A student’s view of the Leadership Symposium

5 December 2019

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Student, blogger and aspirational journalist, Chris Stonadge gives his personal view of our 2019 Leadership Symposium. The event was attended by 100 students from state schools and sixth form colleges and nearly 200 senior industry professionals.

It certainly wasn’t the ideal start to the day. Being honest with you, a 5 A.M. get-up is never the ideal beginning for me. And with our two and three-quarter hour drive amalgamating into a four hour one, I was certainly on edge to get to Rothamsted Research, Hertfordshire – the location of the Symposium..

As we arrived you could sense the unique buzz of networking hive. The bustle of affluence in search of advice, partnership and innovation.

Chris (right) networking with Sky’s Anna Botting and presenter Jeremy Thompson

Ken and Lauren (Chief Exec and Head of Operations at Working Options) immediately welcomed us, we found our special name-tags (Student Blogger, I felt very privileged!) and we encountered already a particularly interesting product. MyFoodie – a vegan potato based smoothie which is suited to the modern market impeccably, which definitely caught the interest of the younger audience. I’m not just mentioning it because my Dad’s involved with it, I promise!

We entered the slick auditorium seated in the penultimate row from the front, with the flashing logos of GroceryAid and Working Options lining the flanks of a projector which read – ‘Leadership Symposium 2019’. Ready and waiting.

I came into the talks thinking – “How do you define Leadership?”. Being brutally frank, I wasn’t sure whether I could sit through five hours of speaking. Especially with a natural knack myself for doing things; I always have to be doing, rather than listening. Attention span isn’t always my greatest attribute. How wrong could I have been though.

The audience, filled with attentive and note-taking students, industry experts and fascinating people, actually motivated me and made me feel how lucky I was to attend the event.

100 student delegates were part of the audience

And not only this, but the opening speakers and their CVs particularly appealed to me. As a budding journalist, my interest perked at the sight of Sky News anchor Jeremy Thompson on the speaking and hosting list.

Never have I heard a man with a clearer voice. In fact, he was a man I sought to speak to at the break, just purely for this reason.

“I was just lucky with my voice, to be honest with you. Did I ever imagine getting into public speaking and presenting? No way, but ever since I have, I just imagine I’m talking to my Granny at the end of the table. If you do that, your clarity will be increased for sure. Especially if she has her hearing aid in!”

MD of Warburtons Neil Campbell

The opening speaker from the business world though, Managing Director of Warburtons, Neil Campbell, struck up a personal interest which probably led to my positive outlook and motivation for the rest of the speakers.
Again I was particularly impressed with the clarity, benevolence and composure of Neil and his CV especially. Walkers, PepsiCo, Warburtons – all household names, and when I discovered he was responsible for the iconic Gary Lineker/Walkers partnership I was struck with a cheeky grin of admiration.

Following Neil was former Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy – to my disgust an Everton supporter, and Devie Mohan of Burnmark. Both again were really interesting to hear in terms of different industries, knowledge, and background in business. Andrew Thornton, a pioneer in food and the eco-friendly market, stayed on trend and has a really fascinating and exciting brand in ‘Thornton’s Budgens’.

One which caught the ear of many in the morning session was former WH Smith CEO Kate Swann. She exerted confidence, normality, and general charisma which endeared her hugely to the younger audience. And she watches Love Island, always a tick in the box for me.

Kate Swann speaking at the conference

“I’ve learnt that perseverance is really important as there are lots of ups and downs in the business world. You have to keep going, be smart about every decision you make and be a clever leader.

One of the student delegates commented that: “Kate [Swann] was really relatable and down to Earth, which shows that leaders aren’t really uptight and mysterious people which is really encouraging.”

We then indulged in a tremendous lunch break, especially those MyFoodies (#Plug) and we returned for a second session of speakers, beginning with Arla’s MD, Ash Amirahmadi.

What was fascinating about Ash was his backstory. Having emigrated from Iran at the age of ten, Ash build up a brilliant business background leading to becoming Arla Foods UK managing director in 2018. He also opened up on his battle with depression – which again opened the ears of the younger audience in particular.

He was followed by the young winners of UK Top Talent awards, employees from Newton and Rubies in the Rubble, where Jenny Costa spoke of the Chutney she based from her Scottish roots.

Steve Murrells of the Co-op then spoke of the return of the company from almost administration, and the battles he faces against discount stores, the ‘big four’, and a personal battle after losing his wife and raising children as a single father.

The speakers then concluded with my personal favourite. Former England cricketer Matt Prior impressed me so much that I’ve decided to write an entire blog dedicated to him. Be sure to watch out for that!

Former cricketer Matt Prior speaks to Jeremy Thompson

So, from my attitude of an underwhelming 5 AM wakeup to watching some of the most clear and influential speakers I will ever see, I couldn’t give the Leadership Symposium enough plaudits. The credit for Lauren and Ken cannot be materialised. The time and passion put into the event was clear to see, and I have already recommended heavily to my Head of Sixth form.

I’d like to extend a personal hand of gratitude to each and every speaker, student and worker at the event which made it a pleasure to be at and experience. And what’s more, we got home for the footie. Even better!

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