At Twomentor, we like to share bi-weekly thought leadership from phenomenal executives and social entrepreneurs focused on: a diverse skilled workforce, social impact entrepreneurship, mentoring cultures, sponsorship and elevating women in STEM careers. Beth Ford, COO of Land O’Lakes is the real deal role model and we love how she has found passion + purpose in her work. A skilled food and agriculture workforce is needed now more than ever as we live in a time that and estimated 795 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment according to The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. We are delighted to share Beth’s insights and wisdom with you today:
Julie@Twomentor: Beth, let’s start with your story. I was really struck with how you have been in six industries but found deep purpose personally in the food and agriculture industry at Land O’ Lakes, Inc. Tell us about that.
Beth: When I was 22 years old, my first job out of college was as a night warehouse foreman for Mobil Oil. Since then, I’ve held a variety of supply chain and manufacturing leadership roles, worked around the world and spent time on trading teams. I ultimately shifted to running businesses, spanning industries like consumer packaged goods, publishing, chemicals, and now agribusiness. I’m fortunate that my path has led me to a point where I can leverage my experience to make a difference. Sustainable food production is one of the grand challenges of our time. From my perspective, a career in agriculture translates to figuring out how we’ll feed a growing population. It is purpose-driven work.
Beth Ford, COO Land O’ Lakes
Twomentor: How important is it to get more women into STEM professions?
Beth: This is of utmost importance given the role of technology in every industry. But to be clear, more women in STEM is simply table stakes. It is the ante for the game. More critically, we need to get women in leadership positions early and throughout their careers. STEM education gets you in the door… it doesn’t get you to the top. That’s about delivering results and developing a reputation as a strong, consistent and capable leader.
Twomentor: How do you think understanding purpose plays a part in practicing wide and developing as a leader?
Beth: I believe employees derive a unique sense of purpose from the experience of leading people. According to Deloitte, 63 percent of millennials surveyed in 2016 said their leadership skills are not being fully developed. That’s a lot of untapped potential. I see mentorship and sponsorship in the workplace as a critical component of a healthy, progressive corporate culture. By the way, sponsorship isn’t exclusive to the most senior levels. Some of the most impactful sponsorship I’ve observed or been a party to has been between peers or at a middle management level supporting others to take the next step in their careers.
It’s also important for people to understand their impact on the bigger picture. Good leaders help others to see that, too. At Land O’Lakes, it means telling the story behind what modern agriculture means to our global population and our planet, and then doing something about it.
Twomentor: You are in a male dominated industry built and owned by farmers, what is it like for women? For minorities?
Beth: The agriculture industry faces a perception issue. Many young people think of agriculture as dated. However, quite the opposite is true. In many cases, the biggest challenge we face in achieving a more diverse, equitable workforce is correcting that misperception.
We’ve been intentional about increasing diversity in our workforce and leadership, and it’s reflected in some of our most traditionally male-dominated roles. In the last five years, the percentage of female and minority employees working in my remit has increased from approximately 20 percent to more than 40 percent. In part, this has happened by requiring every role to have a diverse slate of candidates. Then, of course, it’s just about selecting the best person for the team.
Twomentor: You shared you will be speaking this week with hundreds of new interns. What will you tell them? What’s your advice for them?
Beth: It’s important to be open to opportunities that allow you to keep learning. People who only focus on their area of expertise usually don’t take proactive steps to expand their horizons. Being intellectually curious is one of the most valuable qualities an employee can have because it shows a willingness to be uncomfortable. Also critical are people, relationships and networks. I’ve used my network in working with people many times and in multiple roles throughout my career. Tending to and building those relationships is key.
Twomentor: Many mighty companies are struggling. Can you share your perspective on why Land O’Lakes has been so profitable?
Beth: Our success is due in large part to our commitment to a core purpose, both culturally and in the way we go to market. Land O’Lakes’ four business units represent a farm-to-fork view of agriculture, from seeds in the field to butter on grocery store shelves. Paired with a farmer-owned cooperative model, we’re uniquely qualified to fulfill our purpose of feeding human progress. Our employees are united in that common cause. It keeps us focused on the long-term strategy, not the ebbs and flows of the market.
Twomentor: With major employers in your back yard, how do you recruit and retain top talent in a competitive talent market?
Beth: In the agricultural industry at large, we’ve seen tremendous growth in technology and innovation. Now through 2020, 57,900 jobs in agriculture will open annually; at least 27 percent of those jobs will require STEM skills. It’s estimated that the industry is only currently meeting 61 percent of the demand. Further, only 3 percent of college graduates and 9 percent of millennials currently consider careers in agriculture. So, we’ve been intentional in helping prospective employees understand that modern agriculture is far more than they think. One example of this is The Global Food Challenge – Emerging Leaders for Food Security, an annual program created by Land O’Lakes where we select 10 exceptional college sophomores to be emerging leaders, and match them with a professor or academic mentor to explore critical food security issues and agricultural challenges. Each student receives a stipend and an 11-week paid summer internship to work with industry experts at Land O’Lakes and is given the opportunity to travel to key Land O’Lakes locations, Washington, D.C., and rural African communities.
Beth Ford is the group executive vice president and chief operating officer for Land O’Lakes, Inc. She leads the Purina Animal Nutrition and U.S. Dairy Foods businesses, with accountability for all supply chain, operations, IT and R&D functions across the enterprise. She sits on the Board of Directors for Clearwater Papers, Inc. and PACCAR, Inc. A native of Sioux City, Iowa, Beth earned an MBA from Columbia University Business School and a BBA from Iowa State University.
Julie Kantor is CEO of Twomentor, LLC, a high impact training company focused on talent strategies for a diverse workforce. We value mentoring cultures, building diverse sponsorship initiatives & an entrepreneurial mindset. We have experience working with Fortune 500 Companies, SMBs, offer facilitated (and fun) mentor training, Flash Mentoring and are here to support an engaged and passionate workforce. Plug in to our unparalleled network in the entrepreneurship & STEM ecosystems to drive change. Learn more here