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Agribusiness leaders forging their sector’s future

20 April 2021

Australian agribusiness is an ambitious sector with its focus on sustainably reaching an economic target of $100 billion. It’s an exciting time for the people and organisations which feed and clothe millions of consumers, but there is one vital key to meeting the challenges and demands facing the industry: People.

For crop protection R&D leader, Syngenta Australia, investing directly in its staff is a cornerstone of its business strategy. For the past six years, they have partnered with the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation (ARLF) to expose leaders to a program custom-made for the Australian agribusiness sector and its needs.

A program for connection

“There were a number of leadership opportunities in the broader agribusiness sector, but none bringing together people from diverse places and backgrounds and exposing them to one shared experience,” ARLF CEO, Matt Linnegar, says.

“At the Foundation, we envisioned leaders from different organisations coming together to understand what’s going on in the broader agribusiness sector, giving them the chance to lift their field of vision beyond their own organisation and creating networks across those organisational boundaries.”

The result is the Australian Agribusiness Leadership Program (AALP), now in its sixth year.

“One thing we’re noticing is the extent to which AALP alumni lean quite heavily into the networks they’ve developed. They do reach across boundaries to solve problems and gain perspectives on how to improve things in their own fields,” Matt says.

“There are some core agribusiness partners that have been with us from the start, and their feedback is consistently that we’re sending their people back with different perspectives and valuable new views on how to meet challenges.”

Sharing ag’s story

For Paul Luxton, Managing Director of Syngenta’s Australian and New Zealand businesses, 20 years in agribusiness has helped him understand the enduring problems and opportunities that face the sector.

“Agriculture is a terrific industry that does amazing stuff, but we can be poor at telling our story,” he says.

“Finding people prepared to stand up and speak on behalf of ag is a great challenge. The consequence of this is that the broader public aren’t as well informed as they could be, and we’re missing some of those opportunities.”

In many ways, this challenge is at the heart of Syngenta’s commitment to investing in the personal confidence and broader perspectives of its team.

 “We have a very strong focus on leadership at Syngenta, and the beauty of working with the ARLF is the networking opportunity; to plug in to a much greater resource,” Paul says.

“If you sit down and discuss your industry with people in other areas, you discover a lot of the issues that you have are shared. You’re not alone, especially in a community like Australian agriculture,” he says.

“It is a quality program … consistently the people we have placed on the AALP have returned with a different knowledge of themselves and a new perspective on their work. Hearing the insights of people outside their organisation has a profound affect.”

By valuing the development of people, and strong communication about the agribusiness sector, Syngenta is steadily tackling the challenge of attracting people into the business that reflect the spectrum of diversity within the broader community.

“It has been challenging to attract people to come into the business and to gain a different cross-section of backgrounds and skills,” Paul says.

But in the wake of a global pandemic, the agribusiness leader feels there’s an even brighter spotlight on agribusiness, from its economic role to its environmental responsibilities.

“During COVID, agriculture was named an essential service, so I think there’s now a much larger profile around where food comes from … We need an increasingly different skillset in the industry, and this is changing all the time. We need to talk more about our sustainable practices and show the general population that we are on the front foot and do care. We need a diversity of thought and talent to do that.”

‘Falling in’ to ag

For lawyer, Anna Sutton, a career with a global agribusiness company was a pathway that came from left field.

“My passion’s always been for law, food and fashion, which I now appreciate are very connected to ag. At one point though, I thought I was going to be a fashion buyer,” she says.

When an opportunity to move to Singapore arose, Anna left her job with a Sydney law firm and dived into a legal and compliance role with Syngenta.

“I totally fell into it. I knew nothing about agriculture, and the first time I set foot on a farm was in India.”

In 2016, Anna returned to Sydney, taking on significant leadership responsibilities as General Counsel for Syngenta Australia and New Zealand.

“Prior to the AALP, I had experience in agriculture with the company, but I didn’t have a broad understanding of agribusiness in Australia,” Anna says.

“The program has this wonderful mix of leaders with incredible experience in their own organisations. I started to connect the dots between the potential within each industry, what we need to work on as a sector, and the greater combined impact we can have,” she says.

Paul Luxton says Anna’s AALP experience perfectly captures the value of the program.

“For Anna, the program has given her a deeper appreciation of agriculture. She’s come in as a lawyer, and it would be very easy to remain removed from the picture on the ground,” Paul says.

“But she’s gotten her boots dirty and sat in the farm truck and listened and understood the needs of producers. She understands impact and outcomes and her capacity as a leader is consequently much greater.”

Anna agrees. “I felt I was a leader within my own company, but that I had no place being a leader within my industry. That was the shift that happened for me. The AALP gave me the confidence to focus on my impact not just within my organisation, but outside as well … It was a game-changer.”

Anna, along with her AALP cohort, have adopted a mission to make agribusiness an appealing career for people from all walks of life.

“I’m committed to showing people considering a career in agribusiness that there is a huge breadth of roles available, and diversity in agriculture is so important, especially if we want to grow and lead as a sector.”

A network to depend on

While Grayson Killen’s entrée into agribusiness followed a more conventional path, personal extension and development have also played a critical role in his agribusiness career.

In 2017, when he took part in the AALP, he was working as a strategic account manager with Syngenta Australia, and had experience across a broad range of business portfolios.

Today, the farmer’s son who has chased cattle in the NT and worked with the live export industry in Indonesia, finds himself running a significant market research program, sifting through ‘big data’ to better understand Syngenta’s customer needs.

“The AALP set me up for the professional role I’m in now,” Grayson says.

“When I started, I was needing to make new connections in the industry outside of what I’ve been doing for the past ten years … The networking is phenomenal,” he reflects.

“Through the program, you get to spend a lot of time working on yourself, which is invaluable.

“The cohort you’re a part of, and the professionals who come and present to you have a huge impact. Your connection back to the program is always there.”

Grayson says sustainability is a key priority for Syngenta, and a consistent focus for their clients.

“I spend a lot of time working with the leaders in my organisation, trying to develop better ways of doing business. That’s where a program like the AALP helps – that’s when you need to be able to reflect, and have done the work on yourself to persist.”

For Grayson, a key impact of the AALP has been a revised perspective on problem solving.

“The program makes you push yourself personally, and you realise you’re stronger than you thought you were. It exposes you to leaders in other fields who are doing things I’m sure many of us thought were impossible,” he says.

“You learn that for every problem, there are a million solutions. You just have to have the tenacity and the grit to reach them.”

In terms of his own leadership, the AALP has helped Grayson affirm a core value.

“In leadership, it always starts with people. It should be the first thing you invest in, and the last thing you can do without.”