The Co-op Group’s board structure is unique. Alongside the expected executive and independent non-executive representation, four seats are reserved for direct election by members of the organisation.
These member -nominated director (MND) roles were created in 2015, following the far-reaching governance reforms introduced in 2014. Just like the other directors, those elected bring a strong commercial background and proven skills and capabilities to the board – but also help bring the voice of ordinary members to the boardroom.
“The Co-operative Group is different because we are owned by our members,” said chair Allan Leighton at the time. “They have a direct say in running the business, through electing member representatives to the board and the council; and through having a say on key issues through the one member one vote democratic process.”
Current MNDs are Hazel Blears and Margaret Casely-Hayford CBE, who were re-elected at the Group’s AGM in May, and Paul Chandler and Gareth Thomas, whose seats are up for re-election in 2019.
Here, Hazel Blears, a trained solicitor and former MP for Salford and Eccles (2010-2015) talks about the role of MNDs, and why, if you’re thinking about applying, you should.
How did you first get involved in co-ops?
Very early on in my career I made a personal commitment to bring people together to make a difference. At the same time as I joined the Labour Party, I started to meet co-operators – interesting, passionate people who believed in the ideas of achieving more together. I’ve been a member of the Co-op Party for 35 years, and throughout that time, co-operation has been an important part of my personal, political and business life.
What does a member nominated director (MND) at the Co-op Group do?
The four of us are full board directors and have an equal footing with our independent non-executive directors. People may think that MNDs have to fight harder to be heard, but the other directors recognise that they have a hugely positive contribution to make. As we are directly elected by members, we feel we have a key role in raising member issues and concerns at the board and work with our fellow directors to make sure the organisation does well as a business, while also operating within the values and principles.
It’s a very satisfying role – you feel like you are driving the business in the right direction. When I first got involved, the business was not in a good place. We are now in the position of having a stronger co-op to help build stronger communities, and values are integral to the business.
MNDs are taken seriously, particularly as we are directly elected and have that mandate from members. They are also unique in corporate life – not many directors are accountable to members in such a direct and accountable way. Being elected in such a way gives you a drive and passion to make a difference.
What makes a good MND?
There’s no single vision — we come in all shapes and sizes! There is a challenge in terms of representation, particularly of younger people in their 20s and 30s.
You don’t have to have 30 years experience to be an MND, so don’t rule yourself out on that account. We are all very different. You do need to meet the eligibility criteria to be an MND – this is all explained as part of the application process.
I would say, though, that you also need to be prepared to go the extra mile. You have to work really, really hard, it’s time-consuming. Being able to build a good relationship with the Members’ Council is key. You need to love people, love the co-op message, be willing to drive change and put in the time to do the job.
Why did you stand as an MND?
I’ve been a co-operator for most of my adult life, encouraging co-op strategies and most recently chairing a social investment business. After I left politics, I had two rules for myself: make a difference, and do it with people you like! The Co-op fits that frame perfectly. I want the Co-op to be the best, most responsible, successful business it can be. It’s a work in progress, but there is a lot of energy behind the changes and I wanted to be a part of that. In the last four years we’ve come from a situation that threatened our very existence and have created a Co-op we can all be proud of again.
What have been your biggest achievements in the role?
I am really proud to be the board champion for apprenticeships – we have around 1,000 apprentices in our business at any one time, and they are all paid full rate from day one. And we have 64 who are degree-level apprentices – it’s a pipeline for our future, but they’re not all young, as people are joining us to start second or even third careers.
I am also proud of helping to drive change to do good. When I joined, I wanted to move from traditional corporate social responsibility to using our mainstream business to do good. Doing good is good business, it drives competitive advantage, and we are now starting to measure that positive impact.
Another achievement is around crime and antisocial behaviour – we’re working to tackle the causes of crime. Having been police minister, I’m obviously disappointed about police cuts. But on the back of that we have had to think smarter and collaborate with others to address such a big challenge.
What would you say to someone thinking about applying?
It could be the best thing you’ll ever do, so don’t rule yourself out before you even start. You do have to understand and be at ease with complex commercial issues as it’s a £9.5bn business – but it’s built on values. So look at what you’ve done in different parts of your life and think about how that fits into co-op principles, particularly around social values or community. Be honest with yourself, but don’t sell yourself short.
The value of our Co-op is that everyone’s contribution is recognised – we are always looking for difference, so even if you don’t think you fit the mould of a ‘typical’ director, have courage and go for it. The more people that we can get to think that they want to be part of the future of the best community organisation, the better.
For more information on the role and details of how to apply, visit: www.co-operative.coop/mndelection
Close of nominations is midday, 17 December 2018
Who is on the Co-op Group board?
(Chief Finance Officer)
Senior Independent Non-Executive Director:
Sir Christopher Kelly
-Executive Directors: Stevie Spring CBE
Lord Victor Adebowale, MA,
CBE (Cross Bench)