Louise Britnell: “Rampant short-termism is a real and credible danger to making progress.”

Fairer Future

5 min read

Louise Britnell is CFO at The Co-operative Bank plc, and was previously Deputy CFO at the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Here, she shares the challenges she faces balancing consumer and workforce trends, and the importance of learning from your own mistakes and those of others. This interview was conducted as part of our research inquiry into the role CFOs will play in creating a fairer future.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing CFOs today?

Everyone knows what we need to do today, the real challenge is working out how to replicate today and yesterday’s success, tomorrow. We have to make sure our organisations stay relevant. We’re in an intensely competitive environment, where customers are more discerning and make clear every day what they want, just as colleagues and prospective colleagues do, too. This makes it so important to understand what people want and how that will change so we make sure we’re meeting colleague and customer expectations.

If we can understand what people want, we can then figure out how to align those wants with business needs. A good example of this is remote working. The pandemic showed that that staff can be happier and more productive when they aren’t necessarily chained to a desk five days a week. The challenge with this was finding a solution that worked for everyone, and in the end, we settled on a flexible approach to home working. For the business, this ensures that we can come together to promote innovation and relationship building, what we call “heads together” moments, whilst allowing employees to work from home for more concentrated working — our “heads down” moments. This approach gives staff the flexibility to decide for themselves where they work on any given day, as well as ensuring we can adapt to changing needs both within our business and among our colleagues.

“If we can understand what people want, we can then figure out how to align those wants with business needs.”

How do you define and measure success beyond financials?

At The Co-operative Bank, we have well-established values and ethics underpinning our strategic plan. Our commitment to co-operative values has been fundamental since the bank was established in 1872. In 1992 we went a step further, becoming the first bank with a customer-led Ethical Policy and this remains as integral today as it always has been.

We ask our customers what their key concerns are, and how we as their bank can help. The answers they provide form the basis of our Ethical Policy and give us a clear understanding of what success looks like for our customers. The Ethical Policy outlines our commitments to them in terms of how we use (and won’t use) their money, and how we act as a business. That data and feedback we receive from customers is embedded within our strategic plan, with positive outcomes aligned to what customers have told us we should be focusing on. We treat non-financial metrics just as seriously as we do financial ones in determining what good looks like. I see this reflected in our position as the highest-ranked ESG bank in the UK.

“We treat non-financial metrics just as seriously as we do financial ones in determining what good looks like.”

For us, this way of working is hardwired into our company articles, so it’s at the very core of our business. These articles aren’t just abstract guidelines, either. We have a Values and Ethics committee that assesses how every decision aligns with our values and ethics. This means that we are able to more fully live and breathe our values and purpose — and ensures that those Co-operative values aren’t just a part of the bank, they are the bank.

What do you see as the barriers to businesses doing more to address social and economic issues?

I think rampant short-termism is a real and credible danger to making progress on these issues. If we take climate, for example, there’s a danger that organisations may look to skirt their obligations on the route to net zero by 2050 as it will impact their numbers in 2023. Putting it off until it becomes by necessity a short-term goal means it will be far too late to have the required impact.

I’m a firm believer that what matters gets measured, and therefore if you have a metric for something then people will start to care. It’s also healthy to compare yourself against others here — ultimately, nobody wants to be at the bottom of the pile. The danger with this sort of measure is greenwashing: when people do it to hit a target and it’s not actually embedded. Long-term, sustainable change comes from it being genuinely embedded.

  Latest findings   What does the CFO's changing role mean for you?    Find out how forward-thinking CFOs can prepare for the future and how their  role is changing. Read more

What would be your challenge to your peers?

I would address peers who feel they can’t make decisions based on what’s better for society, if they assume this falls outside of the CFO’s responsibility for financial sustainability and profit. I believe that businesses that do the right thing will ultimately enjoy the greatest success. However, it can take a long time to show this and can sometimes be difficult to link outcomes to specific decisions.

I would say that this is likely easier at The Co-operative Bank — it’s very much in our brand, it’s why customers bank with us in the first place. The second we compromise on our values, our customers will start voting with their feet. That link might not be as obvious for other organisations, and you may need to lean more heavily on the belief that doing the right thing will lead to success. In any case, customers are becoming less and less likely to engage with a business which doesn’t share or reflect their values.

“Customers are becoming less and less likely to engage with a business which doesn’t share or reflect their values.”

Is there anything you’ve seen an organisation do that has inspired you? Why?

I find our charity partners inspiring, and hearing the stories of what they do helps put things into perspective. We’re there as the support act advocating for change, whereas they are right at the coalface putting in innumerable hard yards. One thing that especially stands out is our work with Refuge on a campaign around spotting the signs of economic abuse and supporting people through that, which led to the launch of an industry-wide financial abuse code of practice.

Another that stands out happened years ago, when I was responsible for staff development in another organisation. We partnered with Teach First, and hosted an evening where the trainee teachers and business leaders came in. One of the topics of conversation was around times when people had made catastrophic mistakes, and it was incredibly inspiring hearing stories from around the room of where people had put the spirit of resilience into practice and went on to achieve great success after learning from their mistakes. This experience in particular has taught me to never be afraid of making mistakes; they are a fact of life. It’s the way we respond to them and learn from them that will allow us to grow and develop, both in our personal and professional lives.

“Never be afraid of making mistakes; they are a fact of life.”

This interview was conducted by Dr Scarlett Brown, Director of the Board Intelligence Think Tank. If you’d like to nominate a CFO leader to be part of our interview series, get in touch.


What you need to know, when you need to know it

Register for our newsletter to get a monthly compilation of our latest chair interviews, governance research, and upcoming webinars and events, along with weekly round-ups of the top news that matter to board members.