Webb: “No-one will get rich at the Co-op"


Very much enjoyed reading the article as being ethical and having the right values in business is close to my heart. I know it's wording that is far too frequently and flippantly used nowadays, but ...

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While being an ethical employer requires some sacrifices the trade-off is worth it, according to the Co-op Group's chief people officer Helen Webb

In her keynote at the 2019 HRD Summit, Webb explained that being ethical is core to her organisation’s business and leadership model.

“No-one will get rich at the Co-op, because we can’t afford to pay what big businesses can pay. That’s not our ethos, that’s not what we stand for. So we have to create a business and a working environment that feels different and that will stand us in good stead,” she said.

“What is really important is that we have a clear purpose, and a vision of what we’re trying to achieve. We want people to be proud of our Co-op because it’s not ‘the Co-op’ it’s ours, we own our organisation.”

Rather than encouraging a “one-size-fits-all” leadership style, creating conscious leaders has been key to the Co-op’s wider ethical focus. Webb explained that she wants leaders to combine personal development with a strong understanding of the Co-op’s values.

“We started to think about how we can lead in a new world, with a new understanding of leadership, and how we can get people to understand what community really means,” she said.

“You can pick leadership styles off the shelf, that’s not a problem, but how do you make it live in the context in which you are operating? We started to talk to our leaders about how to create leadership that was really based in personal development, because if you can’t develop yourself you can’t help others.”

A key part of this development has been a project where leaders spend time working in the organisation’s warehouses. "We knew that this had to be top-down, so we started at the top of the organisation and did something very different. We took our senior staff off site and to our warehouses for two days. Thirty-five people spent two days working through what needed to be different to make a success of our organisation for the future, and how we could lead that,” she said.

“We then took what we learnt to our top leaders and our store managers. So this is the start of our journey, it’s really important. We had some very honest conversations and a few tears – working in a warehouse is not easy.”

Webb admitted that it is difficult to be both a commercial company and a conscious one. “It is a challenge, there is always a trade-off,” she said.

“We have a very commercial buying team, and they have to trade off the ethics against commerciality. For instance, we use British meat in everything we sell right down to our ready meals, and that costs money because it’s more expensive. But it’s worth it. We haven’t got shareholders to keep happy with profits.”

Referring to the organisation's financial crisis in 2014 when it reported a £2.5 billion loss, and when then Co-op Bank chairman Paul Flowers was arrested on drug charges in 2013, Webb said that encouraging leaders to ‘speak up’ is also part of an ongoing effort to turn the organisation's culture around.

“In 2016 we had a whole new leadership team come in who have been demonstrating ‘speaking up’, because it’s the only way to turn business around. We said ‘you’ve got to tell us everything that’s wrong’,” she explained. “Some of the things I have heard about HR would make your hair curl. Speaking up has slightly become part of the culture now, but we want to emphasise it because none of us want to go back to where we were.”


Very much enjoyed reading the article as being ethical and having the right values in business is close to my heart. I know it's wording that is far too frequently and flippantly used nowadays, but as a small business, I for one much prefer to surround myself with people that you want to work and spend time with and who share common goals and values. I know some might call me naïve but there is more to it than simply trying to make as much money as poss.

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