“It’s been a massive opportunity for me—I don’t know what would have happened if I’d have done something with linguistics!” Britta Werner, Director and HR team member at Unicorn Grocery speaks to us about developing a career in HR Leadership.
As part of our commitment to supporting candidates to develop fulfilling careers, we’ve invited some HR Leaders to share the secrets of their success.
This week, we had a great conversation with Britta Werner at Unicorn Grocery, who began her career as a Co-operative Grocer before becoming a full-time member and director, joining the HR team, and serving as Non-Executive Director and Vice Chair for Co-operatives UK, which she performed alongside her current roles until June 2019.
Can you tell us how you got into HR and why?
In my previous life, I studied linguistics. I moved to the UK from Germany, and when I finished my BA and MA in Linguistics at the University of Manchester, I kind of ended up working at Unicorn—I was vegan, and it’s a vegan shop, so it was nice.
I quickly realised they had a very different way of doing business, so I applied to be a member—a full-time employee. I really liked that kind of flat structure; people respect each other; there isn’t a managing director looking down on you, and there are no managers that just happen to be there because they’ve worked there long enough. The really good people and mutual respect really stuck out for me.
After a year of being a full-time member, I started doing the staff rotas and all those kinds of things. There was an internal vacancy for HR, and I applied and got the job. I ended up doing a CIPD college course, and then a couple of years later I did my Masters in Human Resource Management and started doing more strategic stuff at Unicorn. We’re still a smaller business—we’ve got around 90 employees, 70 of those are permanent members of the team —so you do end up doing a bit of everything; there’s four of us in HR, but none of us are doing it full-time.
It sounds really cheesy, but I wanted to get into HR because I’m a natural people person. I’m quite good at relating to people and understanding what people are about. I definitely feel I have the empathy you need to have, and I’m non-judgemental, so it really appealed to me. Because I was doing all the rotas and things beforehand that definitely went into HR territory, it was kind of a natural progression.
I got into the work with Co-operatives UK because a founding member of Unicorn Grocery contacted me and asked if I would be interested in standing for the Worker Co-op Council, which is a kind of sounding board organized by Co-operatives UK. I always like to challenge myself and find different opportunities, so I stood for that position and got elected. I did that for quite a few years, and it was really interesting— doing it, you meet not only people from the UK, but all over the world.
That really supplemented my HR experience as well, because doing HR in a worker co-op is very different; not just in terms of things like employment law, but all the softer skills you need. I organised a worker co-op HR network, and we’ve done a couple of events and got people together from different worker co-ops in the UK.
Can you tell me about the prevalent challenges that you’re seeing across the co-operative and HR sectors?
One of the biggest ones for me is performance management. It can really affect co-operatives, whether that’s because of the lack of incentive in flat pay, or it’s just not what people want to do. The flat structure of most worker co-operatives can make managing really challenging.
The absence of line management has a lot of positives, but it can be difficult. For example, when you have a line manager in an office, they can pick up if you’re not feeling right or your performance is off, but in a worker co-op, it kind of gets a bit lost, and sometimes things like that can get found a bit too late. Everyone has times when they need a bit of managing—for example, you might have trouble at home or whatever—and not having that monitoring can be quite difficult for the individual, because a lot of people don’t want to run to HR and say they’ve had an argument with their boyfriend or something.
At Unicorn, we’re really good at the bigger picture leadership and strategy—everyone has the opportunity to take that leadership role in different areas—but it’s the smaller things that can be more of a challenge.
If you’re looking to go into a co-op, especially a smaller worker co-op, do a basic college course. It will give you a bit more confidence that you know what you’re doing, and people will see that you’re making an effort and actually trying to get qualified. People think HR is just “people stuff” and that anyone can do it, but if you want to do it well, you have to make that effort. Working in a co-op, and in a worker co-op especially, you have to manage yourself quite a bit, and a course will also help with that. They’re not expensive, and you can even do them online.
Unicorn and other worker co-ops provide a massive opportunity. A lot of people think you’re just working in a shop, but the business skills and the understanding you learn from a business like this are absolutely unique. It’s been a massive opportunity for me—I don’t know what would have happened if I’d have done something with linguistics!
You can make it as little or as big as you want to; if you just want to work in a shop, you can do that, but there’s so many opportunities connected with that.
Britta has been working as a Unicorn Grocer, Member, Director, and as part of Unicorn’s HR team since 2004, and provides support for HR teams in worker co-ops around the UK.
If you are interested in having a confidential conversation about your career or would like support growing your team, please get in touch today.