Our working week series is all about going back to basics, asking senior leaders about the practical details of their jobs and lives. Following their routines and rules, you’d be surprised how much you can learn.
We spoke to Jo Whitfield, CEO of Co-op Food and founder of The Grocery Girls, on a Friday morning in early January. She was working from home, after a busy week of leadership meetings and travelling around the country on Co-op store roadshows.
So, CEO. What does that mean and what do you do?
Being the Chief Exec is an interesting job, because when you look around and try to find definitions, there aren’t really any. It means different things to different businesses, because what they need from the role is always bespoke to them. But fundamentally, it’s about leading and being connected to the business in every way, making sure things work for our customers and colleagues and helping tell that story to the wider world. Working at Co-op brings an extra element of social change, so I spend a lot of time making sure we’re showing up on things that really matter and being an advocate for change.
Not much then! In order to deliver on so much responsibility, we’d love to know what your day looks like. Shall we start with the morning?
Sure! Normally I’m away one or two nights a week at events or store visits, so I’ll be waking up in a hotel. Other than that, if I’m training at the gym, I’m up at 5.30am, but if not, it’s 6am. I spend time checking in with the kids and then I whizz into the office for about 7.30am. I don’t check my email before I leave for work, as I want to make sure I’ve connected with my family before we go off and do our own thing.
Just before I get in the car to drive to work, I check my phone to see if there’s anything urgent I need to jump on. I have an hour’s commute into Manchester – for the first time in fifteen years I live near the office, which is such a joy for me!
What do you do when you get to the office?
Before 9am, I prepare for the day. I’ll have my breakfast – I’m a creature of habit so usually oats with some fruit – while checking the news and my emails, making sure I know what I’ve got ahead of me.
I don’t start meetings until 9am unless they’re urgent. I choose to get in earlier to prep, because it works for me and means I can keep my evenings clear for family time.
I spend around 50% of my time in set meetings, like board meetings, exec meetings, change forums, project sessions and performance sessions. The remainder of the time is less structured; it could be 1-2-1s with people, out on the road or at events.
Do you take a lunch break?
I rarely do if I’m honest. I don’t endorse not having it, but because my day is so fast-moving, I tend to try to keep the momentum up. I pack my day quite tightly and normally go from one thing to another. I’ll build in time for reading here and there, but I’m rarely at my desk.
Do you manage to have lunch though?
Yes – usually I’ll have soup or grab a sandwich from the Co-op in the office. I’m veggie and at the moment I’m loving the new GRO non-chicken and stuffing sandwich!
Sounds like your days are pretty intense. What time do you finish work?
I like to be out of the building by 6pm, but sometimes I break for freedom at 5pm to beat the Man United football traffic. If I’m spending the day out of the office, I try to make sure I get home between 6pm and 7pm.
And what do you do with your evenings?
First of all, I try to avoid doing work. My evenings are really important to me – that’s why I prefer to get in early. A couple of nights a week a bit of work will creep in if we have board meetings or big presentations, but I’ll try to keep it down to an hour.
What’s the best part of your job? And what’s the worst?
I love spending time with people and our products. Understanding how it’s going for colleagues across the business, and seeing their hard work come to life gives me the most energy.
There’s one thing I really don’t like, and that’s timed meetings. If you stay in a regimented, task-driven way of thinking, you lose the opportunity to see things creatively. They’re important, but if I’m honest I’m much better listening and talking and actively understanding.
We’ve got more insights from Jo coming over the next few months, including her reflections on the reality of being a senior leader and what it means for work/life balance. Stay tuned!
With our Working Week series, we’ll be lifting the lid on the routines of senior leaders from across the grocery industry. Sign up to our newsletter for the latest updates.