Christine Tacon, Chair of both Management Development Services (MDS) – which provides graduate training for fresh produce businesses – and, more recently, of Red Tractor, talked to Royal Agricultural University graduate and MDS Trainee, Max Pitman, about the lessons she’s learned in her career in food and fresh produce as part of RAU’s 175 Alumni Lecture Series.
“You could say my career has been a series of successes or a sequence of failures,” Ms Tacon told the Alumni as she reflected on a professional portfolio that spans Mars, Vodafone, Fonterra, Cooperative Farms, her role as the first-ever Grocer Code Adjudicator (GCA), and, for the last five years, Chair of MDS. She also chairs the BBC Rural Affairs Committee.
Ms Tacon said that in all her roles, it became clear that the most enduring impact of any job is the one you have on people – and helping them to realise what they can achieve. This dovetailed perfectly with MDS, for which she put herself forward as Chair in 2016, as she saw it was “changing people’s lives and will change the industry too”.
The MDS graduate training scheme, which involves four six-month placements in different businesses, pushes trainees to their limits, she said, and how they respond can be life changing:
“I thought I’d worked in fast-paced industries until I saw fresh produce. MDS Trainees are thrown more than they think they can handle, but their can-do attitude means they’re not easily fazed. There may be some placements they don’t enjoy but they will get through it and the most common feedback is that they learn the most about themselves in the toughest six months. Throughout, the trainees are supported and mentored by MDS and the network of others in their group.”
Max, who in his first six-month placement with MDS has been supporting the Operational Manager at Finsbury Food Group in East Kilbride, said MDS graduate training has been the most extraordinary experience, particularly in a year dominated by lockdown:
“You join a company for six months and have to make an impact. I have been lucky enough to be in the office every day, but for many trainees this year they had to do this without going in to the business. The immersion is unbelievable. It’s full speed from day 1. The support from MDS has been excellent, and the network of other trainees and the way we club together and look after each other is amazing, even though it’s had to be largely virtual this year. I think if we can make it through this, normal life will seem relatively easy!”
Ms Tacon’s overriding advice to those starting their career is to find a mentor.
“It doesn’t have to be a great commitment for the mentor, but having someone who can give advice, to chat to when things go wrong and who you can bounce off ideas will help develop you as a person and accelerate your career. If you identify a mentor, cling on to them. This is why I run a Women in Food and Farming (WIFF) specifically to create a network of mentors for women in the sector, one of a few networks I am part of to encourage mentoring.”