferences and events, without much intervention to create that buzz for the organisation year-round.

This sounds harsh, but some associations might have done that (events) on a copy-and-paste basis. Now in my experience, you’re either getting more relevant or you’re getting less relevant. You don’t stand still. The minute you start getting comfortable, especially if you’ve got a good bank balance, that’s a risky time for associations right there.

JL Your career in associations started at the International Tennis Federation, where for 11 years you sat in the umpire’s chair. How did tennis prepare you for association management?

MM Well, I got shouted at in front of millions of people on television and thousands of people on centre courts all over the world. You develop, in my case, literally a thick skin. And you are having to say ‘no’ to tennis players who are used to being surrounded by people who say ‘yes’, all day.

So, from a management perspective being tennis umpire is a great experience because you learn that there’s a time to be tough, there’s a time to be soft, there’s a time to have a quiet word, there’s a time to take tough action, there’s a time to tell a joke, you know, that’s what management is about.

You can’t play the same card all the time. So, I think tennis officiating taught me a ton of stuff about myself, about leadership and management and decision-making.

JL What do you make of the professionalisation of association management?

MM A lot of association leaders are experts in that field – they worked in a field all their career and end up in the association. It can be easier, I think, to be a non-expert.

Our job is to facilitate, our job is to deliver, our job is to listen, to join the dots. You don’t need, and in some cases it’s better if you don’t have, an opinion about which direction a particular topic should take.

JL How high up did you get in the world of umpiring?

MM I did my first Men’s Final at Wimbledon when I was 25.

JL Wow, who was that between?

MM That was Sampras and Ivanisevic.

JL How many finals did you do?

MM I did five men’s finals at Wimbledon, two ladies, two men’s in Australia, a few Davis Cup finals…

JL So, you were really at the top of the tree – or the ladder should I say?

MM Well, some thought so. I don’t know where they got that impression from…

JL Did you play?

MM No, I was a terrible player. That’s why I started umpiring when I was young.

JL But there was a love of the game that
got you into umpiring in the first place?

MM Oh yeah, and I was in the right place at exactly the right time. I was a linesman when McEnroe was in his era of ‘You cannot be serious?’ And they were looking for young umpires to be chair umpires, particularly from Grand Slam countries. So right place, right time, I got pushed, I did okay.

yellow tennis ball on court
person in black shorts holding green tennis racket
people at the tennis court stadium during sunset

Mike Morrissey

Mike Morrissey

yellow flag under white clouds and blue sky during daytime
group of people gathering inside house
a black and white photo of a street light

JL What was the first job you did that involved management?

MM In tennis I ended up overseeing rules and regulations and officiating. So that’s how I got into management.

I was managing other tennis umpires and tennis officials and training courses and evaluation programmes. And then I found myself running big events. After giving up umpiring, I was running events involved in the Grand Slams and the Olympics behind the scenes. And then that got me into operational management.

JL You became president of the European Society of Association Executives in 2021. It’s an organisation that’s been rejuvenated in recent years…

MM I hope so. Giuseppe Marletta, who was my predecessor did an amazing job, particularly during the pandemic, in making sure that relevant content was available.

The strength of the ESAE is that we are talking to each other, we’re learning from each other. We’re all doing the same job, but in different sectors.

For example, when the war in Ukraine started, some of our members were getting pressured to ban Russian members and delegates, so we arranged a quick one-hour call, which I was asked to moderate. And we asked if anyone had any experience of this Russian question and 20 or 30 people put their hand up and shared their stories. And I left that webinar informed. That’s just priceless.

The reality is we’re all learning, especially during this period of permacrisis!

JL ESAE has over 400 members. How
big can it get?

MM The growth you want is in relevance. It’s not like the ESAE board is sitting there saying, ‘we want global domination’. We want to have enough relevance that people want to be members to be able to share and learn from each other.

JL You said we’re living through a
permacrisis. It does seem like we’ve
staggered from one thing to the next recently. Should associations collectively aspire to something bigger? You hear about the ‘voice of business’…
should associations have a similar,
collective, voice?

MM When there are threats to the association model or suggestions that associations should be treated like other NGOs, for example, that’s when to speak up. The model of a board of experts working with a small or large team of staff to implement their work is a good model, but it’s not one to be complacent about.