Comms, leadership and the risks of Have Your Say

[This is a longer, more opinionated version of something I wrote that features in today’s Co-operative News]

The Have Your Say campaign shows a bold leadership style, but risks alienating members and employees if it isn’t a genuine opportunity for people to shape the Co-operative Group’s strategy.

The Co-operative Group recently launched its Have Your Say campaign. Supported by extensive advertising and media activity, it aims to get input from members, staff, customers and the public on where the business is now and, most importantly, it’s future direction.

For Euan Sutherland and the management team at The Co-operative Group, it is a bold statement. They are signalling that the Group is ready to break with the old and that it wants the views of people across the UK to shape what the new will look like.

Interestingly, in Have Your Say, the Group’s executive and Board also appear to be demonstrating an innovative approach to communication and leadership. As Euan Sutherland said in the statement accompanying the launch:

“We will be asking people up and down the country what they believe the Co-operative should really stand for. This is an unprecedented move for an organisation of the size and the scale of the Co-operative and the results will feed directly into our wider review of strategy and purpose.”

Arguably, most businesses faced with the difficult task of reinventing themselves and demonstrating a turnaround take a conventional approach. The Board and executive team work closely with a limited number of stakeholders to develop a new vision and strategy, which they then launch to the employees and public.

The foundation of this approach to leadership is sounding authoritative – setting out a clear vision, outlining the plan to get there and showing that the business is in a position to deliver. Appearing in control is everything.

There is the danger of seeming arrogant, though, and after the very public failings of The Co-operative Bank last year – and Euan Sutherland’s view that it has ‘lost touch with its members and customers’ – this is the last thing the Group wants.

It makes sense, then, that The Co-operative Group has adopted a different, more collaborative, leadership style. It appears to turn the standard approach to leadership on its head. Rather than announcing the business’s vision and strategy to the public, it is getting input from a huge number of people, which can then help the Board and executive determine the strategy.

As a communications device to demonstrate that The Group is not a conventional large business but one run by and for people, the Have Your Say campaign is outstanding. And, if the right questions are asked – and all the input is used effectively – The Group is likely to have significant information to shape the strategy.

But there is a serious risk emerging: that rather than getting the support of some of its closest and most engaged stakeholders – its employees and active members – the Co-operative Group alienates them.

A number of active members in the co-operative movement on social media are dismissing Have Your Say as a PR exercise rather than a genuine opportunity to shape the business’s future strategy.

Worse, others on social media and members and employees contacting the Co-operative News, think the big questions are loaded or even missing.

The Guardian’s leader comment the day after the launch argued that the questions about funding the Co-operative Party make it almost impossible for respondents to agree that the party’s funding should be continued. Others have pointed out that the big questions about the Group’s role in providing ethical leadership are not asked and instead the focus is on more local and community matters.

All this points to the concerns, amongst some, that the vision and future strategy of The Co-operative Group is in fact already decided. As one employee put it to me, Have Your Say is really intended to ‘manufacture a mandate’ for a new strategy that the executive and Board has agreed.

We cannot know whether or not this is the case. The challenge for the executive and Board, though, is to assure it’s employees and members that Have Your Say is more than an expensive communications exercise or an illusion of democracy. They need to demonstrate that this really a collaborative approach to leadership and a genuine opportunity to shape The Co-operative Group’s vision and strategy.


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