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Russ Brady is Head of Group Public Relations at The Co-operative Group, but were it not for a serious accident, he could have been a professional footballer. He talks to us about how early difficulties in life made him more robust and how the Co-op is helping drive a more ethically driven business environment.  

I've been at the Co-op for twenty-two years now, so that is a long time. Before that I worked as Head of Public Relations at the Guardian Royal Exchange. My primary role there was in supporting the business and to help us maximize profitability for the benefit of the shareholders. And that was always made very clear and it echoed through the work we all did in terms of the corporate financial work.


But working for the Co-op, just brings a different set of criteria into play. The Co-op, being a member-based organization, has a much more complicated balance between commercial imperitives and our very important social responsibility and social purpose. It’s clear we have to make money but it’s also central to our purpose that we do it in a way that supports communities and societies and will help our members and communities. 

"How we are judged is very much meant to fall in line with our values."

There is therefore, a different set of key performance indicators and criteria than in many other businesses. How we are judged is very much meant to fall in line with our values. I wouldn’t say it’s a softer approach but it’s certainly different. 

I think that we've tried to do as much as possible over the years in keeping with those principles and there's been a few years where it didn't quite work that way. But by and large, in my time, we we've basically got the balance right. 


"It’s really important not to let your love of an organisation get in the way of the counsel you have to give"

I have been here a long time, so there is definitely an emotional attachment to the organisation.I think that it’s really important not to let your love of an organisation get in the way of the counsel you have to give to others in the leadership team. You sometimes have to give hard messages to colleagues and that mustn’t be clouded by your feelings. 


I think if you get so wedded to a business and emotionally tied to it, that that could possibly interfere with your decision making. You need to retain the ability to seek out areas where we could do better. And I think that is really key,  that you don't lose sight of that. 

At first, I didn’t start thinking about going into Comms at all. I studied sports science and recreation management. I was a good footballer, good enough to think seriously about becoming a professional. But whilst at university, I badly broke my leg, a double compound fracture. It was pretty devastating. It was so bad I had to leave university for a while to recuperate.  

So, I basically just went to Guardian Royal Exchange as a stopgap whilst my leg recovered and I could go back to university. But whilst I was there, they basically said, we've got a graduate scheme here we're happy for you to join. It was money in my pocket and therefore appealing and I ended up staying. 


So, my whole career changed path. But I’m hugely grateful and glad that it did. They were a fantastic business to work for. 


Looking back at that time, I suppose you could say it had a dramatic effect on my life. I think it just it changed a lot of things at a time when I just never really thought that they would occur. Not only did my career take a sharp change because of my injury but my father died very early and I felt I had to take on a lot more responsibilities because I was the oldest in the family, with a younger brother and sister. 


So, it did change my outlook and approach. I became much more serious about work and my career.

I haven’t really thought about this before, but perhaps the whole experience did make me a stronger person to come through very challenging times in my 20s.


Maybe I learned to have a bit more resilience than before.


Today the whole country is coping with some big changes. There is more focus on what companies should and could be doing for their communities and the Co-op is very much at the centre of that debate. We’ve had times in the past where there has been a demand for companies to behave differently and there hasn’t really been much of a change, so there is a reason to be sceptical, but I think this time things may be different.

I think there is a realisation that there is some real inequalities, genuine inequalities in our nation and that companies need to play their part in changing that.

"All our businesses have got a genuine purpose built into their DNA"

I think that's what's exciting about the Co-op.  All our businesses have got a genuine purpose built into their DNA and there is a real opportunity to push changes through in a way that's not tokenistic.


We have already seen some great achievements which we have helped lead at the Co-op including our work on combating loneliness and isolation or modern day slavery. You’ve really got to invest heavily in these projects, and that's what’s great about the Co-op, that we do these kind of campaigns.


As for what I would say to my younger self, given the experience I now have - I think I would have told myself to open my ears a bit more and to listen to other people’s views more.  


I think in my earlier days, I was often too adamant about what we should do from the outset. I think I've learned over the course of time that there is absolutely no harm in proper engagement. There's been a number of occasions where I've listened to people and understood their views and how our approach can be modified and the outcome has been better. So I think we should recognise the value of other points of view. I now feel I'm far more comfortable, far more relaxed and far more open to engage with other people’s views of how we should do things.


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Follow Russ on Twitter @russ_brady

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