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Fi Europe 2022

‘Fragmented’ food industry must work harder to attract top talent [Interview]

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Food businesses are falling behind when it comes to workplace diversity and inclusion. The food industry must recognise it is in direct competition with other sectors, such as aerospace and automotive, for new talent, who are presenting a far more joined-up proposition, warns leadership consultant, Jon Poole.
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Jon, organisational and leadership development consultant at Step Change, will be speaking at Food Ingredients Europe this year on the topic ‘Building a sustainable food business: Spotlight on inclusivity and diversity,’ as part of the Women’s Networking Breakfast.

From increased productivity to higher profits and more engaged customers, the benefits of workplace diversity and inclusivity are vast. What other benefits can businesses reap from having a diverse workforce?

“Valuing and encouraging diversity in its widest sense – gender, ethnicity, age, social backgrounds – can have a positive effect in so many ways. Firstly, it opens up your workforce to a wider pool of talent. Another important benefit is that, rather than working in an echo chamber where everyone shares the same, or similar views, a business can benefit from a richness of diverse ideas and views.

“Decision-making can be so much more effective, having sought the input of many different views. I really enjoy that moment, as a leader, where a member of the team comes up with a completely different perspective or idea which I had not even considered. Managers do not need to (nor can they) have all the answers!

“From a marketing perspective, diversity is critical. Most businesses need to appeal to a wide customer-base and so, having a diverse workforce helps you to ensure you are thinking about the widest consumer needs.”

What steps can companies take to build a culture of diversity, inclusivity, and equal opportunity?

“Building a culture of diversity and inclusion starts at the top of the organisation. So, demonstrating, within the leadership team, your commitment to EDI is absolutely critical. Start by creating and publishing an EDI statement – a commitment to EDI – supported by the board and senior management team.

“Of course, this has to be backed up by actions. Although it’s tempting to get straight into the delivery of actions that look as if you are making change, your first steps should be to put in place some measures – for two reasons. Firstly, so that you can determine the areas where you need to focus most and, secondly, because then you will know whether the actions you put in place are having any real effect.”

The C-suite of many food businesses has previously been described as ‘pale, male and stale’ due to the high concentration of white, middle-class men in positions of power. To what extent do you believe this stereotype rings true, and what can be done to combat this moving forward?

“In terms of gender equality, according to a 2020 Deloitte’s report, the number of board seats held by women is improving with gender parity possibly being reached by 2027. That said, according to the same report, the food sector is falling behind on diversity in leadership [as defined by] representation of women and other historically marginalised people on boards.

“At one level, there is a lot that food businesses can do to turn this around by reviewing and changing their recruitment and development strategies to enhance the diversity of their managers and leaders. Businesses need to keep diversity high on the agenda for all employees by highlighting, through case-studies, examples of the positive impacts of diversity.

“But there may also be more fundamental issues which cannot be fixed so easily. Quite often, work practices such as working hours, opportunities for development, timing of meetings etc may create barriers for some groups of individuals. So, a more fundamental review of all workforce policies and practices is also needed.”

How can brands stay ahead of the curve in terms of social values, competitive initiatives, and consumer demands? What, in your opinion, is most important to consumers in the food and beverage space?

“Consumer demands are definitely changing. Issues around sustainability and ethical standards are driving more consumers towards plant-based alternatives. However, consumers often also demand ‘natural’, clean-label food choices. These two demands are not always compatible. Many plant-based products require complex formulations, especially when consumers want an alternative which still resembles the meat-based equivalent. Those food businesses that can balance these two challenges will, in my view, thrive.

“With economic conditions worsening, consumers are also seeking affordable food choices, which are also nutritious. It is important that this doesn’t mean businesses cutting margins to deliver cheap food at the expense of their workforce throughout the whole food supply chain.”

What can attendees at this year’s Women’s Networking Breakfast at Fi Europe expect to learn from your session?

“My main messages will be about the need for food businesses to catch up with and compete with other sectors. We need to recognise we are in direct competition for new talent. Other sectors, such as automotive and aerospace are presenting a far more joined-up proposition when it comes to career opportunities and progression.

“The food sector is made up of 96% SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and so it’s really difficult for new entrants to the sector to see how their careers will develop. We appear fragmented and so have to work so much harder if we are going to be regarded as the career sector of first choice.

“It all starts with excellent leadership!”

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