2021: an A to Z of the year gone by

How on earth are we at the end of 2021?! Unlike any other before it, this year has truly passed in a blink of an eye, encompassing lockdowns, freedom days, travel bans, reopenings and everything in between.

While it’s easy to focus on the challenges we faced this year (at times 2021 did feel indistinguishable from 2020), I think it’s critical that we don’t lose sight of the many accomplishments and successes which took place. 2021 has given rise to new exciting new trends, and we’ve seen significant steps forward in areas like diversity and sustainability. Most of all, organisations in the consumer sectors can be immensely proud of their response during another year of considerable disruption and unpredictability.

It has been a privilege to work alongside some of our sector’s most exciting and forward-thinking businesses this year, and to have contributed to the conversation each week in our Weekend Edition. As 2021 draws to a close, I’ve put together an A to Z of the year, looking back on our columns and celebrating the sector’s many successes.

A is for achievement. Despite incredibly difficult trading conditions – global lockdowns, major supply chain disruption, and driver and workforce shortages, to name just a few challenges – companies in our sector have successfully moved from survival, to recovery, to growth. Thanks to the agility and creativity of leaders, organisations have pivoted to new ways of trading and entered exciting new categories. Despite the uncertainty we find ourselves in now, there is definitely cause for celebration for the entire sector.

B is for Boards of the Future. Perhaps the highlight of my year was the launch of my manifesto, Boards of the Future. The publication – the product of years of reflection, conversations with NEDs and putting my vision into practice – suggests that that the role and composition of the Board must be fundamentally reimagined, without losing sight of its core oversight and governance responsibilities. To achieve a deeper meaning of governance, companies must embrace a new NED profile and optimum Board composition.

The Board of the future: fosters diverse thinking; truly grasps digital; is grounded in industry experience; understands a company's place in the big picture; and recognises its directors as individual role models.
Boards of the Future lays out five principles for the Boards of tomorrow.

In April, it was an honour to hear from a panel of forward-thinking leaders on the topic at the launch event. Speaking at the event were Allan Leighton, Chairman of the Co-op; Archie Norman, Chair at M&S and Signal AI; Penny Hughes, Chair at The Gym Group and iQ Student Accommodation; Ric Lewis, founder of Tristan Capital Partners and Chair at Impact X; Jambu Palaniappan, Managing Partner at tech-focused VC fund OMERS Ventures and supervisory Board member at JustEat Takeaway.com; and Lisa Shu, executive director at the Newton Venture Programme. Together we discussed the need to reshape and reimagine the non-executive Board, to seize opportunities today and protect against setbacks tomorrow.

As Archie Norman, who also wrote the forward of the publication, put so aptly: “Today, the way customers think, the way business is done and attitudes to working life are changing faster than ever. The new business titans from the tech world are young and different, sometimes startlingly so. For established Boards, the challenge is how to rekindle curiosity, how to see round the corner to the next disruption. Modernising the old warriors has to be part of that.”

C is for Compass Academy, the flagship learning and development centre from Compass Group. The academy will launch next year, training the next generation of hospitality workers and acting as an engine for social good. As we explored in a column in November, the academy will provide outreach for untapped areas of the workforce, paving the way for a more equal society.

Indeed, championing diversity and inclusion has remained an important part of our work at MBS. This year, we’ve published three industry reports on D&I, looking at progress made in the retail, hospitality, travel and leisure, and consumer goods and grocery sectors. Across the board, we’ve found that leaders are keen to learn, eager to tackle challenges, and determined to collaborate with other organisations to drive wholesale change – especially as ESG becomes a greater consumer and investor priority.

F is for femtech, an untapped category that we looked at in a column in May. Investment in technology for women’s health and wellbeing is expected to reach $25m by 2025, up from only $1bn in 2020 – and we will be watching the space with interest in 2022.

Elvie breast pumps
Elvie is one brand disrupting the women’s health and personal care sector.

Indeed, the intersection between consumer goods and healthcare took on new significance for us this year, with the launch of our new dedicated Healthcare Practice.

“In healthcare, leadership is critical,” wrote Hatty Cadman, Director of our Healthcare Practice in September. “What those at the helm of organisations choose to prioritise strategically, and how they make their colleagues feel and think, really can change everything.” It has been wonderful to work alongside Hatty this year, and see our new practice advise businesses as they navigate digitalisation, personalisation and the ongoing response to Covid-19.

I is for inspiration, which I have drawn from so many people this year. One of the many perks of my job is sitting down with experienced, creative, and forward-thinking leaders from whom we can all learn so much. It was a privilege, for example, to catch up with the Chair of Smart Works Julietta Dexter, and hear about the excellent work the charity is doing to dress and coach women for job interviews. Sitting down with Andrew Fisher OBE, plural NED and former CEO at Shazam, to discuss the future of digital innovation was also incredibly enlightening, and industry veterans Bill McRaith and Richard Brasher shared invaluable insight on leadership in their Q&As.

J is for Jellycatthe plush toy business that is proving a hit with adults and children alike. And k is for kidswear, and the many luxury brands which are diversifying to offer products for the younger generations.

L is for leadership. This year, it was a privilege to partner with Signal AI and Tortoise Media for an event looking at the way we make decisions, and how technology – in particular data and AI – is impacting how businesses run in today’s world. Hearing from business leaders and experts in AI and machine learning, we explored how developments in technology will fundamentally reshape our world, and the considerations leaders must make in the years ahead.

M is for male cosmetics. This year, War Paint for Men opened the ‘world’s first’ store dedicated to male cosmetics, and it was fascinating to explore how attitudes towards men’s makeup have shifted over time in a column in September.

Another first in 2021 has been the wide emergence of NFTs. Standing for non-fungible tokens, NFTs are a digital file whose ownership is recorded on a digital ledger, or blockchain. In the consumer-facing sectors, luxury brands have taken tentative steps into this latest cryptocurrency hype – but it remains to be seen whether the trend has staying power.

O is for on-demand grocery, perhaps 2021’s most significant retail revolution. In a column in July, and in an article in the BRC’s magazine The Retailer, we discussed the transformative impact of startups like Getir, Weezy, Zapp and Gorillas on the sector, and asked what retailers can do next to avoid being left behind.

A Getir motorbike
Getir’s valuation almost tripled to $7.56bn in its most recent investment round.

P is for Pennies ­– the charity revolutionising how we make microdonations by digitising the old experience of putting your spare change into a charity box at the till. It has been a real privilege to work alongside Pennies since 2013, and this year, we are proud to have advised the organisation on the appointment of 21 leaders to their retail and advisory boards on a pro-bono basis. A special mention must go to Aelf Hewitson, Associate Consultant in our Retail Practice, who was awarded the Unsung Hero Award by Pennies in recognition of her central role in making the placements. Congratulations Aelf!

Speaking with Alison Hutchinson CBE back in July was a wonderful reminder of the fantastic work done by the organisation, which speaks to our consumer sector’s most pressing issues, including the increased pressure from shareholders for businesses to focus on ESG, the willingness of customers to give to charity and the growing awareness of company values from consumers and employees alike.

Q is for all the queuing we did this year: for vaccines, for restaurants, for shops, for tests, for theatres. Need we say more?

R is for retention, and for return to the office. 2021 saw many businesses welcome their colleagues back to the office for a few days a week. As we discussed in a column in October, with new models of hybrid working come entirely new considerations for leaders around talent, onboarding and retention strategies. Whichever approach businesses take, the winning companies will be those that embrace change, focus on company culture and understand that attitudes around work may have changed forever.

S is for Sara Weller, the subject of one of my favourite Q&As this year. Now on her fourth FTSE100 board, Sara and I discussed what it was like being one of the first women in retail, her experience since being diagnosed with MS and what leaders can do to dial-up their focus on disability inclusion. It was a real privilege to learn from Sara, and hear how she’s challenging preconceived notions of leadership in corporate and public life.

T is for toys, and for transatlantic trends, both of which we explored in columns this year.

U is for Ullapool, home to the Seafood Shack in the Scottish Highlands – one of the many establishments that it’s been a pleasure to feature in our columns. With travel restrictions in place for much of 2021, many of us at MBS spent our holidays exploring the UK, and – from Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye and Cornwall’s Hidden Hut to art galleries in Somerset and London – it has been wonderful to document our ‘staycations’ in the Weekend Edition.

The Seafood Shack was established in 2016 and is the winner of multiple business and culinary awards.

V is for Veuve Clicquot’s Bold Woman Awards. Those who know me know that sitting on the judging panel for these awards is a highlight of my year – there’s truly nothing I love more than celebrating women’s achievements. And I couldn’t think of better winners for 2021: Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert was awarded the Bold Woman Awards in recognition for her role leading the development of the Covid-19 vaccine, and the Bold Future Award for up-and-coming female talent was given to Sharmadean Reid, who I sat down with in March to discuss her latest project, The Stack World.

Another celebration of women’s achievements is our annual Women to Watch in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure Index, highlighting the depth and breath of female talent in the sector.

X is for XM&S, Marks & Spencer’s Christmas ad campaign. This year, it has once again been a privilege to work alongside M&S as they continue their exciting journey of transformation. A mention should also go to the M&S Romford team, whose videos have been keeping us all cheerful during these trying times!

Y is for the new yardstick that will be required following the final publication of the Hampton-Alexander review in February. The Hampton-Alexander Review challenged FTSE businesses to reach 33% female representation on Boards by the end of 2020. While the number of women on FTSE boards increased by 50% in the five years to the end of 2020, companies failed to meet the 33% target on average. As we move into 2022, we are awaiting a new benchmark for success on gender representation. I for one hope that it’s much closer to the 50% we see in society.

Z, for a second year in a row, is for Zoom. Let’s hope that next year it won’t be!

It’s been a real pleasure in 2021 to see more of our clients, candidates, colleagues and friends in person again – but for us in the people business, a few months of face-to-face meetings is not nearly enough! And so, back by popular demand, we are delighted to once again invite you to join us in our virtual office for the MBS Christmas Conga game.

As addictive as the game is in its own right (you’ve been warned!), we have once more added our own incentive. On behalf of whoever is top of the leaderboard as of midday on the 4th of January 2022, we will make a donation of £1,000 to the charity of their choosing.

You can find the game here: https://mbschristmasconga.com/.

Lastly, from all of us at The MBS Group, we wish you all the very best for the festive season, and a Happy New Year. Here’s to a bright, happy and healthy 2022!

The MBS News will return on Tuesday 4th January, and the next weekend column will be on Saturday 8th January. For daily subscribers to the MBS News, tomorrow will be a Weatherman Special.