A focus on Diversity & Inclusion: Helen Webb, Chief People Officer, The Co-Op Group

4th May 2021
Alka Gandhi
Associate Partner

Berwick Partners were delighted to speak with Helen Webb about The Co-Op Group’s commitment to delivering diversity and equality, as well as the importance of holding its leadership teams to account in achieving their D&I goals.

As part of The Co-Op Group’s wider D&I strategy, Helen explains the importance of setting targets and why investing in future talent and recruitment strategies is crucial. After a challenging year, she believes that the pandemic has not only highlighted the inequality that exists in the UK and beyond, but also provides organisations with a real opportunity to address these and make a substantial change.

It’s been a challenging year for everyone, but when you look back, what has stood out for you and what are you most proud of?

Despite the challenges that come with facing a ‘once in a generation’ pandemic, I am immensely proud of the hard work that all my colleagues, across the different parts of the business, have done over the past year and continue to do.  In the face of adversity and uncertainty we have continued to innovate, challenge ourselves to do things differently and accelerate at what we do best.

No one has faced anything like this situation before – either professionally or personally, and it was encouraging to feel the flow of energy across the busines. The Co-Op has always been clear about what it stands for, but in many ways this tragedy has provided us with a greater opportunity to demonstrate those values and credentials. We already play a huge part within our communities around the UK, and this year, we went even further supporting several key initiatives such as Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school dinners, tackling food poverty and creating an online community platform connecting our customers to specialist organisations if they need help. For our colleagues, we ensured that flexible working was adapted to suit their constantly changing needs recognising that everyone was facing their own journey.

It is encouraging to see the industry proactively moving forward in its commitment to creating a new ‘era of inclusive leadership’ but what have been the biggest challenges that you have faced as a business?

There were many challenges on many levels. I personally believe from a people perspective, the biggest one is senior management development, ensuring that you build a genuinely diverse talent pool from both external and internal sources. As a leadership team we did some real ‘soul searching’, challenging ourselves and being eager to be challenged by diverse communities across our business. We have learnt to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. We have listened to our colleagues across all levels and areas of the business setting out to create a healthy dialogue. We have challenged our existing processes to create an ‘eco system’ that supports a culture of diversity, inclusion and equality. But it is important to stress that everything has been underpinned by driving a change in culture, which in turn, crucially required changes in behaviours.

‘Behaviour enables inclusion’, which leads me back to senior management development. Leaders have a responsibility to create an inclusive framework.  If you don’t have a framework to support leaders, then my advice is to consider working with external experts to develop new processes and policies that can support both the business and its’ leaders to work collectively.

I was struck by The Co-Op’s commitment to holding its execs and leadership team to account in the delivery of its D&I manifesto. Can you tell me more about this and whether you feel the targets have helped enable its success?

Let me start by saying that we have made a commitment to doubling the size of our leadership population from the BAME community by the end of 2022. Every leader within our organisation has a personal objective as part of the wider leadership and inclusion agenda. Leaders are critical to creating and delivering diverse pipelines across every level. Businesses need to take bold, brave and authentic action, be clear in their ‘unified’ expectations and be prepared to hold their leaders to account. I believe this is fundamental to future growth.

How have you ensured that your D&I values and beliefs are aligned to your talent and recruitment strategy?

Having recognised that leaders were critical to creating an inclusive culture, Co-Op began working over three and a half years ago with an external consultancy to help review both our internal and external recruitment and talent management processes. We wanted to assess and understand the behaviours and values of both our current and future leaders. Initially, we assessed the top 300 leaders against a set of values, visions and behaviours before extending this externally. It has helped us to think and talk in a more unified way about the type of organisation we want to create. It forms an integral part of our D&I strategy today and allows us to look beyond the historic and safe criteria such as experience or sector knowledge.

What impact do you think the pandemic has had on D&I within the industry?

COVID-19 has highlighted how much inequality exists across the UK and beyond. It has widened the divide across our society, particularly within our BAME communities. There’s a real risk that D&I will become less of a strategic priority for some organisations because of the challenges brought about by the pandemic, but at Co-Op it’s actually become an area of increased focus. At the end of 2020 we launched a set of a set of Commitments to 66,000 colleagues across our Co-Op, to tackle racism and inequality and kick start a real shift in the way we lead and do business. Every one of our leaders now has objectives that ensure they are playing their part in delivering to these commitments, something that is even more important given the deeply disproportionate impact on people in BAME communities as a result of the pandemic.

Lastly, if you could hop into a time capsule and go back…what career advice what you give yourself?

Have enough confidence to move organisation if your values do not align!

For more information, please contact Alka Gandhi, who specialises in recruitment across Retail, Consumer & Leisure. Alka focuses on leadership appointments partnering with businesses led by transformation, turnaround or investment growth strategies. Her clients include blue-chip, family owned, private equity and SME’s.