Beth Ford, president and CEO for Land O’Lakes Inc. says she knows the exact moment she realized her personal duty to help others.
With eight children, Ford’s family struggled financially. Their dinner plates were not always full. When Ford was about 11, she accompanied her mother on a visit to an even less fortunate family to deliver a Thanksgiving meal. Ford noticed the children were playing in their underwear while their clothes laid across heaters to dry. The children were unclothed because each had only that one outfit, her mother explained.
“She said, ‘Do you understand how much you have? What you have been given?’” Ford recalled, speaking to Dean Bill Boulding as a guest of the Distinguished Speakers Series hosted by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “‘Do you understand your responsibility?’ I remember where we were standing, I remember what she was wearing – I remember all of that. To me, it ignites my passion, even today. ... Leadership is a team sport and it’s our responsibility to help others.”
Running a co-op
Ford has referred back to that lesson many times in her 35-year career, which includes 10 years at Land O’Lakes, a farmer-owned cooperative. Walking into the company’s headquarters just outside of Minneapolis, Land O’Lakes looks like any other company, Ford said. What’s different is the governance – the board is made of farmers or local retailers and all member-owners share in the profits and benefits, she said.
“There’s an intimacy to this model,” Ford said. “I know these farmers, I know their families … I’m in these communities. And when we perform well, sometimes we can help them save their businesses, save their farms that have been in their family for generations.”
Leading by helping others
Ford reached the C-suite in her 30s. She was younger than most of the employees she worked with. She soon realized how she could build stronger relationships with them.
“It’s about being comfortable with yourself and making sure you realize leadership has actually very little to do with you. It actually has to do with everybody else,” Ford said. “It’s simple: Enable somebody else’s success. Be a good person, be a good partner, care about them and really mean it. When you do that, you’ll be surprised at the success you can have as a team.”
Building opportunity in rural America
Working with rural communities like the one she grew up in, Ford is also passionate about generating more business investment in rural America by creating better schools, health care and access to fast internet. Land O’Lakes is leading the American Connection Project, an effort that includes more than 170 other companies and organizations, aimed at bringing high-speed internet to all U.S. households.
“We need to have this be like the rural electric initiative in the 1930s,” Ford said. “This should be a right. It’s like mail delivery. It’s like electricity. And if we don’t do this, it leaves us all less secure.”
“There is a shared destiny between rural and urban America, and we seem to have forgotten that,” she said. “Where do we think the food is coming from? And 44 percent of the military comes from rural America and 19 percent of the population is there. So these are communities making an investment in our security. Food security is national security, and they make a direct impact for all of us.”
Advice for young people
As a woman, Ford represents just 8 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies who are female. She offered advice for women and all young people on pursuing leadership roles. Too often, young people take themselves out of play early in their careers after experiencing a setback or failure at work, she said.
“You just can’t judge yourself by that,” Ford said. “Instead you have to say, I’m going to think about what I can do, what I am doing, I’m going to accept responsibility for any failure I have, but I am going to look forward.”
She concluded with advice she would have given to her younger self: “Please go on life’s journey,” she said. “Life is bumpy, and messy, and hard, and sad, and joyous, and all of it – you need to embrace all of it. Be intellectually curious … Don’t be so linear, or just so focused on one thing – it’s not interesting. The broader you can make yourself, the more you continue to invest in yourself and … in using your intellectual curiosity, the better you're going to be, and the more joyous your life is.”