Caroline Cording has spent the majority of her career in London, working at the epicentre of one of the most financially challenging times in UK retail. After 30 years in the capital, she decided to make the move back to Yorkshire, where she grew up.
For a professional who deliberately seeks out the rapid pace of transformation, the move to the semi-rural, greenbelt town of Huddersfield may seem like moving down a gear, but, Cording assures, it is anything but.
As has been a pattern throughout her career, Cording has dived head first into a major transformation for the nursery brand, which has proved to be a kind of homecoming in more ways than one.
Meet the HRDs:
Cording started her career at professional services firms Hayes Allen and Longcrofts, where she gained her grounding.
She followed a natural curiosity for HR to Mothercare, then part of the Storehouse chain alongside British Home Stores (BHS) and Burtons, where she was regional HR manager.
Although HR has changed a great deal since the early 1990s, Cording says that Mothercare’s leadership and personnel for the time was progressive – focusing on how HR added value to the business, which some functions still struggle to prove to their organisations today.
She says: “HR at that time was known as the tea and coffee brigade. At Mothercare, it was totally different. It was about understanding commercially what drove the profitability of the business.
“We changed the way our managers operated – they used to be absolutely pristine, suited and booted. Ann Iverson [then CEO], who headed Mothercare at the time, said she was more interested in people understanding how to drive this business commercially – and that really set the HR agenda.”
Driving value as a HR function, Cording learned, was about more than just being intentional with recruitment, it was also about encouraging leader accountability.
She says: “There was a big shift from a cultural perspective from managers being told what to do and how to do it, to actually being told: you tell us what you think you should do for your store.”
This insight would be something she would draw from continually throughout her career.
Several years after Mothercare, Cording returned to its sister brand BHS as group HR director. By that time, BHS had been acquired by retail magnate Philip Green.
Commenting on what it was like to work with such a figure, she says: “He was in our office once, maybe twice a week. He was not very visible in all fairness.
“I did have situations that I needed to deal with where he may have said something incorrectly to somebody and sent them to my team to sort it out.”
After helping with the brand’s integration with Arcadia Group, Cording left for Habitat in 2009. She was brought in to lead a people transformation that would support the business’ two-year plan.
Yet within the first few months of joining, it was scrapped entirely as parent company Ikano Group decided to sell the brand.
Cording says: “I went in from joining a business which said: you guys have got the agenda, you can do all the transformational changes that we need, we need to take this business back up to profitability – and then effectively the bottom fell out.”
By the end of the year, Habitat had been sold to restructuring specialist Hilco and it was put into liquidation in 2011, closing all but three of its stores.
With the fate of staff at more than 60 sites across the UK, France, Spain and Germany in flux throughout those years, Cording reflects that this period was among the toughest of her career.
“Effectively overnight, it just changed,” she says. “It was done so quickly through the Ikano Group that we didn’t have time to communicate properly – certainly not with the unions in France, which we were heavily criticised for.
“It was hard to keep everyone on side as we didn’t know how they [new owners] operated. Our CEO stepped down and we got a new CEO, so it was change on change.”
“I’m a real believer in honesty and transparency, but you have to balance the good and the bad”
As many businesses learned the hard way during the coronavirus pandemic, Cording says it was a question of: “How do you keep people engaged in the business and make them understand that there’s a future and what that future looks like when you don’t really know either?”
Consistent communication is crucial, Cording says, although above all she prizes transparency – both when leading an organisation through business-as-usual and uncertainty.
She says: “I’m a real believer in honesty and transparency, but you have to balance the good and the bad.
“You have to treat people like adults. If you don’t give them the information, they’ll make decisions and they’ll make assessments on their own that might not be accurate.
“You may be having a hard time here, but also tell them how you’re going to try to fix it and make them part of the solution.”
Better transparency has been one of the changes Cording has been working on at Mamas & Papas. Despite rating in the nineties for brand loyalty in its employee engagement survey when she joined, the business had been losing money for years.
She adds: “The loyalty to the brand was immense, but the confidence in the leadership at that point was really low, and that’s because it wasn’t transparent. They weren’t open.”
Adding to this culture shift, Cording has also rolled out a new people agenda, which includes paid leave for unlimited IVF and fertility cycles, mental health training for management, and new policies for parents who suffer pregnancy loss – all of which will help to strengthen brand loyalty and the family ethos.
“It’s been extraordinary,” she says. “Our engagements have shot through the roof.”
The next challenge for Cording will be reinforcing mental wellbeing at the company, and driving diversity, equality and inclusion in a predominantly female space.
The latter she will do alongside the company’s marketing team, as the brand works to represent the spectrum of what makes a family.
Taking on social norms will be an added challenge no doubt, but it’s all part of what keeps Cording passionate about what she does. Wherever there’s opportunity for transformation, she’ll be ready for it.
She says: “There’s obviously a lot more to it in terms of how you run the business from a leadership perspective, but actually, if you get your people agenda right, you drive respect through that whole agenda, and that’s when you start to see transformational changes.”
Five things I can't live without:
- Zoom/Facetime – being able to connect with my family across the world
- Scuba diving – exploring the world undersea and the opportunity it has given me to travel to some amazing places
- Pippa and Sasha – our standard poodles whose individual characters give us much joy and laughter and many walks
- My team – for their joy and passion to have a go at anything that makes our peoples experiences better
- Humour and laughter – not taking everything so seriously; it can relieve stress quickly
The full article of the above first appeared in the July/August 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.