The legacy of leadership in times of crisis with Steve Murrells, CEO of The Co-Op Group

23rd February 2021
Alka Gandhi
Associate Partner

Steve Murrels became Co-op Group CEO in March 2017 having previously led the Co-op’s food business. He was a key part of the executive team who rescued and turned around the business post-2014 when the Group almost collapsed. Now, Steve has overall responsibility for all the Co-op’s businesses – Food, Funeralcare, Insurance, Legal Services and Health. Steve is an avid campaigner against issues such as violence against shop workers, racial inequality and food poverty.

Berwick Partners and Odgers Berndtson were delighted to be joined by Steve as our guest speaker, for our Annual Consumer and Retail Leadership event on the 4th February. Steve spoke with passion, authenticity and humility about his learnings and lessons as a leader in times of crisis, referring both to the global pandemic and the near collapse of The Co-op Group in 2013.

Steve reflected on how a crisis affords a leader the mandate to change the organisation for good. In essence it allows for quicker decision making and innovation – the trialling of new ideas, partnerships, and ways of working. He also shared his views that the current crisis has highlighted the need for a different set of skills, behaviours, and ‘style’ of leadership. He believes leaders need to be:

Willing to make bold decisions and step out of their comfort zone.

Accepting of the fact that things will go wrong, but to learn from these experiences and move on.

Purpose-led: Clear in their vision and priorities
Making a commitment to colleagues, customers and communities whilst being prepared to be held accountable.

The wellbeing of colleagues should be top of the agenda, ensuring support is given where possible across a broad range of areas.

Champions of fun
Employees have faced one of the most challenging times in their careers and personal lives. Ensure there is a constant ‘drum beat of happiness’ in the soul of the company.

Willing to try new ideas and change course if required.

Having autonomy to act is essential for driving agility.

Authentic and honest
People don’t follow job titles; they follow behaviours and values.

Culture is key

He stressed that what really underpins everything is colleagues and culture, stating that ‘culture will always eat strategy for breakfast’.

Steve discussed how the crisis had surprisingly ’created time to think’, acknowledging this time has been afforded to him through a variety of reasons but mainly by having a strong and talented leadership team. This has meant that his focus has been on how Co-op can deliver their Vision, Co-operating for a Fairer World to make things fairer for colleagues, communities & the planet. His team have also been critical to maintaining the culture while working remotely. Investing in recruiting the ‘right people’ has been key to achieving this. Steve and his team spend significant time exploring cultural fit, values, and style as part of their hiring process, to get a deeper understanding of what drives their potential future leaders, which has delivered much success.

Leadership beyond the boardroom

The conversation then moved to the role of leadership beyond the boardroom. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd last year, Steve was one of the first high profile leaders in the UK to speak out against racism. He believes that businesses and leaders have a bigger role to play in helping to create a more equitable society and that organisations are stronger if they were truly reflective of the communities they serve. He talked about COVID being a truth teller of the unfairness in society today. Moving forward, businesses must ensure that their ‘social conscious’ and ‘social conscience’ are as equally important as the share price.

Finally, we touched on the future post-COVID and the ambition and commitment from the leadership team at The Co-op Group to not just build back better but to build back different. Recognising that they do not have all the answers, it was encouraging to hear that The Co-op are seeking to collaborate and partner with other businesses and organisations such as the British Retail Consortium.  As Steve highlights, perhaps one of the biggest lessons that this crisis has shown us is that ‘cooperation does work’ – we are all facing the same issues.

What is clear is that irrespective of the nature of the crisis, the role of leadership continues to evolve and move beyond the boardroom!

For more information, please contact Alka Gandhi, Head of the Retail & Leisure practice. Alka specialises in 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.Her functional experience extends across commercial, marketing, e- commerce, B&M and operations.

Categories: Consumer