Meet the Team: #AgriLeadershipWeek CEO Saffy Waterson’s Leadership Lessons

Welcome to the first piece in our Meet the Team blog series, where we bring you exclusive interviews with the people behind the scenes who make MDS so great!

We’re kicking off this exciting series with a focus on agri-food leadership during #AgriLeadershipWeek, coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Week. Join us as we dive into the fascinating world of leadership development with CEO, Saffy Waterson. With MDS leading the way as experts in their field, read on to find out about Saffy’s exceptional leadership lessons, her expertise in cultivating high-performing teams, and her commitment to educating young leaders about mental health.

As someone who has worked in both welfare and social work, as well as the RAF, how do you think your experiences outside of the food industry have contributed to your success as CEO of MDS?

Recognition of transferable skills is essential in all industries. This is how we attract new talent, fresh ideas and different ways of working. This is something that MDS promotes in its Trainees and what makes MDS stand out. My professional experience prior to MDS gave me a vast amount of transferable skills and allowed me to look at situations from very different perspectives. Essentially my work experience has been centred around working with people and enabling them to make decisions, reach their potential, solve problems, embrace change and be open to training and development, coaching and mentoring.

I have also had the opportunity to work with people from all aspects of life which has required flexibility and a variety of approaches to ensure the best outcomes. When I applied all this prior knowledge to MDS (as well as remaining open to all the aspects I would learn from a new industry) it gave me a fantastic foundation to contribute to an already excellent programme and take it to the next phase.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in a leadership position?

I believe it is important to understand that leadership development will be ongoing throughout a career and will not be achieved as a fast-track experience. However, MDS will give early-stage leaders lots of opportunities to gain knowledge and develop skills; this alongside the gift of coaching and mentoring will allow them to, structure their leadership development. My advice would be to take every opportunity to develop, and this includes learning from those with experience. I would advise key starting points to include:

  • Build a network of professional contacts and engage with them.
  • Embrace all opportunities to increase your industry knowledge as well as develop leadership skills.
  • Ask for feedback, reflect on it and identify strengths and weaknesses and then make positive change.
  • Get a mentor.

Of course, personal and professional development is important throughout your career. This #Agrileadershipweek, you can find the right development and training course for you via TIAH’s comprehensive online guide.

 As a leader, how do you balance the needs of your team with the needs of the organisation?

My responsibility is for the overall success of the business, and this can only be achieved when creating an effective relationship with the whole team. Everyone has responsibility and accountability in their position, but the key to that being embraced and thereafter a successful outcome for the business is support, encouragement, and recognition.   I believe the greatest skill of a leader is to listen effectively and truly understand the feelings of the team and then take action as needed. Celebrate success, give recognition to individual contributions and reward positive outcomes. As well as this I believe it is essential to be flexible and recognise that as people team members have their own specific needs. At MDS we have a flexible approach and as a consequence, the outcomes for the business and for individuals are extremely positive.

I also firmly believe in the importance of prioritising the mental health and well-being of our staff while also addressing the needs of the organisation. Mental health is not just about occasional stress or workload; it encompasses a wide range of issues that affect individuals differently. Understanding this distinction and teaching employees and future leaders about mental health and its implications can equip them with the knowledge and tools to promote a healthy workplace and foster a supportive work environment. We strive to create a culture that values open communication and empathy, ensuring that our team members feel heard, supported, and valued.

MDS has a strong focus on helping young people and new entrants reach their potential – how do you ensure that this translates into tangible results for both the Trainees and the Member companies they work for?

MDS selects high potential and then allows Trainees to enter the food and fresh produce industry regardless of prior experience, giving them a very structured programme of training. The experience Trainees are given allows them to identify their strengths, weaknesses, preference for different sectors of the industry as well as preference for company culture. This is a very intense experience which allows these high-calibre individuals to fully understand where they fit and how they will deliver for themselves in their professional career, but also for the company that they work for. In this respect, the results are tangible for the Trainee and the Member.

In the agri-food and fresh produce industry, where innovation and staying ahead of the curve are crucial, how does MDS ensure that its training programs are cutting-edge and relevant?

MDS has a focus on people development, leadership and management and the training programmes we deliver are directed very firmly in these areas. We have external training providers who are at the forefront of current practice, and we regularly review the standard, relevance, and continuous development of the training programmes. The greatest benefit to Trainees who join MDS is that they receive cutting-edge management and leadership training from MDS, but they also receive four opportunities to gain experience and knowledge from businesses that are also developing innovative techniques and practices. The overall experience leaves MDS Trainees with a professional foundation and fantastic insight as they start their career.

How important is mentorship and coaching in the development of young professionals, and how does MDS incorporate these elements into its training programs?

Mentorship and coaching are essential for development especially in early careers, but not exclusively. Everyone should be open to continuous development, and this will be most effective for those who engage in reflective practice and feedback. MDS is a structured programme of four, six-month secondments. Each secondment will have three reviews which provide an opportunity for setting targets. This is not only in recognition of the objectives for the role but also for professional growth e.g., communication skills, leadership skills, resolving problems, making decisions etc. The first review is after one month, the second review is at the three-month point and then a final review at six months. At each review, progress is monitored and areas of concern can be addressed, and additional training or support can be delivered as needed.

As well as ongoing mentorship and the reviews in secondments, Trainees have coaching and support from the MDS team and skills coaching from the off-the-job training provider. The success of MDS is centred around the structured programme of coaching and mentoring that Trainees receive throughout the programme.

What advice would you give to young professionals looking to enter the food industry, and how can they ensure that they are best equipped to succeed in this competitive field?

Firstly, I would say don’t be too concerned if you don’t have any prior industry experience. If you can demonstrate that you have leadership potential, are hardworking, and are willing to learn, the skills and knowledge will develop with experience.  I would however advise young professionals to fully understand the environment and culture of the food industry. It is not 9 am -5 pm Monday to Friday and the peak periods can be high energy (especially when dealing with perishable goods). However, if you are looking for a career with challenge, responsibility, progression, and reward then the food industry offers this in abundance. I advise any young professional in any industry to listen effectively, take every opportunity for development, engage in reflective practice and embrace feedback.

You can find out more about leadership opportunities, and find the best development opportunity for you throughout #AgriLeadershipWeek on Twitter by following the businesses involved: