In addition to roles chairing Shakespeare’s Globe and ActionAid UK, Margaret Casely-Hayford is a Member Nominated Director of The Co-operative Group (“the Co-op”). The Co-op’s Young Members Group (YMG) was established to bring new and more diverse perspectives to the Co-op’s governance and decision-making forums and we had the pleasure of conducting a joint interview to learn more with Margaret and her colleague Christian Weaver — a member of the YMG and a law graduate who’ll shortly be commencing pupillage at a barristers’ chambers.
Margaret’s photographs courtesy of Daniel Kennedy.
Why did the Co-op create the Young Members Group?
CW — The YMG (formerly known as the Young Members Board) was set up to address the needs of young people using the Co-op, to advise on developing products and services that would bring in more young customers.
MCH — The Co-op’s members are of critical importance to us. Our community, and our members, are part of everything we do and it’s vital that we listen to and respect their views.
What influence does the YMG have?
MCH — The Main Board has three types of sight — hindsight (“what’s the performance like?”), insight (“let’s do some deep dives to see where the vulnerabilities are and how they’re being managed”) and foresight (“what’s the forward strategy?”). The area in which the YMG is most helpful is the latter — the foresight.
CW — Our remit is flexible, so we can be very dynamic in our thinking. We almost see our role as being the annoying thorn in the side of the Co-op’s more formal governance forums…
What impact has this had on the business?
MCH — The YMG has had great value in helping us to see products in different ways. For example, our general insurance team worked with the YMG to co-create a car insurance product based on telematics, so that we could offer more affordable insurance to young people.
CW — Also, the Co-op became the only food retailer to offer an NUS discount in its stores [the initiative inspired a surge in numbers of young members]. Often as a young person you feel like society is done at you, so it’s great to be able to have a say in the decision-making of a business you interact with.
What have been the key learnings for the Co-op from working with the YMG so far?
CW — I think one of the key learnings is that young people want to play a part in society and business. That’s a good thing for any organisation to see.
MCH — That’s absolutely right. I think part of the problem with many organisations is arrogance… The idea that 12 crusty, fossilised people looking backwards can dictate the future seems wholly inappropriate!
Should every organisation listen to young people in this way?
MCH — With the digital industrial revolution, it seems folly not to. Even the most imaginative group of 50-year-olds couldn’t expect to anticipate the future as successfully as a group of young people, because their experience clouds where they’re going. Britain’s massive growth in the 1960s came out of the youth movement; people were not scared to innovate because they weren’t hidebound by tradition and legacy. I think that’s incredibly powerful and something we should learn from.
Do board recruitment processes today focus too much on experience?
MCH — I think we need to redress an imbalance and look more at capability than experience. If we always look for experience, then we will exclude people who haven’t had the opportunity to sit on boards before — women and ethnic minorities for example. And if we’re always looking at things through the lens of experience, then we tend to look in an overly restrictive fashion without questioning practices that ought to be questioned.
Having people who aren’t hidebound by those traditional restrictions is quite good for probing, questioning and challenging. Things like the #MeToo campaign have been borne out of that… people who don’t have that burden are calling out what they see as wrong and do so knowing that they aren’t alone.
How do members of the YMG prepare for their meetings?
CW — For a lot of us, it’s the first time we’re interacting with the kind of information we receive ahead of our meetings, so it takes us longer to read, research and understand everything. You have to read your papers beforehand; you can’t ‘wing it’ like you might be able to in other areas of life!
MCH — One of the things that’s so interesting for me is that what Christian is explaining is what everybody feels when they first go onto a board. It is fantastic that the young members are gaining that experience now, as it’s much harder starting from ground zero later on in one’s career.
What does the perfect board pack look like?
MCH — One of the best inventions ever was the electronic board pack; it makes life much easier. Also, if the board pack is well organised you can ensure the “insight” and the “foresight” are given the right prominence in the pack relative to the “hindsight”. People very often put performance first, so a lot of time is spent looking at that and unpacking what has gone on. Then, the things that actually need a lot of discussion — the “insight” and the “foresight” — have to be rushed.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
MCH — “It’s capability, not experience”. I used to be very impatient with people who didn’t have the experience until I was asked “When are they going to get it if you don’t nurture them?”. It was a real eye-opener; I realised one could easily lock out everybody who wasn’t already ‘in’.
CW — “Mastery requires immersion” — you can’t be excellent at something without immersing yourself in it.
What’s your golden rule?
CW — “Act out of strength and not weakness.” When I’m not sure what to do, I think “what would the strongest version of Christian Weaver do in this situation?”, and I will generally get to the right outcome.
MCH — “Foster trust and openness.” So much goes wrong when people are worried about being open. If people feel that they can come to you it helps everything move forward more easily. For the relationship between board and management, that’s critical.