In the first of our regular catch-ups with leaders across the business, Rachel Machin shares coffee and conversation with Julian Sykes, Director of Organisational Effectiveness, a ‘failed professional sportsman’ (in his own words!) whose fascination with finding out what makes people tick led him to the Co-op.

Picture the scene. It’s your first day in a new job. The chief exec has recently resigned saying the place you now call work is ungovernable. An independent report cites failings in leadership and governance. You’ve come in as a leader in HR – a function which itself needs repairing – and the onus is on you to sort out the mess.

“Whenever you move into a new job there are always moments of doubt: is this too big and too difficult? Can I do this? It happens to everyone. If anyone says different they’re lying,” confesses Julian.

“There was a whole range of capability and we had some fantastic people who weren’t getting the opportunities they needed. Two years on we’ve got a completely different Exec, have re-shaped our leadership population, and are now seeing those leaders thrive,” he says.

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Why Co-op?

The words ‘Being Co-op’ may not have existed when Julian first walked through the revolving doors of 1AS but he experienced what we’ve all come to know as ‘Co-op magic’ pretty early on.

“The irony is that as an organisation we were one of the only places I’ve ever come across that had nothing written on the walls about how we behave, who we are and what is really important to us, yet it was lived and breathed by everyone you met. It just oozed through all of our colleagues,” he enthuses.

But surely the threat of going under at any moment would’ve put most people off?

“I like change,” Julian admits. “It almost feels wrong calling it out but I thrive in that sort of environment.

“This place does get under your skin really quickly. If it’s right for you, you feel part of it and it feels natural.”

“It’s also the first time in 14 years I have a job based in the North West, where I live. It’s a great fit with the rest of my life. My son Henry has been doing Jujitsu for the last three years and up until two years ago I’d never seen him do it. Now I can make choices and be there. That’s really important. You give more when you’re balanced – and you’re better,” he smiles.

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On the Ways of Being Co-op

Do what matters most
Be yourself, always
Show you care
Succeed together

“They’re critical and should be part of every conversation. Recognising when it’s happened is so important. Celebrating it in the moment. You don’t need an award ceremony. The power of a thank you is totally underestimated.”

On Do what matters most

“Don’t spend your time saying: ‘I hope you feel empowered because I’ve just empowered you’. That destroys it straight away because there’s a difference between what’s said and what’s done. Live it.”

Quick-fire questions

In three words, what kind of culture would you like to see at the Co-op in the future?
Involved, Inspired, Different.

What’s your top priority in the next couple of years?
Leaders who are involved, inspired and equipped. We have one language – ‘Being Co-op’ – it’s everywhere and it doesn’t become a mouse mat. Colleague members who are passionate advocates of the Co-op.

What’s the one bit of advice you’d give to your fellow leaders working in our new Co-op?
Don’t overthink it.

Most difficult moment at the Co-op
Two months before the AGM and we realised (HR) we weren’t completely ready for it. But a common goal and a deadline are powerful things. It brought people together, and in the end was fantastic.

Proudest moment at the Co-op
The AGM – it was world class. The moment you walked into 1AS on the Monday and were handed a pin badge on a card with our four Ways of Being Co-op – it was incredibly powerful. It was a simple, joined up idea. Mel from the brand team didn’t even need to talk to us in ‘Being Co-op’ world about it. She just made it happen.

What three words best describe you?
Curious (not in a strange way!), caring, challenging.

What makes you happy outside work?
Playing sport. I’m a failed professional sportsman! I used to play professional cricket and hockey so anything with a stick and a ball. Both my children are starting to play so it’s great to play the sports I love with them.

Personal ambitions
To be happy and fulfilled.