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Personalized Nutrition: Preparing for Agrifood’s Coming Transformation

Personalized nutrition will fundamentally reshape the agrifood industry. How do organizations need to prepare – and develop – their leaders for success?

  • May 2019

It’s 6:00 am and time for breakfast. You head to the kitchen and insert your saliva swab into something that looks vaguely like an espresso machine. But instead of coffee, it dispenses a shot of liquid nutrients perfectly formulated for your DNA and to help keep you fueled for the company 10K race later today. Tonight’s dinner will feature sautéed chicken breasts with mushroom sauce; you’ll be having a side of broccoli engineered to be beneficial to people like you who lack the GSTM1 gene necessary for absorbing the vegetable’s chemical compounds, while your spouse has spinach to counter a recent dip in iron levels before it becomes a health issue.

Although this scenario seems like science fiction, personalized nutrition is the very real future that will emerge from the convergence of food with healthcare, data, and technology. But while this reality is still safely in the future, agrifood leaders need to ask themselves if their organizations and leadership teams are prepared not only to capitalize on these changes, but to help bring them about. Personalized nutrition is set to disrupt the food and beverage industry in the same way that retail, media and transportation, for example, have all been disrupted by changes in technology and consumer expectations. What are the key issues that agrifood companies will face, as well as the leadership factors that will help determine the success of an agrifood organization in transforming to meet these opportunities?

An industry transformed

Personalized nutrition will fundamentally reshape the agrifood industry. The industry, for example, will need to adapt to the same “customization at scale” challenge that retail has. But it’s one thing to provide, for example, everyone in the family with individualized footwear, and quite another to provide them with individualized quarts of milk. The challenge and opportunity of new business models will be amplified by the intersection of nutrition and health, a massive sector in its own extended state of flux. These personalized nutrition new business models will also have to respond to evolving consumer attitudes regarding convenience, personal performance and other lifestyle touchpoints.

More targeted approaches to maximize crop yields has made the industry more data intensive, but personalized nutrition will greatly accelerate this trend throughout the agrifood value chain. Ultimately, organizations will need to manage and analyze real-time data streams from vast networks of sensors. As in other industries, agrifood companies will become data companies, opening the door to new ways of adding value. As different aspects of the industry are at different levels of data sophistication, gaps will need to be filled with technologies that are still emerging, bringing large agrifood business in partnership with innovative startups in analytics and other areas.

In addition to new business models, massive amounts of data and shifting industry silos, agrifood will contend with ongoing regulatory uncertainty. Although food, healthcare and personal data are all highly regulated, the three will combine to push into areas where regulation will lag behind. Personalized nutrition businesses will thus need to operate under constantly shifting regulatory risk.


The right leaders for unchartered territory

As we have seen in other industries that have weathered transformation, successfully navigating this uncharted frontier depends on having the right leaders and management team—which in turn requires the appropriate talent strategy. Agrifood enterprises will need to rethink leadership roles and the competencies needed for them. Innovation will be at the core of the mission, requiring agrifood leaders to bring together cross-disciplinary teams from agriculture, processing, genomics, data science, distribution and marketing to design products and solutions that no one field could generate on its own. The agrifood leader will have to create environments of “creative abrasion” that move toward a collective vision, relying on the nuances of an orchestra conductor rather than the commands of a battlefield general.1 At the same time, however, they will need to possess a mastery of processes and market conditions and the ability to forge new partnerships, anticipate consumer-driven trends and execute the operational plan—all while achieving existing business goals. Most importantly, agrifood executives will need to be comfortable leading through ambiguity and in environments with more or less perpetually shifting conditions.

Implications for talent management

Identifying, developing and retaining these leaders will challenge talent management functions as never before. There is no established talent pool for what the shift to personalized nutrition will require. Instead, the industry will have to identify executives who have the ability to adapt and lead through uncertainty—a competency in itself. Over the course of the past decade, as the need for transformative leaders across all industries became more pronounced, Egon Zehnder explored why it is that some executives were able to thrive in periods of tremendous change while others were not. Examining the career trajectories of thousands of executives, we found that previous career success was an incomplete indicator of leadership ability in dramatically new conditions. Instead, it was a function of four personal attributes, which collectively we call The Potential Model:2

  • Curiosity: A drive to seeking out new experiences, knowledge, and candid feedback, coupled with an openness to learning and change.

  • Engagement: The ability to connect with people and combine emotion and logic to communicate a persuasive vision.

  • Insight: The ability to uncover connections between disparate events before those observations become common wisdom.

  • Determination: The wherewithal to fight for difficult goals despite challenges and to recover from adversity.

Critically, the shift to a potential-focused talent management strategy is more than adding new attributes to the list of what is screened for in candidates. It requires the talent management team to assess candidates with a fresh set of eyes; some candidates who may not have stood out before, for example, may well have the attributes needed to thrive as leaders in a more dynamic environment. Professional development will need to be rethought as well, so that organizations align career paths and opportunities to foster these attributes. There will also be a greater emphasis placed on the ability of leaders to mentor and develop the teams under them.

If the agrifood industry will have to identify and develop new attributes in its leaders, it will also need to look for those leaders in new places. While some candidates will already be within the organization or within the industry, organizations will need to tap into new talent pools in consumer goods, healthcare, manufacturing or other areas. Indeed, as agrifood companies become more innovative, the casting of a wider talent net has already begun, pitting the industry against everyone from Silicon Valley giants and startups to other sectors that are grappling with change, such as automotive and financial services. As the agrifood transformation accelerates, this competition will only become more fierce. Agrifood companies thus must be able to not only successfully recruit in this highly environment, but to retain those leaders over time.

Finally, agrifood companies will have to develop new organizational models to accommodate their transformation. Depending on their business strategy, some will choose to integrate change throughout their organization; others will choose to develop “skunk works” with the freedom to create new cultures from the ground up. Those decisions, in turn, will drive the distribution of new roles throughout the enterprise. As personalized nutrition evolves from an innovation to being simply how consumers think about food, health and wellness, the organizational structure will have to further adapt to reflect this new reality. The forces that will lead to agrifood’s transformation have already begun to align; the industry ten years from now will be unrecognizable from where it is now. Navigating that disruption and capitalizing on the opportunities it brings depends on preparing today. Adopting the talent management strategy that will provide the new types of leaders and leadership teams the industry will need is a central element of that preparation.



1. Egon Zehnder has partnered with Harvard Business School Professor Linda A. Hill to identify the leadership competencies needed to develop cultures of innovation within organizations. More on our “Innovation Quotient” can be found here.

2. For more on Egon Zehnder’s Potential Model, see “"21st-Century Talent Spotting," by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, Harvard Business Review, June 2014.

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