BITING the bullet and looking for different styles of leadership is what the industry needs to take it forward.
Former first female editor of Farmers Weekly and now AHDB chief executive, Jane King says her experience in being selected for farming roles – having not come from an agricultural background – came down to transformational leadership and being honest with the industry.
She was thrust into the sector in 2005 for her knowledge of business-to-business media, spending 10 years refreshing the Farmers Weekly business: developing the website and events, revamping its content and brand positioning.
A move to AHDB then saw Ms King using her skills to drive better value from levies for the farming industry.
Her transferable skill through it all, she says, was change leadership.
Ms King says: “I was recruited because I had a proven track record of leading change and at the time the levy boards needed to embrace change to deliver more for farmers and growers.
“The scale of change facing the industry is significant and we will need bold, strident leaders in future to provide the drive and direction that is required. It should not be difficult to attract different types of leaders given the dynamism and opportunity in agriculture.
“These are exciting times and we need people from diverse backgrounds to come and join us and help us realise our ambitions.
“Good leaders are great communicators and are able to inspire others to follow them sometimes to a completely different place to where they have come from.
“Advances in technology, changes in demographics and consumption patterns, in trade and policy will all have a dramatic impact on what we farm and how we do it. Everywhere you look things are going to be different.
“So in order to prepare the industry for that, we need leaders that are able to drive big step changes – transformational – not just manage small incremental steps.”.
NFU president Minette Batters is a strong example of good female leadership in the industry, Ms King says.
“Minette is a wonderful example of a bold, passionate leader. She is a fantastic communicator and able to take people with her. We are lucky to have her as the NFU president at this time of unprecedented change.”
But the industry needs to mobilise its expertise and resources better to fulfil its potential as world leading.
One way of doing that, she says, is for more collaboration and aligned goals with key organisations working well together around common goals. She also calls for more ‘holding a mirror up’ for the industry to see more clearly where it is succeeding and where it can do better competitively.
Ms King prides herself on being an authentic leader, someone able to be open about where things can improve within AHDB and the industry.
“By that I mean being able to be honest with the industry about where we are now, where we want to go, what is the ambition of the industry and what is the end goal, and how we are going to get there together,” she says.
“I think it’s important we are able to be frank about the leaps we are going to have to make and in doing so be motivated to get on with it.
“We want to get to a place where we really play to the strengths of all the different stakeholders that we have got.”
One of the key challenges at AHDB is improving the way it communicates with the industry and how to trigger better engagement with farmers.
To do that, Ms King says: “We have to listen to our customers the farmers and growers much more and understand them better. Our services need to be compelling and make a difference to the farm business.
“You can’t be dull.
“You have got to stand out because it is a very noisy field.”
She says the industry needs to inject more variety into its style of leadership; being more receptive to people coming in from other walks of life that have different backgrounds and a different skill-set.
Ms King adds: “We know we are not short of the technical expertise, but where we are short is really inspiring, imaginative leaders.
“It doesn’t hurt to show that you are enthusiastic, passionate, but keen to drive improvement. To me, being able to demonstrate some of that is important and not just saying what people want to hear.”
When appointed AHDB’s chief executive in 2015, Ms King inherited a top team of 10. In that team, including herself, there was only two women.
Now, there is a top team of six people, with an equal split of three men and three women.
“We have really made a big effort at breaking that stereotype down,” she says. “I think the big thing is for more female role models.”
AHDB’s boards have also seen an overhaul of diversity, which meant more women, more people from other backgrounds, and more skills.
But what Ms King wants to see next, is more young people in those leadership roles.
“When I think about the work we are doing at the moment around developing a new skills strategy and developing this new Livestock Information Programme, helping the industry prepare for Brexit, I think in all of those working groups that are going on, there is nowhere near enough young people sitting at that table,” she says.
“In theory if we carry on [as we are] and end up replacing businesses with the same sort of leaders from similar backgrounds to now, we run the risk of ending up with businesses that will continue to be exactly the same as they always have been. If we can inject more diversity through recruiting leaders from others walks of life, then you might find that you get more innovative solutions”.
“We need more inspiring leadership to disrupt the current status quo.”