Show you care, do what matters most, be yourself always, and succeed together: they’re the four ways of “being Co-op”, which the retailer’s CPSO Helen Webb holds responsible for its commercial and philanthropic success.
By MaryLou Costa
When Helen Webb was promoted to Chief People & Services Officer of The Co-operative in 2017, her priority was to work closely with Chief Executive Steve Murrells, also newly appointed, to translate his vision for renewal into a strategy that would support the organisation’s values as a consumer co-operative and community-based retailer.
Four years on, and Webb is confident that The Co-op is out of that renewal phase – a phase marked by a senior leadership turnover and an overall leadership talent crisis as Murrells identified at the start of his tenure that he sought to rectify, working in parallel with Webb and her team.
Their mission was to change the business’ culture by redefining the leadership behaviours needed for Co-op to make good on its basic principles of doing business while doing good. These are anchored around “the four ways of being Co-op”: show you care, do what matters most, be yourself always, and succeed together, as Webb easily recites.
And according to the numbers, it’s working. The Co-op’s profits after tax rose to £77 million in 2020 from £33 million in 2019. £15 million, or around 19.5%, were given to community causes (compare this with Tesco, who gave £98 million to good causes in 2020, equating to about 3% of its £3 billion in profit).
The money goes towards initiatives like its Local Community and Community Partnerships Funds, which support causes like getting young people into employment and working with dementia sufferers. The Co-op also works closely with the footballer Marcus Rashford on a number of child poverty and food inequality campaigns, and provided free school meals across its Co-op Academies throughout last summer despite the government’s shortfall.
Transforming the business through a values-led narrative
Linking values to both commercial and philanthropic success is a narrative Helen and the HR team have been instrumental in advocating internally, working with The Chemistry Group to embed the values within the business. Now, they’re the foundation for recruitment and performance management at all levels.
“What I think my contribution has been over the last four years is changing the conversation internally, so that the business results matter, because that means we can then do what we need to do,” Webb reflects.
“We’ve actually transformed the leadership culture in the organisation as well and transformed the conversation about not just what we do, but how we do it, and that actually, our values really matter.”
Webb recalls partnering with Chemistry at the beginning of her journey as CHRO, asking crucial questions like, why does leadership matter? What sort of leadership structure do we want? How do we want our leaders to behave?
“And that’s cascaded now down through the entire organisation. So our store managers talk about our leadership behaviours, our frontline funeral directors will talk about our leadership behaviours,” Webb affirms.
“And they’re now woven into how we recruit talent for our organisation, how we performance manage our talent, and therefore how we promote people within. So their values, contribution and their behaviours fundamentally impact their career.”
But why does it matter, if a person can do their job competently regardless of their values? Webb is clear on the answer to this.
“If you firmly believe in the service/profit chain, then the engagement of the people who work for you translates to the engagement of your customers, to consumers, your members, then it does really matter how you treat people, how you lead your people and the leadership that’s provided. We’re very clear what we stand for as an organisation,” she responds.
“Our ethical values only come to light because they’re enacted through our people, and they’re woven into the way everyone does the job.”
Holding leaders to account
The top 27 leaders within The Co-op are held even further to account, regularly scored on how effectively they demonstrate the organisation’s values. Webb also works carefully with Chemistry to address those who don’t display the right behaviours or values, either developing them, or, if it calls for it, moving them out of the business.
“With the work we’ve done with Chemistry, we now have for each of our senior leaders, what we call a ‘baseball card’, which has the scores on the doors for that individual’s engagement survey, their leadership indicators, how they measure up against our leadership behaviours, what the hiring manager thinks of them, what we think their next role would be, where they fit on our matrix within the organisation,” Webb reveals.
“We look at where they are in terms of their behaviours, what development we need to focus on, and what their likely next moves will be. And then we’ll talk about who’s going to be next, going into one of those senior roles.”
Webb and her team can now more easily spot capability gaps across teams which can be applied to the company’s recruitment strategy. Chemistry’s individual assessment insights then translate naturally into development programmes that also make leaders who end up “countercultural” – those who don’t live up to the desired leadership qualities – more visible.
It’s this ability to not only enhance the positives of running a people function, but tackle the negatives head on, that gives Chemistry a strong standing in Webb’s book.
“Where I also think Chemistry make a huge difference, which is very different to some of the other senior assessment firms I’ve worked with, is that when you’re hiring someone, and you put them through for assessment, you can have a conversation with Chemistry, where they actually say, ‘don’t hire them’,” she notes.
“Very few organisations will commit themselves like that. And that is absolutely invaluable. You can’t quite put a price on that.”
Prioritising diversity and inclusion
The next phase of The Co-op’s leadership evolution will be to meet the diversity and inclusion targets the business has set, namely doubling the representation of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic leaders and managers across the business by the end of 2022. Webb believes this goes hand in hand with the company’s commitment to social mobility, which it delivers on through its extensive apprenticeship scheme.
“Our apprenticeship schemes create access to work that we don’t believe can be created in any other way,” she claims.
Behind the scenes, this will culminate in adapting The Co-op’s HR model from the “Ulrich” model, which breaks HR down into four key purposes, to the “Gartner” model. Webb believes Gartner’s seven HR function objectives and 39 key activities is more agile and collaborative, suiting the business better.
“Our people strategy is designed, obviously, to support the strategy and vision, which is very clear around our pillars of being ‘fairer for colleagues’. And we’ve then got our priorities, which are around leadership and development of leadership and culture, because clearly, that’s the most important driver of how our colleagues feel about working within our organisation,” Webb explains.
“And if you’re going to make things fairer for colleagues, then that has to be about inclusion. There’s no way we can stand up as a Co-op and say we’re not inclusive as employers. That is incredibly important to us. And we’re prepared to take a stand in that space.”
- The Co-op’s CHRO Helen Webb has worked closely with Chief Executive Steve Murrells to translate his vision for renewal into a strategy to support the organisation’s values as a consumer co-operative and community-based retailer.
- They have changed the business’ culture by redefining the leadership behaviours needed for Co-op to make good on its basic principles of doing business while doing good – known as “the four ways of being Co-op”.
- The Co-op’s top leaders are regularly scored on how effectively they demonstrate the organisation’s values. Webb works carefully with Chemistry to address those who don’t display the right behaviours or values, either developing them, or moving them out of the business.