Spotlight on: Blesma's Chief Executive Jon Bryant OBE
Jon Bryant OBE, 54, is Blesma’s new Chief Executive.
He joined the Royal Artillery after commissioning from RMA Sandhurst in 1985, and began a 36-year military career, serving in Air Defence Artillery and the Army Air Corps (AAC). He left the military in March 2020 at the rank of Colonel, and started his new role with the Association in the week the coronavirus lockdown began.
Welcome to Blesma! You’ve had an unorthodox start to your tenure, with coronavirus hitting…
It’s been surreal. The positive thing, from a Blesma point of view, is that there was a tight, effective team in place. I’ve taken over from Ian Waller, who was the interim Chief Executive. He has run a tight ship, has been very helpful, and is still around as Operations Director. I’ve had good interaction with the Chairman and Trustees, who are clear about what they expect. The only downside is that I particularly wanted to meet the Members, travel around the organisation, see what’s being delivered, and hear people’s views. I haven’t been able to do that yet. There has been a lot of video conferencing though, and the staff have been very patient with all my questions.
Could you tell us a little bit about your military background and career?
I grew up all over the world because my father was a civil engineer. I had always wanted to join the Forces and train as a pilot, but couldn’t do that straight away because I’d had hayfever as a young child. So I went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and commissioned into the Royal Artillery. I eventually persuaded the medics to let me attend selection for flying, got through that, and became an Army pilot. I piloted helicopters in the Army Air Corps, which was fantastic. I commanded a Lynx Helicopter Squadron, an Apache Helicopter Regiment, and eventually the Joint Helicopter Force in Afghanistan. Later on, I ran the Army Aviation Centre where all our aircrew and groundcrew are trained. My final job in the Army was as Corps Colonel of the AAC.
It sounds like a hugely varied role…
It was. I never really had a long-term career plan – I’ve always done what I thought would be most interesting next, and I enjoyed it all. All the leaving speeches you hear in the military are very similar because the best thing about being in the Forces is the people you meet.
What attracted you to the Blesma role?
I knew I wanted to do something that would be of benefit to others, and I’d had some experience of charitable work as a Chair and Trustee in the latter stages of my military career. Blesma involves working with, and for, the sort of people I have a huge amount of time and respect for. I wanted to do something charitable, but where I’d be operational every day. This gave me the chance to do both.
Did you know much about Blesma beforehand?
I knew what the charity did, and in Afghanistan half of my job involved coordinating the medical evacuation of our casualties. It was the start of a process that would lead many soldiers to Blesma. And there were soldiers under my command who were injured, so I was aware of the Association and of the kind of support that the charity gives to our injured personnel and veterans.
What do you feel is the most important part of the role of Chief Executive?
For me, the key element of the role is to act as a link between the Members and the Trustees. It’s an unusual role because I work for both. I’ve got 3,200 employers, not just a Managing Director. I answer to the membership, as do the staff – it’s a huge privilege to be in that role, and I’m very conscious of it.
What do you hope to bring to the role?
I’ve had some experience of taking over units and organisations that are already in good shape, and Blesma is, too. I haven’t tried to find anyone with a bad word to say about Blesma, but literally everyone I’ve spoken to – whether they’re within the charity world, the military world, or they’re a Member – has said it’s an excellent organisation. It has a very good reputation. I don’t think there is a significant shortfall that needs an urgent change. I was asked at interview what I’d like to do in my first six months, and I said learn as much as I can about Blesma. I’ve been tasked with reviewing the organisation, as you might expect, but I’ve not come in with any preconceived ideas.
Although not an amputee, you have some personal experience as a carer…
I have a young son who has suffered with a kidney problem all his life. Of course, I don’t have first-hand experience of limb loss but we’ve dealt with a serious condition and have had a lot of surgery. The situation has given me experience of being a patient, supporting other people, and dealing with the NHS. I feel like I have some understanding and some empathy. One of the reasons I wanted to do something altruistic was because I’ve been very inspired by the people who help in circumstances like my son’s.
COVID-19 has disrupted how Blesma usually works…
Yes. Most of my work has been on the response to COVID-19. The lockdown started on my first day. We immediately reached out to our Members, prioritising those who were particularly vulnerable. That included the elderly and shielded, of course, but some Members don’t fall into the groups officially classed as vulnerable but still need extra care: permanent wheelchair users who don’t drive and live alone without a support network, for example. We spoke to well over 90 per cent of Members in those categories to check people were safe and had adequate support in place. If they didn’t, we provided help through BSOs and Outreach Officers. We’ve also been making connections so Members can support each other. Because activities have been cancelled, we have taken all sorts of activities online. We want to keep everyone linked up. We’ve also been explaining to our supporters that our Members’ needs still exist. A lot of Blesma people are standing up in a crisis like this and helping others.