The Co-op Group board comprises four member nominated directors, five independent non-executive directors (INEDs), two members of the executive team and a chair. Each year, one or more MNDs are elected for a three-year term by the membership; the current MNDS are Kate Allum, Paul Chandler, Margaret Casely-Hayford and Sarah McCarthy-Fry.
The Group is currently working with leadership advisor Gatenby Sanderson on a pilot MND development programme. Its aim is to build a set of tools to help members measure themselves against the skills and experience required for the MND role. This includes a self-assessment questionnaire and a behavioural scenarios assessment to test board readiness.
Gatenby Sanderson will then support a small number of candidates through a bespoke support programme with mentoring, career conversations, and shadow board appointments.
Meanwhile, nominations open for the next elections for the MND role. We caught up with one of the incumbents, Kate Allum, to hear more about the work they do.
Born in Sheffield, Ms Allum moved around the country as a child whenever her father, a clergyman, took a new post. This took her to Lincolnshire and on to Surrey, where her father was made Bishop of Guildford. She then studied in Cardiff before starting her career in London.
“I have gradually been working my way back up north again ever since,” she says, “from London to Melton Mowbray with Mars and then to Huntington with [retail software company] RSI. Four years ago we decided it was the right time to move north.”
Ms Allum now lives in a small village in the northeast of Scotland, where she enjoys the outdoor life of hill walking and mountain biking.
It’s not the only change of pace she’s seen. One crucial shift in her career took her from the corporate world to dairy co-op First Milk.
“It was very different going from one of the biggest multinationals in the world to a British dairy farmer co-op, which is at the other other end of the spectrum,” she says. “You are still fully a commercial organisation but you’re competing with privately owned businesses … being a co-op has its advantages and its disadvantages in that playing field of competition. So that was it was quite interesting.”
The Group is not her first board position, she adds. “I’ve been a director since I first joined RSI, just over 20 years ago.”
It’s not her first involvement with the Co-op Group either. “I’d been a member for 22 years and I’d been a supplier to it through some of the businesses Ive worked at”
She was always aware of the co-op ethos – not least because she is goddaughter to Roger Sawtell, founder of the Daily Bread worker co-op, who was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in the 2019 UK Co-operative of the Year Awards.
A long-standing family friend, Mr Sawtell “would take me into Daily Bread to have a look around. I understood it from the philosophical point of view and he is obviously passionate about the movement as a whole. But I think it was only when I joined First Milk, having had a very commercial career, that I started to understand some of the differences. The importance of member engagement and taking members with you is very different from taking shareholders with you and is quite quite taxing and testing when it comes to communication.”
If a private firm has most of its shareholders in agreement over what they want from the board, for a co-op “your members have got a whole range of things of what they want from you,” she says. “Part of what I like about is that you can put value back to the members rather than putting value back to the shareholders.”
Ms Allum said she had been approached previously to stand for MND but she was busy elsewhere in a CEO role.
“This is the first time when it hasn’t been so logistically complicated. I couldn’t honestly say to you that being on a board of a co-op was a lifelong ambition. But I’ve always had a great interest in the Co-op for all the reasons that we’ve said … it’s great that this time when it came around, I actually could do something about it.
“Looking at it from the inside out, you suddenly realise the scale of what the Co-op is contributing. We need to find some more ways to share this because when I’ve spoken to people, they’ve been surprised but also deeply impressed at what we do.”
But what is the difference between the work of an MND and a regular director? “We’ve all got a responsibility to the business to make the right decisions. From that point of view, I don’t think there is a difference,” she says. “But I do feel there is an additional responsibility with the MNDs to have that engagement.”
This includes sessions with the Members’ Council where we have explored different priorities for the business. Work with a smaller breakout group was useful, helping her “to see what council members, and therefore members, thought about the priorities for investment, and how they would move it forward.
“I was impressed in those discussions in terms of the depth of thought. Some of those smaller group interactive sessions were extremely powerful – particularly when working remotely.”
The question now is how to continue that engagement as the country leaves lockdown, with more face to face meetings.
“We can’t please anybody but I think it really informs our decision making if we can understand why some members feel strongly about some things and why other people feel strongly about other things,” says Ms Allum. “While all the directors do engage with the members, and they all engage with the Council, for a member nominated director, there is a responsibility to engage a little bit more than the other directors might and to feed that into the board discussions.”
Her time on the board has left Ms Allum proud of the Group. “In our village the Co-op is part of the social centre. I am very proud of the fact that I am part of that, and part of all the initiatives that we’ve got going. We’re constantly contributing and constantly looking at ways to do it better.
“One of the most positive things about the Co-op is that it’s multiple issues, multiple contributions. Some of those are big issues like social mobility, but again, in our little village, community causes have made a huge difference.”
These causes can be important to local identity, she says – including her village’s pipe band, which is popular with tourists and promotes inclusion, with its members ranging in age from 10 to 70.
To do this work, MNDs need the right skills, says Ms Allum. “We will benefit nobody if we’re not a successful business, so from a board perspective, it is really important that we have the right skills to make sure we drive the business in the right direction. But it’s really important that the board relationships work very effectively, so you’ve got a board that is actually talking, listening, engaging.”
The leadership style to get this right is different from that needed by a private company, she adds, because the structure is different. “it is important that we do engage and listen to the members. We need a good diverse board with different perspectives, looking at things through different lenses. And they must appreciate the fact that our colleagues are important. Our members are important. Our customers are important. Our suppliers are important.”