Catherine Muirden is HR director at Co-op Food. In this candid discussion about her career, she reveals her tips for getting to the top, why you must follow your passions and the importance of curiosity.
CV in brief
- 2014-present HR Director, Co-op Food
- 2007-2014 HR Director in Barclays Retail Bank
- 2004-2007 Divisional Head of HR, Marks & Spencer
- 2002-2004 Group Head of Recruitment, Marks & Spencer
A day in your life
Tell us about your job and organisation
Working for a co-operative is very different to anywhere I’ve worked before. The Co-op is owned by its members and those include our colleagues. As members, we want our colleagues to experience something different and be proud of their Co-op. We feel very close to the communities we serve, and that is a hallmark of our Co-op colleagues.
I’m responsible for a team of wonderful people who support colleagues in around 2,600 stores from Shetland to the Isles of Scilly, and a logistics network which delivers around the clock to all our locations and to our wholesale partners in other co-operatives.
Earlier this year we completed the acquisition of Nisa Retail Limited, which brings more exciting opportunities. Spending time out in stores and depots working closely with our colleagues to truly understand what makes life easier for them and how their ideas can be put into action is what we’re passionate about.
What is the most rewarding part of your role?
I love to see first-hand the difference our organisation and its people make in communities, especially the support for local causes through our membership scheme. Our stores aim to be at the heart of local life and the impact that our members have in their community – with the Co-op donating 1% when members swipe their card when buying own brand products – is huge, with £23m going to local projects since we launched the scheme in September 2016. Our community focus is one of the reasons people come to work for us – and stay with us.
Secondly, seeing people develop and grow in the last few years has been amazing. This year, store manager Rachel Lee won Retail Apprentice of the Year ( read more here). Clare Maclauchlan, national development manager in logistics, won a prestigious Everywoman in Transport and Logistics Award. Tina Mitchell also won executive leader of the year at the Barclaycard Everywoman Awards.
What is the most challenging part of the role?
I joined in 2014 as part of the leadership team dedicated to building a stronger Co-op. It’s been an incredible journey, but not without tough decisions. In a food business you’re constantly balancing priorities, as margins are slim, and of course the convenience sector is challenging and dynamic, where the customer can pick and choose.
What does a typical day look like?
I can be anywhere in the UK, but mostly I’m in Manchester which is the spiritual home of the Co-op. I might be meeting with executive colleagues planning strategy, getting to know the shining stars in our development groups, spending one-to-one time with my team, reviewing HR policy with peers, reviewing budgets or recognising colleagues who have gone above and beyond.
Why did you choose to work for Co-op Food?
I love a crusade. We didn’t just want to build a stronger Co-op, but build meaningful propositions for colleagues, members, customers and their communities. After many years in retail, for me it was really easy to get back to the sales floor and spot what needed to happen: provide great leaders to inspire our people, and set great standards for our customers with investment in people, prices, products, stores and communities.
You’ve got to love shops if you’re going to lead a retail people function. Listening to the frontline gives me lots of inspiration. Although it sounds obvious you also have to love leading people: you can’t just expect the job to be about the technicalities of HR. You quickly learn that that’s not what the job entails.
How did you get to where you are now?
A long management career at M&S which included a secondment to local government and a change of function to operations management for a few years. I worked in HR in banking just before – and during – the financial crisis, which taught me resilience. I’ve also always done voluntary work, either on boards or schools. It broadens you.
Have you followed the career path you set out to?
Good question – I think a time came when I wanted to be an HR specialist, but the career has grown in different and broader ways than I expected. I know much more about business, transformational change and people than I anticipated.
What challenges have you faced along the way?
I recall that people thought I was mad to change roles from HR to commercial and I had to persuade a few senior people to let me do it. It made me a better HR leader when I emerged from it after five years. In my early days, seeing and being challenged on inequality fuelled my drive to inspire, mentor and support all colleagues to recognise and realise their potential.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
My team at Barclays won the Personnel Today overall winner in 2013 for our apprenticeship programme, which I still remember with pride. I have lots of proud moments regularly here at Co-op such as seeing our teams participating in campaigns and providing work for the victims of modern slavery, or marching at Pride festivals, or pulling together during the weather extremes to get our food to customers.
Outside of work I was appointed as a Trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland, and I’m immensely proud and privileged to have held that position for the last six years.
Do you have any career regrets?
I wish I had taken a year out between school and university in order to understand my real strengths earlier.
What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?
Capitalise on what you’re good at. Make sure you’re heard. Always keep your curiosity exercised and do stuff outside of work – be a governor, volunteer or study. There is no such thing as too much learning.
- Coffee or tea? Either, before 5pm
- Jam or marmalade? Marmalade, and make it bitter
- The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? The Beatles. I saw ‘Love,’ The Beatles’ music based show in Las Vegas a couple of years ago, and held back the tears
- Mac or PC? Mac is the family motto
- The Guardian or The Times? I’m a daily Guardian reader
- BBC or ITV? BBC Radio 4 and 6; I’m more flexible with telly including Netflix
- Morning or night? I’m a morning person. I like the waking hours in a city
- Rain or snow? Rain. I’m Scottish and I work in Manchester
- Sweet or savoury? As my dentists attests – sweet
- App: Moovit, as I rarely drive and it keeps me going on public transport whichever city I’m in
- TV show: Line of Duty. Jed Mercurio knows how to twist a plot
- Band: The Blue Nile. If you were young and Scottish in the eighties…
- Song: Kate Bush; Under the Ivy. She changed everything in music
- Book: Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. One of the finest portrayals of a woman in rural Scotland, in the early 20th century
- Sports team: The Scotland Women’s Football team. My god-daughter is a player and they’ve just qualified for the World Cup
- Thing to do on a Friday night: Watch telly with the family. Weekends often consist of Gardeners’ World, Gogglebox and Strictly: tranquillity, followed by screeching laughter and then a bit of glitter and dance
- Place to eat: the chef’s table at Barry Bryson’s industrial kitchen in Edinburgh. A little room for friends where you feel like you’re at home. As well as running his catering business, Barry does great work with young people who are building their confidence and skills
- Holiday spot: Bad Elster on the German/Czech border, where you can hike, swim and spa in traditional mud baths and outdoor pools.
- Piece of advice you’ve been given: You have to have a crack team