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Helen Webb – Chief People and Services Officer, Co-op

Helen Webb – Chief People and Services Officer, Co-op

What is your role in the company?

I look after HR, including all the call centres and shared service environments, so I’ve got a thousand people roughly who are in my direct line but I’m also responsible for providing and enabling services for the whole organisation.

What appealed to you about the leadership case study project and how did you hear about AMOC?

I used to work with Karen at Asda, so I’ve known her a very long time and have supported lots of the work that they’ve been doing with young women over the years.

At the Co-op, we’ve worked with A Matter of Choice to support their young women’s programmes, particularly with school interventions and I have provided members of my team to go along and support and take part in career conversations.

What I know about the two of them is that they’ve got a huge network of people so the data that they collect will be incredibly useful, but they’ve also got such a lovely style that the conversations that we have, even coaching conversations, are brilliant with the way that they do things. When they asked me to take part, I didn’t even blink, I just said yes.

How have you found the leadership case study process and has it helped inform your decision-making or changed your attitude in any way?

I don’t think it’s changed my attitude because I’m very lucky in that all of our lines of business as the Cooperative are open, so I think that you have to put that in a positive light compared to lots of other businesses that really have suffered significantly throughout the crisis.

What it has done is allowed me to welcome the opportunity to actually sit down and essentially consider what I have been doing and what I would have done differently, and that’s been really helpful. It’s been a luxury to take that time to reflect.

What are AMOC doing differently to other consultants, particularly when it comes to supporting the women’s agenda?

I think what they do really well is create practical steps that people can follow. I think that for young women in particular, you can have lots of conversations and explain to them that they have experiences and capabilities that are incredibly important but if somebody hasn’t got the self-confidence they really do need to know how they can tackle that.

Young women need to know how they can build themselves up with a development plan that means that they’re going to progress in their career, and Lesley and Karen do that exceptionally well.

You almost need a dose of Karen and Lesley on a weekly basis - it would be brilliant. They are great coaches and they’re really insightful; I love having conversations with them.

Would you recommend this project to other senior leaders and why?

Definitely yes, and I think it’s twofold. First of all, I think between the pair of them, they’re great coaches so just the quality of conversation itself is really good, but it’s also about sharing what they’re hearing from other organisations.

What are some of the challenges that your managers and frontline staff are facing now through the pandemic?

So, I have a number of senior leaders that I think are suffering from something that I call crisis fatigue and AMOC were saying similar things, so it’s useful to be able to share those experiences.

I think the main challenge is the uncertainty because essentially the whole world has changed.

People talk about going back to normal, but we have no idea genuinely about what that means and we’re still looking to see if there’s going to be a second wave, or a third wave. There are too many unknowns for people at the moment. I think that makes people extremely nervous and very anxious irrespective of whether they have health concerns of their own or whether they have concerns around family members. Everybody has had their own experience of this pandemic and there’s no end in sight and therefore I think people are feeling very unsure.

There are lots of people feeling concerned about their financial and job security – you’ve only got to read the headlines in the press on a daily basis to see that.

That mental resilience is incredibly important, but I also think that what’s crucial to consider is that not everyone can be mentally tough. Making sure that you’ve got a great wellbeing offer is important so that people do know where to turn to when they need help. It’s about being ok about not being ok and knowing that you’ve got help and support around you to get through it. It’s also a time when its critical to invest in your colleagues.

What are the key benefits that organisations can take from this case study project?

Key benefits that can be gained from this situation will be about knowing yourself and that self-awareness, and understanding what triggers anxiety for you, knowing how to deal with it and thinking about how you might prepare for it. We’ve all got to gain skills where we’re better at living in a much more ambiguous world.

Leadership approach is definitely important, and I think the wellbeing piece is also key. We’ve had lots of conversations about insight and how essential it is to understand how your colleagues are genuinely feeling. We’ve done a lot of surveys to find out how everyone is feeling with the aim to help inform what we can do to support them through everything that’s going on.

It’s not just about what we can do better next time, it’s what we can do better now because we’re still in the middle of it and we don’t know when the end will be. It could be another 18 months/two years before this ends, if it ever ends. No one knows. So, I think that whenever anyone reads the findings, there will be lessons in it.

What more do you think can be done to support women in business?

If I look at my own organisation, we have an executive of six people of which four are women and we have a board of 12 where half are women. We have a senior management population where half are women too.

Retail’s always been one of those industries, and we’re predominantly a retailer, where women actually succeed. For example, the Chief Executive of our food business is a woman, as are the Chief Executives of our funeral care business and our legal services.

I don’t think we need to do a lot to offer more opportunity - I think it’s about sharing the learnings, and mentoring and supporting younger women coming through our organisation because I’d like to think that they have lots of role models.

Would you agree that women have suffered the most throughout the pandemic?

From a very intuitive lens that would look the most logical thing to say because we know that women take on the biggest share of care responsibilities. If you think about juggling all of those things and existing within a pandemic, then I’m not surprised that that’s what the research says.

Having said that I read a report recently that stated that those countries that have female leaders have been more successful in managing the pandemic.

Why are programmes like AMOC’s Female Leadership Series important and why should companies invest in taking part?

I do think it’s essential as we know that women often have a crisis of confidence. They are more prone to imposter syndrome than men, so I think it’s incredibly important to support females, and it’s about creating a safe environment to have those conversations.

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