The Talent Poole

Collaboration and relationship building

By Jon Poole

- Last updated on GMT

Sometimes to reach a goal, you need to work together. Credit: Getty/Rudzhan Nagiev
Sometimes to reach a goal, you need to work together. Credit: Getty/Rudzhan Nagiev

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The scale and complexity of the food sector underlines the critical need for collaboration, especially given the many significant challenges the industry continues to face. So, who better to guide us through her experiences and insights into collaboration and building relationships than Karen Betts, CEO of the Food and Drink Federation.

The need for the sector to work together was completely understood by Betts right from the start of our conversation: “We fully appreciate we can’t achieve anything on our own. Companies succeed through building great supply chains and creating strong customer bases. The food system is dependent on so many moving parts that collaboration is really important.

“Of course, the food sector is known for being ferociously competitive, especially when it comes to pricing, but there are also many aspects in which we can and do work together.”

Creating synergies

The often quoted saying by Aristotle that: ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ is certainly true of the food supply chain. Very few food businesses can operate without collaboration. This takes the form of obvious links with suppliers and customers, but quite often means needing to work with regulators, governmental departments, trade associations, NGOs and many other parties.

Betts put it very succinctly and passionately: “Feeding the world is not easy but so many brilliant actors come together to do what they do well, and sometimes we can make it look too easy. In some ways we are a victim of our own success. Many consumers and politicians take it for granted that they can buy the food they want at any time of day – they expect it to be there.

“Over the last few years, we’ve all experienced an unprecedented series of shocks. Any one of these: Brexit; the Covid pandemic; the Russian invasion of Ukraine; would have been big – but combined, they created a ‘perfect storm’. We have all needed to be incredibly resourceful and agile in working collaboratively with governments and within the frameworks set up by them to enable us to continue to operate and maintain food supplies under very challenging conditions.”

The opportunities to collaborate

Some may argue that the highly competitive world of food production provides little scope for collaboration. However, there are many opportunities, especially within the pre-competitive space where, for example, research and development occurs through consortia of food businesses, universities research teams, government departments and funding agencies.

Some of the biggest challenges facing the food sector such as sustainability and the environment; tackling the obesity crisis; ensuring food security and food safety and even attracting new talent for the sector, all need to be achieved through collaboration. Betts agreed: “There is a key role for overarching organisations such as FDF in helping to facilitate dialogue and cooperation between companies and various parties on some of the key issues facing the sector.”

Developing trust

Long-term collaborations and relationships are best built and sustained not through reliance on carefully worded legal agreements, but based on high levels of trust between the parties involved. Quite often, the point at which a legal agreement needs to be contested is sadly, the point where trust has broken down. Betts reflected: FDF has relationships with so many different organisations – with our members, with regulators, other partner organisations and NGOs. The critical ingredients in these relationships are honesty and openness. You have to be prepared to put everything honestly on the table and talk. The answer to most problems is often in the middle ground between a range of positions held by a variety of actors – the sweet spot is about having honest conversations that reveal it.”

Strategic influencing

Collaborative relationships are often developed strategically – a leadership behaviour known as ‘strategic influencing’. Rather than relying on purely chance encounters, excellent leaders will strategically seek out and build long-term business relationships that will be of benefit to them, their organisation or a specific piece of work. This approach is one Betts is very familiar with: “I’ve spent my life doing this. As a diplomat, my role was about making the right connections and trying to influence overseas governments – the same applies in my current role. We need the UK Government to understand us. Basing our case on rational argument is important, but you also have to use influence to win over hearts and minds. The more senior one becomes, the clearer this is.”


Whilst building relationships and collaborations is most often strategic, there is also a place for serendipitous meetings to expand your network and gain new insights. Betts agreed: “I’m a real believer in talking to people face-to-face and, for me, this is a real driver for networking. You can so often find yourself bumping into someone who knows something that you need to know or who has thought of an outcomeyou had never thought of – the power of serendipity is highly under-appreciated.”

Consistency of approach

Influencing and collaboration isn’t the role of just one person in an organisation. It will often involve many individuals all working together, consistently. Take the simple scenario of a salesperson influencing a buyer. Unless the fulfilment of that sale is delivered as the salesperson has promised, the whole relationship will be undermined. Betts recognised the importance of this: “We need to help everyone in the team to understand what we see as the critical elements of success, which are underpinned by our values and competencies. When people feel confident and grounded in their jobs, they will be confident engaging with others to influence change.”

Getting up-front and personal

The benefits of meeting face-to-face, go well beyond networking. Despite the obvious advantages and convenience of online meetings, there is no substitute for meeting people in-person, especially when needing to influence others or when exploring or negotiating collaborations. Body language plays such an important role in our interactions and communication. As Betts explained: “You can transact online, but it’s harder to build rapport and trust and for a relationship to become transformational. You really need to get to know someone properly and be able to gauge their reactions and that is so much easier face-to-face.”

Finding common ground

Of course, collaboration isn’t always plain sailing. The various parties involved in a collaboration may come from very different backgrounds and positions. Indeed, it may be this diversity of positions and competences which is a key reason for the parties to look to work together.

All parties need to be sensitive to these differences and work to find common ground or respect what each brings to the table. Betts reflected on this in relation to the FDF membership: “Our members will all have their particular views on topics. Whilst FDF is there to represent its members, there are times when it’s impossible to find common ground. Then we need to be honest with our members and challenging too. Some perspectives can’t be accommodated in public policy. We recognise this is difficult for some members.  When we develop policy, we will always go back to our members to consult and seek consensus. If there is none, sometimes we’ll take a position and sometimes we won’t – depending on what the issue is and where the balance of member views lie.”

In other news, Marlow Foods says it has boosted its products' sustainability and quality with a Knowledge Transfer Partnership.

Karen Betts OBE, chief executive, Food and Drink Federation

Karen Betts joined the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) as chief executive in December 2021. Prior to this, Betts was the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association - a role she held for four years. 

While she was there, she steered the UK’s largest food and drink export industry through the UK’s departure from the EU, a trade war with the US which targeted Scotch Whisky (SWA) with import tariffs, and through the COVID-19 crisis and its recovery. 

She led the industry’s engagement in the UK’s new, independent trade policy, strengthening trading relationships globally to the benefit of Scotch Whisky exports, alongside overseeing a review of the industry’s environmental policies, which drove the agreement of new and stretching industry-wide sustainability targets.  Under her leadership, the industry committed to a Diversity & Inclusion Charter, redoubling efforts to work collaboratively to draw a wide of people, with a diverse set of skills and backgrounds, into the industry.

Prior to joining the SWA, Betts was a diplomat in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office for 16 years, where she held a variety of posts in London and overseas. Latterly, she was British Ambassador to Morocco and non-resident Ambassador to Mauritania.

Karen Betts

Prior to that, Karen was Counsellor to the British Embassy in Washington, and held roles at the UK's Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels and the British Embassy in Baghdad. In London, she served in the Cabinet Office and on the staff of the Joint Intelligence Committee, as well as in several roles in the Foreign Office.

Before joining the FCO, Betts was a lawyer at Clifford Chance, working in London and Hong Kong. She studied law at the College of Law in Guildford and history at St Andrews University.

Alongside her current role at the FDF, she is an adviser to the UK Government’s Board of Trade and a Trustee of FareShare. She received an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2022 for her services to international trade.

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