Lunch With... Dalton Leong
Professional Manager’s Matthew Rock spoke to the CEO of the Children’s Trust, Tadworth
On the day before Easter 2011, Josh was out cycling with his brother, Brandon. Josh veered into the road and was hit by a car. His father was mowing his lawn when a distraught Brandon rushed back. Dad, a policeman, was on the scene in moments. Josh wasn’t breathing.
His injuries were appalling. He was in a coma for months. Then, on 4 July 2011, he woke up and said: “Dad.”
Months of painful rehabilitation followed at The Children’s Trust, based in Tadworth, Surrey. But Josh made great progress. While his injuries are profound and life-altering, Josh has, almost incredibly, even started cycling again.
I am in Tadworth Court, the 17th- century manor house that is home to The Children’s Trust, to meet its CEO, Dalton Leong CCMI. For children with brain injuries, and their families, this is an oasis of hope, care, education and therapy.
Leong greets me warmly in his office, up a creaking staircase. He’s sprightly, talkative and fit. He loves singing and running in his spare time, and took part in a fundraising expedition to Everest Base Camp last year – “the hardest thing I’ve ever done”.
Leong grew up in south-west London, the son of Chinese-South African immigrants who ran a butcher’s shop. His father died suddenly in his forties, leaving Leong’s mother to take control. It was a difficult time. “You become worldly-wise at an early age; you have to,” he recalls.
We have lunch in The Children’s Trust’s grand hall. It’s all very Hogwarts. Staff chat around large wooden dining tables. Lunch is tasty, unpretentious food from the subsidised staff canteen: vegetarian stroganoff, and fruit crumble.
Leong is comfortable and candid when telling his story. A successful career in banking left him close to burnout,
but he won’t bad-mouth the sector: “Banking gave me invaluable training and development, and I learned so much about customer service.” It was while on a training course in the Lake District in 1983 that he was identified as “a natural leader”. That made a lasting impression.
Leong took a significant pay cut when he moved into the charity sector, but he is in his element, bringing energy,
a commercial outlook and, crucially, change-management skills. In his four years as CEO, he’s replaced the entire senior leadership team at The Children’s Trust, and is now updating its outdated IT systems and launching a new strategy for the charity.
He knows he must strike a balance between commercialism and care. People come to The Children’s Trust at times of unimaginable anguish. Many children require 24-hour care. (The lovely 24-acre site houses a residential special school for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties, specialist rehabilitation services and accommodation for families and nursing staff.)
But the charity must be run properly. Leong explains that employee inductions heavily emphasise the need for strong leadership and governance. “Our sector is under close scrutiny,” says Leong. The local authority funds places at the school and NHS England pays for rehabilitation for children with the most complex conditions under a block contract.But the charity also raises millions in donations for music therapy, play sessions, garden upkeep and day trips – all essential for helping children be children again. “If children can have fun, they start to focus on other things aside from how unwell they are, giving them hope and confidence. It’s the crucial ingredient,” says Leong. The Children’s Trust already operates brain-injury community services in parts of the UK – also funded by donations – and Leong wants it to become synonymous with brain-injury care beyond the home counties.
He is ambitious for the special spirit of The Children’s Trust to be known nationally and internationally – an inspiring prospect.