This Women's History Month, IDFA is recognizing industry leaders who are driving positive change in areas from diversity and inclusion to technology and innovation. This week, we sat down with Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O'Lakes Inc. Land O'Lakes a Fortune 200 food production and agribusiness company and IDFA member. Since joining the company in 2011, Ford has held a variety of roles leading the company's farmer to fork business offerings.
Today, she is a passionate advocate on behalf of farmers in rural America, with the goal of connecting people to the farmers in rural communities where their food is grown. Beth has been recognized by Fortune magazine as one of the world's 50 greatest leaders and most powerful women. Most recently, Beth was featured in the 60 Minutes segment entitled, "The Farmer's Advocate" in the fall of 2019.
Listen to her conversation with Heather Soubra, Senior Vice President, Strategic Initiatives at the International Dairy Foods Association, via the podcast player below.
Beth. Welcome. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today. I know I personally have admired your leadership style. The way that you're direct, focused, you have a clarity of vision and especially the courage that you've shown to show up as your fullest and truest you, no matter what. I am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to talk with you today. Thank you.
Well, thanks Heather, and thanks for the invitation to share some thoughts.
Great. So Beth, you've spoken about the importance of women in agriculture, and this Women's History Month, what advice would you give to women within the industry who want to grow their careers?
Well, first of all, women have always been involved in agriculture, right? And yet, for whatever reason, when folks think of agriculture, and this is especially true for folks in urban areas, they think of a man and they think of the man on the farm in the pickup truck or the red barn on the Hill. There's nothing wrong with that characterization, but the reality is women have been central to agriculture, to farming, to the food supply for centuries. So this is not new news.
I think what you see is this distinct differential between who has, frankly, ownership rights in their property, and we don't even need to get into that conversation. Women have always been central to agriculture. They are today central to agriculture.
What is my advice? Now, I'm talking about that at the farm level and I'm talking about it in an industry in general. My advice to people in the sector is, first of all, I am in this industry because I believe the work is meaningful. I have a passion for it. And what I've found over my 35-plus year career, seven companies, six industries, is that that is really important to me. I do my best work when I feel connected to the mission of the organization, and so that is number one.
Number two. Your career trajectory is directly related to the relationships that you've developed. So oftentimes the interns will come in and they'll say, "What should I learn this summer?" And I'll say, "You're smart. You're going to figure out the job, so don't worry about that." But mostly what you should learn about is how important connections are, the relationships in your life and the relationships in your business. The reason I say this is, I think your career is accelerated, is enhanced by making sure somebody else has career success. Making sure somebody else is enabled. When it's a virtuous circle of a good partnership, it's amazing how we can elevate each other.
I would say that one of the best pieces of advice I have is, you're smart, you'll figure out the job, but most importantly, invest in relationships. Those relationships are central to your career success. Then the final comment I would make is that don't be afraid to take a sideways move or do something different to broaden yourself. Certainly, as I said, six industries, seven companies, I have had multiple different roles. I have gone sideways, I've even taken steps back to learn more. That will help you be a more valuable partner in any business. Plus, I just think it makes life more interesting. Good intellectual curiosity, caring about others, enabling their career success. That's the recipe for success.
Wow. Thank you so much for sharing all of that. The relationship piece, you're right, that is so important. And I think ... I love what you said about, don't be afraid to take a step to the side or backwards, because I think people sometimes get caught up with wanting to go one direction, so great guidance.
That kind of leads to this next question. Which is, you first joined Land O'Lakes in 2011 and became CEO in 2018. So the question was, what were your secrets to success as you worked your way up? Are there other things on top of what you've already shared that you would share with this group of women?
Well, the most valuable thing, I came in as the chief supply chain officer, I had had that role in a number of different areas. Sometimes when you have that role, you're pulling in responsibility, authority, from other parts of the business to consolidate to drive more competence or more leverage. What you forget is that there's somebody else, a partner, on the other side. So perhaps it's consistent with my advice to build relationships. That would be that you have to ensure within a company, within a corporate structure especially, that you recognize you're not there for yourself. Leadership is a team sport. It's not about you. I promise you. Especially in this role. It's about others. When you help them understand what success they can have and how you can enable that success, I think that's most effective.
What I did here is I, and what I always advise folks to concentrate on, is their responsibilities. What you hope is that you're driving good performance, that you're building partnerships inside and outside the company. Then I started to expand that responsibility. I was very intentional with my predecessor of Chris Policinski, and told him it was my ambition and my aspiration to be the CEO. I wasn't shy about letting them know what I wanted to achieve and what I was focused on. By the way, oftentimes women don't do that. They're like, "I just want to have a job that's valuable." Well, we all want jobs that are valuable for goodness sake. You know? No, I want to go into a boring job. No. No. Nobody says that. But don't be shy about defining what your aspiration is, your ambition, and then allow that feedback to come back to you.
"Well, you know, you need this to expand your capability." Or, "We don't see you in that role." By the way, if you hear that, understand, it's a gift. It may not feel good. It may hurt you right at the start of hearing that, but you should understand, then you get to ask the next question, "Why?" "What do I need to do?" Then the second question is, if they never see you that way, it's not your right place. It's not your right place. That seems hard.
Like, okay, easy for you to say, Beth. You can say that here. Well, no, I mean, I've had a multi-year career. I've heard these things in my life, so don't misunderstand that success is a linear journey. It's sideways, it's down, it's back. But don't be afraid of defining your ambition. Understand, if you still believe that is your aspiration, your ambition, it may not be a right place. But also listen to the feedback, continue to grow.
And for me, I was fortunate. Chris continued to develop my experience here in the company. I took over IT, then R&D. Then I took over all the businesses and became the COO before being named CEO in 2018. It didn't happen just like that. It wasn't like, "Oh, Beth's in the building. We'll just go ahead and give her the CEO." It's a journey. Life is a journey. Careers are a journey and they include bumps and successes.
I love that. It really struck me when you said, see it as a gift. The guidance that you get, even if it might not be the answer that you want, look at it and say, what can I learn here? How can I use this information to guide me to the next step? So it's beautiful. Beth, when you think of leadership, what does it mean to you to be a leader?
Well, you're not a leader if you don't have followers, right? I mean, leadership is a team sport. If you have enough humility, recognize the best leaders I've met, and what I try to model is you have the humility to understand you don't know everything. Of course you don't. Even when I stepped into this job, I didn't know everything. I don't still know everything, but I'm smart enough to surround myself with people that I think are really smart. I ask questions. I tell them, they're the expert. Help me understand this. You know? I'm not saying, oh, leadership is about group decision-making. Rather, I'm saying, have the humility to continue to have good intellectual curiosity and then ask the experts when you're trying to make different decisions so that you can synthesize the kind of information you need to then make the best decision you possibly can.
There's no hundred percent, I guess, clarity and information that you're going to get before every decision. You don't have all the information. You have to have confidence and you have to check yourself about, what am I thinking? What's my rationale? And, why? Then again, back to leadership as a team sport, kind of test your think with folks that you understand and then make the best decisions that you possibly can. Don't wear it as an anchor. You're not going to get everything right. Don't wear it as an anchor around your neck. Then, "Oh my gosh, I got that wrong."
Okay. You know, don't take asymmetric risk with the business, but do make a crisp decision. So what I view leadership as is a team sport, meaning, have the humility to surround yourself with others who know more and then engage them and make sure that you're partnered on the journey.
I love that. And that leadership definition has served Land O'Lakes well. In fact, Land O'Lakes recorded net sales of $13.9 billion in 2020. To what do you attribute the success?
The team. It's the team. This pandemic has been a challenge for all of us, and I could not be prouder of the team that delivered these phenomenal results, because this is difficult, for everybody. We had downsides in food service. We had commodity price drops. We had to offset that. At the same time, the business has performed well because of the fearless nature of the decision-making, the engagement of the team, the trust they had in each other.
I attribute the success directly to the team. Our focus on them from the start, to say, "Your safety, your health, your mental health is our priority. We have to trust each other and have confidence in each other to make the very best decisions we possibly can. And we need to do it with urgency." I think beyond the structural or the strategic imperatives, we had already defined the areas of focus of the business, the breadth of the enterprise. All of those are elements, but most directly, I attribute the success to the team.
Wow. That's fantastic. You hear now, there's such a focus on people and we're doing that at IDFA, with the IDFA People Strategy, because it really, truly is, the people that make up these organizations, and you've articulated that so beautifully. I know Land O'Lakes, you've recently been in the news about your 2025 commitments on sustainability. You've also been a huge advocate for broadband. What other issues are keeping you up at night and are there issues facing the industry separate from sustainability and from broadband that we don't talk enough about?
Well, when folks ask me what keeps me up at night, it's the people are always the issue, right? That's just a number one. Is everybody okay? Are we investing in them appropriately? But the biggest thing, I think, and it's an element of what you're talking about. Whether it's broadband, whether it's in technology, climate, sustainability. It's the speed of change. It's the speed of change. That is the most notable thing. I mean, technology's an accelerant and this is likely to be an accelerated pace of change.
There's some good news. Some of the fundamentals, at least on the ag sector, in terms of growers, are strengthening. We have a weaker dollar. Exports. China has stepped back in the market. That's a good news story. But the reality is, the speed of change is markedly different than 10 years ago, than 15 years ago. Even those core elements, technology, that gap, climate change and the accelerated impacts we're likely to see ... then all the other things that are coalescing, that driving innovation. So therefore, wow, we were talking about boy these innovators, and plant-based, and they're calling it milk. What are you fighting against and things like that. It becomes a good food, bad food discussion and that's accelerated by the social media aspects of life for all of us at this point.
Thus technology is an enabler in terms of communication. We'll drive bumps in ways that may not seem fundamental to those of us that are within an industry. I would say, go back to the relationships. One of the strategies we've been very intentional about is ensuring that folks outside the industry ... That we're not shouting at each other, right? We understand the industry, but we need others to understand that this is a national security issue. Food security is a national security issue. All Americans need to invest in this industry. And then the communities, because it's never just the farm or the industry, it's the communities that are there. These are families. These are American towns. We need to think of it that way.
When you say, "Well, Climate and technology." I say, "Rural America, strength of the US economy, national security, accelerated pace of change." All of these are elements that we need to understand, and we need to think of it with a broader aperture. We need to consider the elements that are part of daily life that we know we need to continue to focus on.
Yeah. Such important points, especially that disruption and change. That's happening and there's going to be more and more of it. So one of my final questions for you, Beth, how do you ... Resiliency is such an important thing, not only for our organizations, but also for us as individuals. So how do you build up that resiliency in yourself? How do you resource Beth Ford?
A lot of failure. You get to the other side. It's hard. I joke with my ... I have three children and still at home are my twin sons, who are 16. They're sophomores. I remember back then, when ... you know I have seven siblings, so I'm right in the middle, a number of five of eight. You remember when it felt like, "Oh my gosh, I've got a pimple on my face. This is disaster." Or, "Oh my gosh, I got a C+ on that paper. That's not good." That failure builds resilience. Like, "Okay, stop it, step back, learn from it, move on." Stop it, step back and learn from it. Move on. Have confidence in yourself.
A statement I always make, my mom, "You didn't get stupid overnight, Beth." I think that that is a way to think of it, to say, "Yep. I accept. I got to have the learning. I can make this to the other side and then move on." So you build resilience by having failures. All of us have them. All of us have bumps in life. That is part of life's journey. That is part of a rich full life. It is not a [inaudible 00:17:47]. You have that so that you understand and you learn, and then from that you step forward and you don't let it burden you for the longterm. You continue to have confidence in yourself.
Yeah. I love that. So your failures are what build up the resilience and build up the confidence to move forward. So lastly, Beth, what's next for Beth Ford? What are your own personal career goals moving forward?
Well career goals, I mean, I'm pretty busy right now with this. Actually, what I'm focused on right now is how we're stepping back through, and really the team. I'm in my offices today. How we're going to step back into, I don't want to say it's normal. The reality is that the economy is opening up again. Folks are getting vaccinated. I certainly had my shot. One of my shots. I'm pleased with that. We have to encourage our team to do the same. Then what is that going to look like? What is the work environment going to look like?
Because I think it's now going to be a competitive advantage to consider how you're going to enable your employee to meet the demands of the job, the requirements of the job, but also understand that they've learned some things here with remote work. Many folks have learned it. Not everybody went on remote work by the way. We have to say, what is the right balance that makes us most effective? What are the lessons we learned? And how are we going to make sure that we continue to attract and develop our employees to do the right thing over time? So when you say, what is next for me? What is next for me is always my employees and the team, and then our members, because we just talked about how it's bumpy out there. Especially in the dairy industry, there are just wide variances in many, many different ways. There are other innovators that are out there. We have to think forward about what are the right investments to make for the enterprise and for our members to have them continue to grow effectively.
Beth Ford has made huge strides in U.S. dairy as CEO of Land O'Lakes, Inc., and we’re proud to recognize her during #WomensHistoryMonth. Want more advice from leading women? Join IDFA’s Women In Dairy network.