The Southern Co-operative’s corporate affairs director, Silena Dominy,
has been with the organisation for 30 years. We spoke with her to find out how the society has changed and how it plans to face future challenges …
How did you join Southern Co-op?
I joined on my 21st birthday, initially as a six-month maternity cover contract – which, when you think I’ve been here 30 years, is quite humorous. At the end of those six months the young lady who was on maternity leave didn’t come back. So I went into a permanent contract in the property department, in an admin role. Over the years, I’ve worked my way through the business to become director of corporate affairs and also the company secretary. Today, I’m covering all things legal and governance, but also the whole enterprise risk management side of the business and have responsibility for membership and customer services.
How did you find working for a co-op?
After I left college I worked for IBM for a couple of years on a sponsored student scheme. And then I took a year out to work in America. So both of these roles were very different. I think a co-op attracts people who have that desire to put something back into the wider community and to work in a particular way. People come together within a co-op and have a desire to do things the right way. That makes it very different. I have been very fortunate over the years to work with a huge number of very talented people, and some who have really mentored me along my journey.
We tend to be an organisation where you see quite a lot of long service. I’ve just said farewell to someone in my team who has retired from the business after 43 years. So I think there is something about that co-operative nature of the business and the way we support people that makes them want to stay longer. I would never have foreseen when I joined at 21 that I would now still be here in my 50s. That is what’s happened, because I’ve grown with the organisation. I don’t think there’s been a year when I haven’t had a different challenge or learnt new things.
Across the 30 years I’ve seen a huge change in the organisation. The pace of business has changed significantly, some elements for the better, some that make life more pressured. We’ve seen increasing legislation and complexity within what we do. But it feels like we, as a business, have been able to also adapt and change over time so that we can cope with those changes.
My role is so broad now that I enjoy the touch points I have right across the business, and with a vast range of people. I liaise with customers as well as colleagues, members, suppliers and other co-ops and that makes it a pleasure.
I think the reason I’ve been in the business as long as I have, is just that co-op difference. The purpose-led nature of what we’ve got and its ethics and just how this business feels different, it brings people together who are like-minded and want to do more than just one set of operations.
What have been the biggest highlights?
Being able to help strengthen governance within our society. Examples include bringing in our business continuity framework, which has been a benefit this year. If we hadn’t had that in place, I’m not sure we would have coped with Covid-19 as well as we have. And even now we’re advancing our governance and looking at how we bring our ethical compass across everything we do, to make sure that we are working ethically and that we’re not just paying lip service as some companies do.
What does a regular day look like for you right now?
Managing a team remotely is so much more challenging than in an office. Trying to bring people together, motivate them and look after their wellbeing in a remote world is very challenging. This has made me have to look at the way I do things and learn new skills.
There can be days where I’m just bouncing from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting. So finding time to actually think and plan becomes quite necessary. And you have to be very organised and strict with yourself, because I must admit there’s times when I’ll log on to the computer, at about half seven in the morning, and then I’ll find myself still here at seven at night because you’re not seeing people walk out the door and you don’t get nudged into stopping; there is a need to look after your own physical and mental wellbeing.
But we’ve been very lucky in that our setup here at Southern has lent itself to remote working. And we’re certainly now looking at what this means when we do go back into the office. We’re planning to start a phased return from September. But we’ve accepted that going forward, there will be more people that want to have a hybrid of office working and working from home. And we are considering potential changes to the hours or ways that we work so that people can get that better work/life balance. I’ve certainly enjoyed spending time on lunch breaks with my children that I wouldn’t normally have.
What have been the biggest corporate affairs challenges posed by Covid-19? Were there opportunities for co-ops to spread their message?
We are an organisation that seeks to put back into our communities and help them build resilience and I think that was what was needed throughout. We have received lots of positive messages from customers about ways that our stores have stepped up during these times to help people and to keep that flow of not only supplying food to the nation, as the phrase goes, but also to just be there for people. We stepped up on donations to Fair Share so we could help with food banks across our region. We also support organisations through our Neighbourhood Fund. But we were unable to volunteer in the community to the extent we used to prior to Covid-19. So we have had to think differently about how we support people.
In terms of governance, we’ve seen colleagues come together and work very effectively and very quickly. Our ability to make decisions at a quicker pace while including all stakeholders has been amazing and it’s something that I wouldn’t want to lose when we come out the back of this, because we have now got an efficient way of doing things and taking people’s views into account.
Our board have had to work differently as well – we used to come in together in a room, we’ve had to hold all of our meetings remotely across Microsoft Teams, and actually we’ve seen some benefits there as well. So, while in the long term, we’d like to come back into a room for our main board meetings, we are now thinking that some of the subcommittee meetings could still be held virtually; it’s more environmentally sound and saves time. And there are some meetings that lend themselves to being done remotely.
We’ve had to make sure that while we free up the way we do things during the pandemic, we’ve equally had to ensure the checks and balances are still there, so that we’re not building risk into what we do.
There has been a lot of talk about rebuilding post Covid-19. How do you see the role of Southern Co-op in this?
I think we’ve got a role to play in working with other businesses, and local suppliers, many of whom have been impacted by Covid-19. We’ve tried our best to help them continue to supply their products and keep their businesses going – and I do think there will be a role for us going forward in working with many local businesses to make sure they can come out of Covid-19 and rebuild.
Southern Co-op is also about those communities that surround us. So making sure the not-for-profit organisations we support can recover, and that we help them do that, is certainly key.
And we have to look at how we can assist people in the community with things like home delivery. That’s something we weren’t doing before.
We also want to help people outside our business build resilience. I think co-ops are in a great place to do that. Our way of working considers all of our stakeholders and we naturally go to a place of looking at the impact that we’ve got on people.
We’ve already highlighted a number of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that we’re working towards – around climate change and looking at the way that we procure things and the wellbeing of people. I think there’s a way that we can bring people together, even if that needs to be in a remote world at the moment, so those people do have a touch point with others. Hopefully we can we can strengthen their mental wellbeing.