Council and Senate

I am getting a little bit behind with my blogging, but ten days ago we had a dinner for Board and executive team members with members from the Senate of the National Members Council, to mark Richard Pennycook’s departure as chief executive.   This was a good occasion, not only because of the excellent food and wine (exclusively Co-op own brand products of course!), and a memorable farewell address from Richard, but also because of the chance to build informal relationships between Board and Senate members.

Co-op democracy

The ten members of Senate are elected from the 100 members of the National Members Council (many shown in the image below), and as well as leading the work of the Council they are a forum to which the Board can refer for guidance on how Council might react to particular courses of action being considered.  To carry out this latter role effectively requires the building of trust between individual directors and Senate members, so that we can speak openly with each other and yet know that confidentiality will be respected.

Co-op logo Council

Role of MNDs

In my role as Member Nominated Director I am fortunate to have had more opportunities than many of my colleagues on the Board to get to know our Senate members and the wider Council.  This is both through attending Council meetings and because I am a member the rather strangely named Stakeholder Working Group (which acts as a point of liaison between Board and the Council President and Vice-Presidents), and last year I also served on working parties relating to the election process for MNDs and the development of the “Co-op Compass” as a way of measuring our performance against key objectives.

Holding the Board to account

The Co-op’s governance give the Council a vital role as representatives of the interests and priorities of our members, holding the Board and individual directors to account, providing inputs on possible future direction and acting in many ways as the “conscience” of the Society – making sure that we strive to hold true to co-operative Values and Principles and high ethical standards.  At times dialogue can feel uncomfortable – when Council challenges a decision or proposal from the Board.  That discomfort is essential and can be creative if we are to ensure that the Board really does steer a course that is in line with what our member owners would like. It can and does have a very positive influence for the good.  But there is always a risk that it can descend into confrontation and misunderstanding if mutual trust is replaced by suspicion or an assumption that either the Board is wanting to undermine our Values or that the Council is just wanting to create obstructions.

The way to make sure that Council-Board relationships add value to the Co-op is twofold:  firstly – clear, open and early communication; secondly – strong personal relationships.  We can always do better at both, and as an MND and member of the Stakeholder Working Group I believe I have a particular responsibility to help make sure we continue to invest in making dialogue and mutual understanding as effective as possible.  Social interaction such as the dinner are a really important way of creating human relationships that will then make more business-focused discussions increasingly productive.

Sustainability reporting

In Manchester yesterday to meet with DNV GL – the assurance firm that works with the Co-op Group on our annual Sustainability report.

Social reporting at Traidcraft

I am a fan of such reports as a way of encouraging companies to take more action about their impacts on society and the environment and as an important form of transparency.  At Traidcraft we were an early pioneer of social reporting and won many prizes for initiatives in this area.  I found producing social accounts a really effective way of keeping the organisation focused on our wider mission goals and non-financial impacts. I learned that social and sustainability reports need to be set up in a way that will be effective as a real business tool and a force for change and improvement – rather than being seen as a public relations vehicle addressed largely to an audience of sustainability experts as is too often the case.

Co-op sustainability reports

Co-op’s reports have over the years been seen as leading the way in good practice reporting, and they certainly make very interesting reading (see https://www.co-operative.coop/ethics/sustainability-report to read the 2015 report, published in the autumn of 2016).

2015 Co-op Sustainability report

Lots of evidence in here of the Co-op putting its ethical principles into practice across our engagement with supply chains, local communities, environmental impact and colleagues/members.  Really encouraging to see the data set out clearly, some really impressive examples of what we have been delivering, and it’s good to be able to identify areas where we could still do better too.

Revitalising the Co-op Way

However, even at the Co-op there is scope to make improvements to our approach, if we want sustainability targets and reporting to be truly as embedded in the organisation as our financial and commercial goals. And although we have continued to place a lot of emphasis on sustaining our ethical trading principles, as you would expect, we have to recognise that improving our reporting and systems has not been a major focus of attention during the Rescue and Rebuild phases of the Co-op’s turnaround, when we have (rightly) had to focus on restoring our basic viability as a business that can serve its members well.

But we are now in a position to move on from that stage. So it is great that we have been putting a lot of effort over the past year into revitalising our ethical principles through the work of the Coop Way Policy working groups, where senior colleagues and Council members have worked together to review and update our ethical policies across the board.  We have also identified the key strategic areas on which the Group Board needs to be held to account by the Members’ Council in the work on setting a “Co-op Compass”, and these include demonstrating leadership in delivering social impact.  These welcome initiatives now need to be worked through into our business planning prepare for our Renewal phase from 2018-2020.

Sustainability reports and targets

As a member of the Board’s Risk and Audit Committee I am encouraging work to improve the profile of our Sustainability Report and ensure it gets the in-depth attention it deserves.  I would like to see us setting a smaller number of longer-term (say 3 to 5 year) targets focusing on those areas where we think we can make a big difference and that are core to the nature of our work.  Of course we would still need to monitor, track and improve many other social and environmental indicators as well, to ensure we are delivering good practice across the board in line with our values and principles.  But by setting longer-term plans and targets in a number of key areas we are more likely to be able to integrate our aspirations more fully into our resource allocation and planning. And that will be the key to making real change happen.

I am encouraged that the Co-op’s team is also beginning to develop new systems to measure our impact as well as our activity, which is an area in which most sustainability reports are relatively weak: if we get this right we will reinforce our reputation as a trail blazer in sustainability reporting.