Meet … Margaret Casely- Hayford

Member-nominated director at the Co-op Group, and chancellor of Coventry University

Margaret Casely-Hayford was re-elected as a member-nominated director at the Co-op Group’s AGM in June. She is the first woman chancellor of Coventry University and chair of trustees at Shakespeare’s Globe. She was formerly chair of ActionAid UK and company secretary and head of legal services for the John Lewis Partnership.


In 2006 I left private practice as a lawyer and went to work as director of legal services at the John Lewis Partnership. It’s employee-owned, so not technically a co-op, but it answers to a democracy, so it’s not dissimilar. As I learned more, I became convinced about the importance of mutual structures, with directors being much more accountable through a direct line of responsibility. The issues that were important to the partnership, and the principles by which the partnership has been run, are very similar to those of co-operatives.

In 2014 I became chair of international development charity ActionAid UK. It was founded in the UK, but it felt it was wrong to impose its imperatives on other countries, so it devolved power to each country in its global network. Most of the countries have their own boards, and they’re accountable to a local democracy, through a council of stakeholders. I saw it working really well, and really effectively. It was also efficient; local responsibility made people own the outcome, and they built in their own resilience and accountability.


Although we are full members of the board like other directors, we have to go through the full election process. So there is a direct responsibility for us to listen to members, and to convey what we’ve heard to the board and executive. It means not just going to the Members’ Council, but also going out, hearing what is important to colleagues on the shop floor, in warehouses, in distribution, and speaking to people about their shopping experience and Co-op’s community impact.

Two weeks ago I sat in on a session with colleagues, talking about Covid-19 and what the protection equipment is going to be like for them. Some of them said they were happy to wear it, but that we should remember its impact on the environment – it’s all plastic. It’s interesting how different perspectives come into play just by going out and listening, and it’s really important to relay that back to the executive. It’s a very engaged executive, they’re not defensive at all.


Our board diversity is a testament to our ambitions to lead in this space. There’s still a lot to do within the business itself, but the board is at the helm and it’s good that we are as diverse as we are. In terms of diversity being vital, the first thing is that it makes business sense, because it helps you challenge yourself and carry out deliberations involving different perspectives. And that helps your thinking to not be locked in its own echo chamber. So the business thinks better about how it serves the wider customer and community base. It also makes commercial sense if you’re bringing people into the business and investing in them, they’re not just going to leave because they feel they’re not included.

But what I would say is vital is not diversity, but equity and inclusion. You can have a diverse business, in which the people are really not having a happy time. They’re not properly included. They’re not invested in, they don’t stay. And this is where it becomes vital, because we can see that the vulnerabilities of the minority can be life threatening. We’ve seen that with Covid-19 and with Grenfell Tower. We’ve seen that people’s living conditions and working conditions can give them a shorter life expectancy. And it’s a really horrible indictment that we’ve created a society in which we leave others liable to early death and accept that as the norm, when it’s not all that difficult to change. It’s much worse than negligence.

That’s why I link the word vital to equity and inclusion, because it actually can extend people’s life chances.


Up until recently the Co-op Group was doing the same as everybody else – we measured, we set targets, we made someone diversity champion, and we got HR to oversee progress. And that’s all right, but it’s a bit weak, because it takes so long and you’re not ensuring a change in culture. That needs a whole different set of activities, ambitions and methods. We are now planning bold steps.

Firstly it’s important to carry out an audit by a third party so you know where you are. But you can’t leave it at that – you need some really big actions. For example, we know what we look like, but what do the people we are working with look like? How many of our suppliers or potential partners are black-led? What if co-ops set an ambition to have a percentage of business partners, suppliers or contractors that reflect the community in which they operate?

On a business level, we could create greater loyalty just by recognising the feast days of minority ethnic people. A few years ago, people in this country didn’t celebrate Halloween – it’s an American import. Now, businesses are doing really well from this imported celebration of spirits; we decided to support spirits, when there are festivals where we could support people.

It’s important for the wider co-operative movement to think about itself as a leader and to see all ranges of that black and minority ethnic (BAME) conglomerate, because there are so many different people within it. It doesn’t help black people if you’re saying, ‘we’ve got lots of ethnic minorities’ and what you mean is you’ve got two Asian people. It’s really important that we think about our people as people.

It’s also important to give people a voice. One of the interesting things about Marcus Rashford’s discussion with the government [on free school meals during the summer holiday] was that he had a voice, and gave a testament to the importance of children being fed in the holidays because he’d been through it. I am so proud that the Co-op Group supported him in that.


Probably the quietest voice set up societally is the woman living in poverty. If there is no money, women and girls are much more adversely impacted. In many countries, if there is no money, it will be girls’ education that suffers first. With no education, there are fewer job prospects, so it will be the girls that are sold into early marriage, who can’t escape violent circumstances, who will be destined to an old age in poverty. These are some of the reasons that ActionAid’s policy is to focus on women and girls, and there’s a lot of work through the co-operative movement on this. For example, ActionAid works with Hugukirwa Muko, a women’s co-operative in Northern Rwanda which grows vegetables, weaves baskets and provides basic training for women. Co-ops give women economic empowerment, which is so important.


Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to reset the dial. It has thrown into relief the way certain parts of society are treated. It’s a lot worse than I think any of us had actually imagined. I am mindful of the fact that the Co-op itself was born out of a need – we always have to ask ourselves: what is the need that currently has to be met?

I think there are three buckets of application for the Co-op Group in the future. One is understanding the need to provide education; upskilling, reskilling, mentoring and supporting. I think one of the things we will be doing increasingly is providing support, for example with money management, or health and wellbeing. We are behind the Co-op Academies very vigorously now and that really pleases me. It’s education with co-operative principles, and it gives us the opportunity to think about how we can widen that education provision, particularly in regards to digitisation.

The second bucket of application is as the supplier of agility. I was a lawyer, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a lawyer now, because I’m flexible, I do all sorts of things into which I bring my legal training. Technology will take away parts of our work and we will need to reskill.

Listening to the demands of a local determinative democracy to help tell us where we will be most needed – seeing the value of voice – is, I think, the third bucket of application. For the Group, none of this sits badly with being a really efficient food retailer. The future of co-operation lies in the essence of mutuality being used to make us better.

In this article

Join the Conversation