A director of one of the UK’s retail giants, Judith Batchelar OBE has a wealth of experience in the agrifood business. She tells Olivia Midgley about the importance of acting on feedback, even if it’s negative, and why working part time after raising a family doesn’t have to hinder your career.
THEY say past experiences shape the people we are today and Judith Batchelar credits some of her previous bosses and colleagues for the leadership style she now possesses.
It was her time working for food and confectionary heavyweight Mars that she describes as a ‘pivotal’ moment in her career.
“I got a job as a national account manager at Mars, which is where everyone wanted to work in the ‘80s,” says Judith.
“It is where I met my future husband and my future bosses – people like Justin King (former Sainsburys chief executive), Allan Leighton (former Asda chief executive), David Cheesewright (former Walmart chief executive) Richard Baker (former Asda chief operating officer and Boots CEO).
“I have to say that was one of the most pivotal moments in my career because they were all really clever and I had to work really hard, intellectually, to keep up with them.
“That made me realise I could, and I was capable of doing that. It also showed me what ‘good’ looked like because the standards were unbelievable at Mars.”
Her time there also demonstrated how a business could run well without there being a strict hierarchy in place.
“Mars was a meritocracy,” Judith explains.
“The first person in on a morning got the best parking space, everyone ate in the same restaurant, everyone was paid weekly, everyone got a good timekeeping bonus and everyone had to clock in whether you worked in the factory or the office and you were literally assessed on your merits.
“It never occurred to me there was another way of doing things.
“It gave me my sense of fair play and justice and I believe that is the only way to assess people.”
It was a theme which ran through her 12-year stint at Marks and Spencer, where she enjoyed various roles on the food technology and product development side of the business.
It was also where she was introduced to the world of part time and flexible working, after having her twin daughters.
Following a non-linear career path
“Women by the very nature of being women, means your careers are not linear in a way other people’s are. You may get married and take time off to have children but you actively choose to prioritise things at different times in your career,” says Judith.
“Someone once asked me why it took me so long to be made a director, and I said I’d worked part time for five years before my children went to school because I would never get that time back again. But when you do that it means you are not going to progress [as quickly].
“That was pretty ground-breaking in those days, I think I was the only woman at my level who worked part time. But those are active choices that women make which mean their careers need to be a bit more flexible.”
She looks back fondly on those years.
“People still talk about coming to my house on a Friday for a meeting and sitting around the kitchen table with the kids”, says Judith, adding both girls have followed in her footsteps and taken up jobs in the food and retail sectors.
“I had a boss at Marks and Spencer, Linda Shepherd, who I credit with who I am as a person as much as my career, because she was one of those generous people as in generous of spirit.
“She had two boys and never had the opportunity to work part time when she had her children.
“She always vowed if anyone who worked for her had kids and wanted to work part time then she would bust a gut to make it happen for them. And she did that for me.”
The need for women to support women may seem obvious, but it is not always the case in business.
Judith adds: “When some women climb the ladder they pull the ladder up behind them. Linda was the exact opposite of that. She was an enthusiast and an encourager of other women.
“I think that principle rubbed off on me.”
Finding a good mentor and listening to what they have to say is key, even if it is someone outside the business.
“My mentor cared enough to tell me the bad things as well as the good things,” adds Judith.
“I always tell people that if someone is giving you feedback you don’t want to hear, it is as hard for them to give you the feedback as it is for you to hear it.
“If people are prepared to put themselves through that uncomfortable pain then it is because they care about you and know you have the potential to do better.
“It is not easy to have those conversations.”
Practical help to get more women onto company boards
While women are currently underrepresented at company board level when compared to men, times are changing and there are specific courses to help women obtain the skills they need to move into the upper echelons of business.
Judith benefited from Deloitte’s Women on Boards program.
“This created a strong cohort of women and showed you how to be a board member, because previously there had been no training for this sort of thing,” she says.
“Knowing all things around corporate governance, audit and risk, the legal requirements, what your responsibilities and accountabilities mean and how to enact those accountabilities professionally; all of that is valuable, but mostly that got passed down from men to men.
“And you can see that in the make-up of boards around the world. Therefore programs like the Deloitte Women on Boards, which disrupt the normal processes are vital. Not that women should get special treatment, but when you know the system is failing, what are you going to do differently to break the status quo?”
The fact board requirements are changing also brings opportunities for women, adds Judith: “The way a company operated was very much around the financial propriety of the business, so board members were often accountants and came from an audit background. The stereotype meant there were always going to be more men than women.
“But if you look at what a board Is being required to do now by law – some of the new legislation around corporate governance which talks about getting a multi-stakeholder view, things like ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) when boards take their investors through their environmental and social governance – all of those things that are happening at corporate board level actually play to a lot of women’s strengths and technical expertise.
“So now could not be a better time for women’s skills and talents to be more easily recognised at senior level, and I’m not sure a lot of women see that.”
“Boards have got to prove they have got the right skills from a broader cross section, from a diversity perspective and a women’s perspective. But I like to think women get there on their own merit, not because someone has set a target.”
What it takes to be a good leader
Judith notes a book she read by Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, in which the author highlights the differences between those with an ‘abundance’ mentality and those with a ‘scarcity’ mentality
“People with an abundance mentality believe there is so much out in the world, it is an abundant world where everyone can thrive. They are the people who you want to associate yourself with. As opposed to those with a scarcity mentality, who say ‘I can only get on in life if you’re not as good as me; I can only get on at your expense and if you get promoted before me that would be a bad thing’,” Judith says.
“I think the more you give, the more you get back.”
Judith is involved in various initiatives which aim to encourage young people and new talent into the agrifood sector, including Speakers for Schools and IGD’s Feeding Britain’s Future.
She believes the industry could do much better in attracting talent.
She adds: “We undersell ourselves as a sector, everything that people care about, the environment, health, the sense of well-being and how we look after ourselves, is all linked to food and how we produce it.
“Therefore we should be telling people that a career in our sector is probably one of the most purposeful you can have, if you really want to make a difference.”