Spirit of co-operation

Helen Sweeney, HR director at Co-operative Financial Services, explains how a programme of change will allow learning to flourish

Green signifies the go-ahead for change at giant Co-Operative Financial Services (CFS), as HR director Helen Sweeney progresses the intriguingly-named culture change programme, ‘Project Lime’. She believes it is as “unique” as its name.

“The difference between the work we are doing here and other business culture programmes is how commercial and business-focused this programme is,” she says of the project, which is named after The Limetree restaurant in South Manchester where many informal discussions take place.

Sweeney has been HR director of CFS for two years. She speaks about the integration project she was recruited to facilitate with great belief and passion, as indeed she needs to, given the enormity of the task and the size of CFS.

Formed in 2002, when the board of the Co-operative Group (CWS) brought together the Co-operative Bank and the Co-operative Insurance Society (CIS), the resultant CFS – which also incorporates Smile, the internet bank – is intended to be a different force in the UK financial services sector. It is certainly a big one, with a balance sheet of around £30bn and 15,000 staff.

The board intends to exploit the overlap between the customers of the bank and CIS. Its vision, which all employees carry on a pocket-size card,  is ‘to become the primary financial services provider for a broad range of Co-operative customers accessed seamlessly through multiple channels’.

Sweeney has to create one employee community with a common culture, while helping talent to grow and facilitating effective leadership.

She is well aware of the business challenges being played out against a backdrop of difficult trading in recent years. She is also mindful that by seeing change through, she walks a tightrope across the historic ethics and values of the co-operative movement that “are like a glue binding the people and teams here”, and the danger of falling into woolly platitudes.

“This culture change programme is not about ‘let’s all love each other’ – it’s all about the impact on business performance. We understand that people have to enjoy working here, but you need a sense of clarity to deal with that,” she says.

Her clarity comes from psychologist Steven Glowinkowski’s Integrated Framework for Change. This has become a route map for Sweeney and her 200-strong HR and learning and development departments – so much so that they have copies of the framework pinned to their office walls at their Manchester headquarters.

The integrated framework is a map-like structure that leads Sweeney and her direct reports from a startpoint of strategic objectives through critical success factors to predispositions, and then moves on through organisational structure, leadership behaviour, group processes and climate before reaching business performance.

Not surprisingly for someone who keeps such a framework in constant sight, Sweeney defines herself as “a big-picture person who likes lots of data”. This approach has been evident during her tenure.

For example, last April she pulled together a focus group of 253 middle managers from the three companies of CFS to compile ‘climate data’. “We asked them three questions on leadership behaviour, things they would like to change, and which issues are facing the organisation.”

She spent six weeks analysing the data and identifying the top 10 issues. These centred around a need for clarity, more information about where the new bigger organisation was going, and the removal of barriers to change.

Sweeney pushed leadership into the spotlight by launching an in-depth programme for the top 1 per cent of the company. The executive directors were first to take part in a benchmarking and coaching programme. A competency framework for development and business improvement, which links to new reward processes, is also being implemented.

The programme set out to overcome stereotypes (leaders from the bank tended to be quick to change, whereas leaders from CIS were seen as analytical) to create a more united approach.

“We want our leaders to provide vision for their people, to paint the picture for people and to get people excited,” says Sweeney. “We want them to be walking the floor to build the commitment of others.”

This wish list has a set of definitions behind it. “There are six elements to being a good leader,” says Sweeney. “They include the ability to delegate appropriately, build open and constructive relationships with peers, and direct reports and teams. Included in the six is [the fact] that we want our leaders to be coaches,” she says.

“It is important to have those six because we can measure them. As part of this development, the leadership programme is about getting 360-degree feedback against those six criteria.”

Feedback is marked against the same database that Sweeney’s team had used for the climate data “to get some real consistency”, she says.

She has already conducted a measurement exercise that entails spending one-on-one time with the top percentage. “It really gives us a strong benchmark foundation for development. It gives people a strong picture of where they sit now, and the development plans are built upon that.”


Now that Sweeney is clear where the senior population is heading and has regular feedback from the group of 253 middle managers, she can turn her attention to cascading development through the organisation.

“We are going to go through unprecedented change,” she says. “We have had two years where we’ve spent a lot of time really finding out about the organisations, finding out what makes them tick and what doesn’t. We’ve done a lot of work with our customers and what they want from us, and now is the time to move forward.”

The middle management population had asked Sweeney for more help with making change happen. She thought this would be achievable if everyone felt they had a common language. A bold and upfront approach was needed and so Sweeney took the lead from a device used in women’s magazines.

“We’ve designed a Cosmopolitan-style ‘change questionnaire’ that they could go and use with their teams,” she says.

This doesn’t delve into their personal lives, but tackles emotional responses. “What we have tried to do is to help people understand how they think and problem solve through change, and how that might present itself as a potential barrier in relation to people, because we all think differently, and we all assume that people think as we do ourselves,” she says.

Sweeney says it was an ‘all hands to the deck’ quick delivery process, and she ran some of the workshops. In two months her team reached 1,200 middle managers, who will cascade information to their people .

“We are really getting people to think: ‘ok, big change is on its way and I’ve got a key job in making sure that the messages are fed to my staff’,” she says.

Now the basic principles are in place, Sweeney is looking to move forward while still testing the climate.

“Leadership behaviour is clearly very big in our minds. The leadership programmes that will cover the whole of CFS for the first time are being rolled out this summer. We are progressing through the senior levels.”

Contact centres are also being measured and assessed in terms of employees’ skills and employer’s expectations. “We’ve got a few years’ performance data now, and are asking what does ‘good’ look like in a competency context? A set of critical success factors will be put in place in the next six to seven months.”

Despite the complexity of the task, Sweeney remains excited about it. “The sequence of change gives me a buzz because everything we do in HR can affect the bottom line. We can make a difference,” she says.

Helen Sweeney

2002 – Present, Director of HR, Co-operative Financial Services

1995 – 2002, Director of HR, Direct Channels, Barclays Bank

1995 – 1998, Director of HR, Consumer Lending, Barclays Retail Sector

1993 – 1995, Director of HR, Champion Spark Plug

1991 – 1993, HR and pensions manager, Charterhouse Tilney

1981 – 1991, HR management posts at Unilever Research, BAT (UK export), and Metal Box

Support system

There are a number of key activities informing and shaping the learning and development strategy that are necessary to support the new CFS strategic direction, including:

  • Developing a single community

  • Introducing a transformational change programme

  • Developing strong, commercially-focused leaders who can deliver results

  • Embedding a performance culture that drives the organisation’s capability

The drivers behind learning and development are seen as:

  • Leadership development

  • Team development

  • Performance management

  • Induction and orientation

  • Developing the talent pool

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