Five business lessons from the 2018 Leadership Symposium

Megan Tatum

With talks from some of the most influential business leaders operating in food and drink today, the 2018 Leadership Symposium this month was packed full of invaluable advice on careers, business and leadership. Here are five of the best:

1. You have choices. Use them.

Life for Spar MD Debbie Robinson (Central England Co-op CEO as of next year) could have gone in any number of different directions. She’s a classically trained ballerina, studied art history at the University of Manchester and enjoyed her first exposure to the food and drink industry as a teen ‘trucking’ on a fruit & veg stall in between cross-country runs and netball. Life could have gone in any number of ways. “Whether we’re in education, lucky enough to be in work or any aspect of our life, we all have choices and we need to think about the choices we make and the many opportunities that arise,” she said.

That extends to our choices at work. And as leaders. “For me, leadership is about inspiration and giving people the clarity and strategic thinking and empowering them. It’s about vision and being brave. When I was a buyer back in the early 1980s I decided the health and beauty products I was going to buy would not be tested on animals. You can find opportunities whatever it is you choose to do in your life to make a difference to industry.

“Your self-responsibility is truly immense and the choices you make are absolutely in your hands.”

 

2. You’re going to feel like an imposter.

Prior to joining FareShare UK nearly six years ago, where he is now head of network, Kris Gibbon-Walsh was researching sub-marine sensors for his PhD. It makes sense then that when he first joined the redistribution charity back in 2013 as an intern - “everyone thought I was crazy” - he felt like an imposter “a lot of the time”. And still does. 

“A lot of the time I don’t know what I’m doing. And I tell people I don’t know what I’m doing and we work it out together. And that’s alright. Nobody expects you to be brilliant at everything all the time and if you pretend you make it worse. Better to be honest, and to be easy to be honest with.”

 

3. Practise brutal objectivity

Few know a turnaround like Tesco CEO Dave Lewis. And his number one piece of advice? Be brutally honest as to why the business is failing. “It’s always the case that a business that finds itself in trouble finds it difficult to objectively face into the fact of why it’s in that position. People will have invested their expertise, emotional energy and passion into a business and to understand objectively why it’s not working is really, really hard.”

That was the case for Tesco and its 310,000 colleagues in 2014. But the fact was more than 30% of staff at that time wouldn’t recommend shopping there to friends and family, a YouGov poll put trust in the business at zero and its price model had gone “out of whack” with the market. Plus “the relationship with suppliers had got to a very difficult place”.

“Facing that though as a management team is really hard,” says Lewis. “While you’re in a business, particularly one as operationally intense as retail, it’s hard to step back and face into that.” Without doing so though, the business wouldn’t be where it is today, firmly back on track.

 

Could these be the food & drink business leaders of the future? Meet our Top New Talent class of 2018

 

4. Collaboration trumps punishment

Groceries Code Adjudicator Christine Tacon has dished out some punishments in her time. Not least the £1.2m fine handed out to Tesco in 2016 for its poor treatment of suppliers (which could have been half a billion had Tacon had the powers she now has). But she doesn’t believe the punitive approach is the answer. 

“I don’t want to be measured by how many investigations I’ve done or how many fines I’ve raised for the UK Treasury. I want to be measured by how things have improved for suppliers. I think the answer is collaboration, encouraging the retailers to do the right thing, rewarding them for doing so and demonstrating to them what’s in it for them. That’s a much more effective way of working.”

Back in 2015, for example, Tacon heard Morrisons had been asking suppliers for money to keep their business, some for as much as £2m. “Rather than start building up a case I rang up the chief executive and told them what I’d heard. It stopped overnight” with Morrisons conducting an internal investigation, looking into 60 million emails and paying back all money owed.

 

5. Business has to do more

In 2006, Douglas Lamont upped and left his “big safe corporate job” to join a then-small smoothie startup called Innocent Drinks. Inspired by a lecturer on his executive MBA course who urged students to “take business back from the brink of being all about profit” Lamont was drawn to the business “with clear purpose, vision and values”. 

But 12 years later, and now as CEO of the hugely successful brand, Lamont is clear that “being a nice little example of a company doing good things doesn’t help anyone”.

“We need the whole of business to think about how it can be a force for good. If we’re really honest over the last 40 to 50 years capitalism has been flawed by a focus on profit first and profit at all costs. That has meant people inside and outside the organisation have been secondary, tertiary if not of zero consideration at all.

“We’re the first generation of leaders that can’t say we didn’t know. We need to act not in a small way, but a dramatic way, before it is taken out of our hands. One or two companies doing a few things is simply not enough.”

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