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When scandal at the top of Co-op’s leadership exploded in the tabloids back in 2013, it sent the company reeling, but a determined return to its founding ethics and values, redefined its place in the most competitive of markets. During the pandemic the Co-op has maintained a reassuring presence in neighbourhoods and has exemplified the spirit that we have all witnessed and relied upon from people on the frontline.

Helen, take us back to your early life and what inspired you to pursue a career in HR?  

I don’t think there was a point where I thought: “I’d love to be an HR Director!” In fact, all early aspirations were focused on becoming a journalist. I studied politics at university and in between lectures, managed to find my way into a sort of internship at a local newspaper. But I found journalism to be quite a lonely existence, which was at odds with my extrovert character and, being a real “people person”, I quickly decided that it was not for me. I graduated with no definite plans and joined a graduate scheme with Morrisons – which I have to say proved to be a great decision – albeit by luck – because it opened up a really vibrant world of career choice and great training. I joined just as the company was setting its sights on expansion, in order to take some market share from its much bigger competitors. By contrast to “the big four”, Morrisons was a small northern company with just 35 stores, but the plans were for rapid growth and, as I was in general management, I regularly found myself seconded to opening new stores. On one occasion, the personnel officer called in sick and I was kind of thrown in at the deep end, because we had just started with a big recruitment drive, onboarding and training programmes. I felt totally comfortable with the role, thoroughly enjoyed it and later, the Head of Personnel at HQ called to thank me for a job well done and suggested that I apply to join the personnel team at the Bradford HQ. I jumped at the chance and it proved to be the best career decision. Tons of enthusiasm almost made up for next to no experience and I learnt as I went. I was also studying for my IPM training – now CIPD, of course – and, as the business expanded, so did my horizons.

Supermarkets were way ahead of other sectors in the importance and sophistication of HR, it seems.  

Well, when you consider that some stores have a working population the size of a small town and customer satisfaction is reliant on people being in place, 24/seven, with the right skills and knowledge, nothing can be left to chance. Also, early on, the sector was great at offering people a variety of career paths, rather than pigeon-holing them. In fact, it’s always baffled me that retail has suffered a reputation as a dead-end job, because an always-on, customer-facing environment is a full-on responsibility, where you have to be on your game. Even junior colleagues are accountable and can quickly go on to lead small teams and even move onto being department manager. I was – with limited experience – developing policies for tens of thousands of people, so if you’re interested and prepared to put in the hard graft, there is no better sector for L&D on the go. I spent seven years with Morrisons and absolutely loved it. I then had my first child and, while there was rudimentary support in place at Morrisons at the time, as I wanted to combine continuing my career and parenting, it simply didn’t work for me. However, I was very lucky to be approached by ASDA, just at the start of the era of Allan Leighton and Archie Norman turning the business around. The first and most important aspect for me as a new mum was that the support was much more comprehensive, accessible and flexible – the difference was amazing! I joined as an HR Adviser and could work as many hours as I needed, around my childcare needs and it was a revelation of how providing really good support can make all the difference to people’s lives. But it was when they said they were really keen on my experience and skillset that I realised I had made great progress at Morrisons and so I will always be grateful for that early start. My time at ASDA was a continuation of my personal development, with new experiences coming thick and fast. This was the point when US giant Walmart was acquiring ASDA and I was seconded to Arkansas as HR representative, to be part of the integration team. Our mantra was that our people came first and we were strident in making that point known and so it was a big part of our assessments in the due diligence, making sure that there was a synergy of values and culture. Post-merger, after the dust had settled, Allan and Archie stood down and I decided it was a good time to move on too. This was when the financial services market was white hot with M&As and, in Yorkshire, if you weren’t in retail, the next place to be was financial services and I found myself at Aviva HQ in the role of Head of Employee Relations & Engagement. It was a highly-energised and hectic environment, with Aviva engaged in unprecedented levels of M&A activity. I worked at the new Life business headquarters in York, where I stayed for two years, trying to maintain a semblance of HR in this fast-moving business. If there were any gaps in my practitioner’s portfolio before, they were rapidly being filled. I was then asked to move to a post in corporate headquarters in London, to take the lead on a global diversity strategy and this fuelled a passion for equality, which has since been my guiding star in everything I do.

D&I can be, paradoxically, a divisive issue. If the approach you take isn’t carefully calibrated, good can be undone.  

You have to make the case in the strongest terms, you cannot sugar coat the issues and you have to be brave. If you have to bring it down to commercial terms, to say to a Board; “you will lose customers if they do not believe that you include them” in order to move perceptions and shift mindsets, then so be it. If your organisation only reflects a proportion of the customers you’re trying to reach, then they will be the only customers you ever have. Authenticity is also essential because, everywhere – in the brand, on the high street and online – people pick up all of the signals from advertising, customer-facing colleagues, the way the business connects with people, the language that it uses, all of those elements are pulses, constantly radiating out.

These days, outright discrimination is illegal, but as ex-footballer John Barnes said, the racist chants in the terraces may have stopped, but prejudice cannot be heard in hearts and minds.  

Indeed, it’s the drip, drip subconscious feed and discrimination has been driven out of the public forum to a large degree, but that doesn’t irradicate it, it just makes it more nuanced, subtle… insidious. Making real and sustainable change is a long, hard road, but it’s a journey that has to be made. It’s not a campaign or some carefully calibrated soundbites, it’s about living it every day, bringing it to life in every part of your organisation and, nowadays, business systems too. It has to be lived in full in the colleague lifecycle too. It’s not just about the big issues such as, who is promoted over whom and why? It’s the everyday; “do I feel included in this meeting? Is somebody taking account of me as an individual?” That’s what real inclusion is.

Tell us about the next stage of your career journey.  

I worked with Justin King at ASDA and then again with him at M&S, until he moved to be the CEO at Sainsbury’s. About a year later, Justin rang me and said: “I think I’ve got an issue in HR, will you come and help?” I was loving my time at M&S, but it sounded like a really exciting prospect, so I applied, was accepted and started at Sainsbury’s as Retail HR Director. I joined what was a very traditional looking personnel administration function, with well over a thousand people in the department and something in the region of 25 HR systems. So, my first priority was to overhaul, streamline and modernise the retail HR function, introducing new systems, technology and staff with the right skills. I then started to look at specific areas in more detail, from an operational perspective and clearly, field management capability was lacking and you cannot achieve any turnaround without the right management and leadership in place. So, to build up the management framework, we looked across the organisation for people with the talent and experience, who had shown loyalty, but perhaps had been overlooked for promotion in the past and brought them through quickly. We analysed the skills gaps and recruited people with the skills we needed and we also looked to bring people in with different perspectives, so we targeted competitor firms such as ASDA, who have great colleague values. We also looked outside the sector and hired from the likes of Disney and Toys R Us and that diversity of thought paid off instantly, from an operational perspective. Then a very important part of the plan was to free people up in the stores from HR admin, so that they could focus more on the produce and customer care and less on the hugely absorbing rudiments of hiring & firing and payroll. So, plans began for the huge task of implementing one centralised system and introducing a whole new set of processes for recruitment. Because of the scale, we ended up with two systems, but that was far better than the original 25 and the operation and roll out was a great success. Sainsbury’s represents an important part of my career and in the eight years I was there, I moved on from HR into the central Retail Director’s role which was so pivotal to the operation and this cemented my experience set to be incredibly operationally and commercially focused. Then mid-2013, out of the blue, I had a call from a headhunter who said: “There’s a role at Co-op which I think you should try for.” I laughed and said; “are you serious?” Co-op was in the midst of its banking crisis; however, the headhunter was insistent and, more through intrigue than anything, on a very hot, sunny Friday, I drove across to Cheshire and met the new Retail CEO, Steve Murrells. Over a sandwich and a cup of tea, he completely changed my perception of what this opportunity represented and on the drive home, I decided that if I was offered the role, I’d take it.

What changed your mind?  

Steve talked of his vision to turn the business around and fundamentally change the culture and values to reflect what the Co-op really represents. The keystone of this was to be inclusion, equality & diversity and Steve wanted to build a team that was very different to him. I challenged him on that and said: “To really succeed in doing this, in turning Co-op’s food business around, we’re going to have to make some really tough decisions.” I joined and we promoted some great people from within the organisation, brought in some new skills and talent and there was this palpable sigh of relief, that an important time in this organisation’s history was beginning.

It brings into sharp relief that values and culture aren’t just important, they’re everything.  

As is the importance of leadership and the changing of the top level was like the sun emerging from behind the clouds and suddenly, the future vision looked eminently achievable. These days, most change is about leaving legacy to the history books, but we could see an unbreakable thread between our future vision and the basic core foundations that were laid down at the Co-op’s formation, the ethics at the heart of co-operation. Right now, this disruptive time has highlighted the importance of equality, being mindful of vulnerabilities, the importance of sharing knowledge and collective effort and responsibility. Unquestionably, there is a place for that in this time and it is in the DNA of the Co-op, that links the local communities of our customers and members, with the communities that bring product to the shelves. One of my colleagues, Breige Donaghy, has the best job title, Director of Delicious Food and she has been instrumental in finding the winning combinations in product that is quality and convenient. That was the dual mission that propelled Co-op’s recovery and quite literally set out its stall.

What would you say are the intrinsic differences that your HR plan has made to the organisation?  

First and foremost, our focus was to bring in some real rigor around leadership capability and promotional processes, so that the talent within the organisation could really flourish. That cannot happen in isolation, there are many dimensions to achieving this from; supporting real equality, to the stories that the marketing teams tell about the brand and the organisation behind it. Two important aspects informed on the direction of travel; first was how easily it could all go wrong – as was experienced in the previous leadership – and also that this business is big, but it’s not a PLC, it’s owned by more than four million members. For me, that is the most important driver and differentiator. You can change the logo and redesign the stores and people will either say they like it or not. But what lies behind brand and façade is far more important. You can tick the boxes for what it means to be an effective purveyor of convenience shopping, but what it means to be a community retailer is more about being really clear about sustainability standards and supporting our local communities through membership… all of those things make such a difference.

At its zenith, could Tesco have ever envisaged that people would go back to shopping like “housewives” in the 1950s? Or that disruptors like ALDI and Lidl would pose such massive questions?  

Changing times, shifting demographics and consumer habits present a complex model, but a big part of having an inspirational leadership is that capacity to listen across the business and beyond, never be complacent and always assume that change is a constant inevitability.

What has been the priorities of the HR strategy and in managing through the pandemic and staying operational what are the important issues that have been raised?  

You have to balance the corporate mindset strategy with mindfulness and think about the challenges of individual people and how you can best support them. We have many colleagues who are parents and have been struggling with home schooling and that’s not a scenario that any business will have had broad policies for. So, these real-life issues pose important questions about rigid work conventions and the employee experience has been part of a journey. When we started, rates of pay weren’t in the right place, learning & development was hit-and-miss, there was a lack of clarity around leadership standards and there was no HR system. It was, to all intents and purposes, a blank sheet of paper. But above all of the work that we have carried out, it was the connection from our leadership to our 62,000 colleagues and our customers that was imperative. From the beginning, we had all of our colleagues in mind when we were founding our new leadership behaviours and the values that guide the business. The pandemic has, of course, raised the importance of wellbeing even more and the measures that we’ve been piloting for the past couple of years, are now being presented as Co-op Care, directing people to the support they might need, whether that be; mental health support, colleagues providing care for loved ones or parents struggling with home-schooling. Recognising that such a broad range of people require an equally wide range of options makes the difference between saying and doing wellbeing. We’re looking beyond our organisation too, for example, younger people – particularly students in and leaving education – have been so badly impacted by the pandemic and we’re planning to help this hard hit cohort into work. We currently have a thousand apprentices in our organisation and it’s disappointing that apprenticeship numbers are down in the UK now, for a variety of different reasons, but we’re currently exploring a number of ways in which we can use our levy to support small businesses, including startups run by BAME individuals. We’ve already seen the Kickstart scheme come out and we’re certainly part of that and encouragingly, lots of organisations have signed up to it. But I think businesses must work more with Government to address this problem, before it really becomes a big crisis. We are creating a levy matching service, where levy paying employers can donate up to 25 percent of their levy to support apprenticeships in under-represented areas. We’ve been very clear about what our people priorities are and even clearer about what inclusion means to us. The messages that radiate out from the business are authentic, consistent and have clarity of purpose.

What has been your main learning during this challenging time?  

There’s a long list, but perhaps at the top of it is the necessity for co-operatives and co-operation and we represent that across all of our businesses. We talk about the Co-op movement, because it’s our main guiding principle and we believe that it really matters, especially in tough times. We donate over £15 million a year to local communities and we also give our time and one of our current initiatives is to involve more young people in that conversation, about how they can become involved in volunteering in community projects. We have supported Marcus Rashford in his campaign for free school meals and we support the Co-op Academies Trust and across 27 schools, we have already committed to providing free school meals. Last, but by no means least, I would like to thank all of our front-line colleagues who have kept our business going and maintained a high level of safety for our customers. We have been very vocal and in making our environments safe and bringing to the Government’s attention to what has been needed by essential shops. We’ve taken a strong stance throughout this crisis and have continued to provide services and support to our customers and communities. It has been a tough time, but I really believe that we will emerge in the post pandemic, even stronger.

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