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ABF 'Elevate Women in Management'

Associated British Foods is a diversified international food, ingredients and retail group with sales of £12.9bn and over 118,000 employees  in 47 countries. It is a diversified group of businesses which enjoy a high degree of autonomy in the running of their operations. They are grouped into five business segments: Sugar; Agriculture; Retail; Grocery; and Ingredients.

The Challenge

In the last number of years there has been a growing body of research that proves companies with women directors on their boards deliver significantly higher Return on Equity (ROE) than those companies without women directors. It is well documented that ‘gender balanced’ boards achieve: 42% higher return on sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity. The fact is Gender Diversity pays.

Recognising the need to create a more balanced workforce, ABF created a Gender Diversity Taskforce in January 2012 to manage a series of gender diversity initiatives. Led by Alison Bourne, Head of Executive Development at ABF, these initiatives or work streams, focused on the following areas: Gender Diversity Awareness, Career Development and Planning, Career Continuity, Networking, Mentoring and Education.

Under the Education work stream, there was a recognised need to further develop and invest in the junior to mid-level female talent pool within the UK Grocery Division. Alison and Iain Slater, HRD, agreed to pilot the programme.

Solution and Approach

In October 2012, Parity Professionals launched a new female leadership programme called “Elevate Women in Management.” Developed with Parity Professionals’ unique methodology, a personalised Learner Journey was created by combining highly impactful and engaging workshops with a series of one-to-one coaching sessions. Addressing a wide range of knowledge areas such as Gender Diversity, Women in Leadership, Communication Styles, Unconscious Bias, Career Development, Networking and Political Savvy, each participant was given the opportunity to develop their skills both in-session, and on the job, while gaining further invaluable insight into their own attitudes and self-beliefs, and how they affect their own behaviours.

This seemed like a natural fit for ABF. At Parity Professionals, we put the Learner at the heart of everything we do. So, we asked Alison and Iain what they aspired each Learner to achieve as a result of participating in a programme. They wanted each Learner to find their “Authentic Voice” and to “Look-Up and Look-Out”. Ultimately, ABF was inviting each female to discover more about themselves, the business and the marketplace and to understand what may be getting in their way of them being successful. But most importantly – ABF was inviting each female participant to own their own career development within an environment in which they would thrive, by offering a plethora of resources and support to draw down from along the way.

Working in close partnership with the ABF pilot division, Parity Professionals developed a programme called “Building Future Leaders”. By applying their unique “Coaching Spine” framework to the development of the programme, Parity Professionals was able to create a unique Learner Journey that had just the right balance of “Knowledge” packets, the appropriate application of “Skills” development and the safe environment of an all-female cohort to explore the underlying drivers of “Attitudes” and “Behaviours”.

This highly impactful and revelationary learning experience culminated in a series of one-to-one coaching sessions which is where the magic really happened. The learning came to life - and working with their coach, the learning was converted into the application and development of new skills – through a new sense of self-belief and purpose – resulting in a significant observable shift in behaviour back in the workplace.

Final Outcomes

The Pilot within ABF Grocery was a resounding success and the “Building Future Leaders” programme became the catalyst for organisational change. The cohort presented to the Gender Diversity Task Force citing professional and personal transformation – observed and commented on by various line managers and peers. And what did the metrics tell us? Increased confidence was a major factor as 62% of the cohort felt empowered to progress within their current business and 38% beyond into the ABF Group. 75% of the cohort started to proactively manage their career, 37% of which were actively cultivating their network of stakeholders across the company.

What did the participants say?

  • “I feel like a completely different person in terms of my confidence and I have changed my view of my own capability and influence as a result.”
  • “A senior stakeholder in ABF said I was a completely different person in terms of confidence and they changed their view of my capability / influences as a result.”
  • “A colleague commented that it was great to see me develop and acknowledged that I now seem comfortable in my own skin and unafraid to air my views and ask questions.”
  • “3 key things for me that I have gained from the programme; 1) Awareness of my strengths and areas to work on, 2) Tools to use to improve my communication and influencing skills and 3) To spend time thinking about my progression - where I want to get to and how I achieve this.”
  • “I had a chance to reflect on what’s my unique contribution to the business, “what do I bring to the table?”. This helped me to improve my confidence and self esteem.”
  • “The course has helped me to gain perspective – I’m now focused on the long plan and the stepping stones. I’m no longer stressing the small details.”
  • “I am in control and in charge of my career, I can set the agenda, rules and time frame.”
  • “The first two days were mind blowing...everything hit me straight between the eyes and made me go, ok I get it now.”
  • “I realised I wasn’t making the most of my team, and perhaps hadn’t been attentive enough to their needs.”
  • “Going into the programme I could not see my future in ABF but, this side of the programme, I can’t see my career anywhere else.”

The programme is going from strength to strength as further programmes are running and as other divisions come on board, both domestically and internationally. Discussions are now underway to virtualise the programme so that it can reach an even greater range of the female talent pool. The “Building Future Leaders” programme has become a catalyst within ABF to ignite employee engagement and unleash latent talent. It has also generated a heightened sense of belief and commitment in the Company, and how it values its people.


“I am more determined to unlock my potential and more willing to be open with those around me about the journey. I believe ABF has invested in me which makes me feel valued and willing to stay longer to give something back to ABF. I feel more proud of working for the company and willing to espouse the benefits of being an ABF employee”.


    Parity Professionals works with its clients to bring out the best in their businesses by identifying, developing and retaining the right talent to meet their business objectives.
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