Column: The Talent Poole

Leadership in food: Stepping up to the plate

By Jon Poole

- Last updated on GMT

In the first edition of The Talent Poole, Jon Poole looks at what's driving the labour gap in food and drink and ways we can look to encourage the younger generation to find their way and voice in the sector. Credit: Getty images/We Are
In the first edition of The Talent Poole, Jon Poole looks at what's driving the labour gap in food and drink and ways we can look to encourage the younger generation to find their way and voice in the sector. Credit: Getty images/We Are

Related tags Leadership women empowerment Management Business leaders Food manufacturing

It’s no secret that the food and drink sector are struggling to recruit, but what’s driving a lack newcomers to the sector and how can we inspire them to become our next generation of leaders? Jon Poole explores in this first column dedicated to leadership.

Last week’s Food Manufacture Excellence​ awards celebrated the very best of British food manufacturing. One of the most significant accolades of the evening is the award for Business Leader of the Year – this year’s very worthy winner was Richard Clothier, Managing Director of Wyke Farms Ltd. This award, in particular, spotlights some of the food industry’s most dynamic and effective business leaders – singled out for their exceptional performance and impact, along with their particular style of leadership. But all is not necessarily so positive when looking at management and leadership across the food industry as a whole.

Where are all the skilled managers?

According to the Chartered Institute of Management (CIM), a lack of skilled managers is estimated to cost the UK economy £84bn per year1​. With the food manufacturing sector being the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, employing in the region of 480k people, a rough estimation would suggest that it is employing as many as 50,000 managers – and, of course, many of these would, inevitably, be judged as falling into the CIM description of lacking relevant skills and behaviours to be effective managers and leaders.

According to the respondents of a Food and Drink Sector Council (FDSC) Future Workforce and Skills survey conducted in 20192​, management and leadership roles were consistently highlighted by food businesses as ‘difficult-to-fill’ across the sector. Not surprisingly, therefore, these skills were also identified as being among the top three skills food businesses were looking to fill through training of their existing staff. Although some management roles will be specialised – especially relating to technical roles – the fundamentals of effective management and leadership are the same across all sectors; and so, if businesses can’t grow the managers they need, they will be competing in the wider job-market to fill these roles.

Key drivers influencing the food and drink workforce (or lack thereof) …

These issues are not new – they have been highlighted and debated at leadership forums and panel discussions for well over a decade. One contributing factor is that around 95% of food businesses are SMEs, and we know many smaller businesses do not have formalised progression paths and training programmes to bring on future managers and leaders from within their existing workforce. In addition, small businesses typically have less formalised recruitment processes leading to potentially less-than-optimal recruitment decisions.

The sector's perceived image has been a longstanding issue in discouraging new recruits, writes Jon Poole
The sector's perceived image has been a longstanding issue in discouraging new recruits, writes Jon Poole

Another recurring theme has been the perceived image of the sector which makes it more difficult to attract and retain the next generation of bright talent, many of whom may go on to be our leaders of the future. This topic was again raised at the recent Food Manufacture Business Leaders’ Forum.​ The message was made loud and clear that industry needs to do much more to make the sector more visible and to attract young people.

The current economic and supply chain challenges have merely exacerbated these problems. The food sector has always operated on very small margins and it is well-known that in times of economic pressures, training and development budgets within many businesses are often pared back to essential training only. That said, the availability of funds from larger businesses paying the Apprenticeship Levy has helped to maintain or even increase training expenditure for those Levy-paying businesses.

Leadership style and diversity

As indicated by the CIM research, the impact of good (and bad) leadership cannot be underestimated. Among many other things, a good leader is responsible for setting in place a positive organisational climate in which employees and teams can thrive, encouraging a culture of empowerment and trust. 

Although the evidence is somewhat anecdotal, it is often commented that the food sector is lagging many other key sectors in terms of its predominant leadership style. Of course, there are some exceptional examples of forward-thinking and inspirational businesses and leaders but, generally, a more ‘command and control’ style of leadership still appears to prevail in many food businesses rather than a more empowering style.

Another point to highlight is the impact of gender diversity in leadership. It is now well-recognised that embracing diversity in all forms (gender, age, ethnicity and socio-economic backgrounds, etc.) can have a positive impact on the performance of a business. And yet, the food sector (globally) is, again trailing behind many other sectors in the recruitment of women into leadership roles.

Women in F&B leadership by numbers:

  • There are currently no female CEOs within the 20 largest food companies in the world
  • Representation of women and other marginalized groups on food industry boards is just 35%
  • Less than 25% of management positions in the food sector are held by women

There is light

All the above would suggest quite a gloomy picture. However, there are some encouraging signs that the sector is starting to take note and take action. The FDSC report highlights a Senior Skills Leadership Group being set up by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and, through this, is looking to create a body with the aim of professionalising leadership skills within the sector.

Inspirational voluntary schemes such as ‘Flourish in Food’, provide a means by which food managers and leaders can be connected with, and offer early career mentoring to up-and-coming talent. Attendees at the recent Business Leaders’ Forum cited the need for clearer paths for future career progression – the Institute of Food Science and Technology is currently working with other food sector bodies to develop just such a career map.

These are industry-wide initiatives, but there are steps we can all take to improve and hone our own management and leadership skills. Starting next month, Food Manufacture and I are excited to be launching a new column, ‘The Talent Poole’ providing leadership insights and tips from some of the industry’s most successful leaders – practical steps and ideas which we hope will inspire you and help you to become one of our next Business Leaders of the Year.


  1. CIM Leadership for change manifesto 2017
  2. Preparing for a changing workforce: A food and drink supply chain approach to skills 2019

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