Forbes India – Beth Ford, Land O’Lakes Inc: Leadership Isn’t About You, It’s About Everyone Else

Leadership is a team sport and it’s our responsibility to help others, says Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes Inc.
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Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes Inc. says she knows the exact moment she fulfilled her personal duty to help others.

With eight children, Ford’s family struggled financially. Their plates were not always full. When Ford was around 11, she accompanied her mother on a visit to an even less fortunate family to deliver a Thanksgiving meal. Ford noticed the children playing in their underwear while their clothes were hung out on radiators to dry. The children were undressed because each had only one outfit, her mother explained.

“She said, ‘Do you understand how much you have? What have you been given?’ Ford recalled, speaking to Dean Bill Boulding as a guest of the distinguished speaker series organized 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. For me, that ignites my passion, even today. … Leadership is a team sport and it is our responsibility to help others.

Manage a cooperative

Ford spoke to that lesson many times during his 35-year career, including 10 years with Land O’Lakes, a farmer-owned co-op. Stepping into the company’s headquarters just outside Minneapolis, Land O’Lakes looks like any other company, Ford said. What is different is the governance – the board is made up of local farmers or retailers and all member-owners share in profits and benefits, she said.

“There’s an intimacy to this model,” Ford said. “I know these farmers, I know their families… I am in these communities. And when we do well, sometimes we can help them save their businesses, save their farms that have been in their families for generations.

Lead by helping others

Ford reached the C-suite in their thirties. She was younger than most of the employees she worked with. She soon realized that she could form stronger relationships with them.

“It’s about being comfortable with yourself and making sure you realize that leadership actually has very little to do with you. It actually has to do with everyone,” Ford said. “It’s simple: enable someone else’s success. Be a good person, be a good partner, take care of them, and be really serious. When you do this you will be surprised how successful you can be 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 fast internet access. Land O’Lakes leads the American Connection Project, an effort that includes more than 170 other companies and organizations, aimed at bringing high-speed Internet to every American home.

“We need to make it look like the rural electric initiative of the 1930s,” Ford said. “It should be a right. It’s like mail delivery. It’s like electricity. And if we don’t, it will leave us all less safe.

“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 comes from? And 44% of the military is from rural America and 19% of the population is there. It is therefore communities that invest in our security. Food security is national security, and they have a direct impact on all of us.

Advice for young people

As a woman, Ford only represents 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs who are women. She offered advice to women and all young people on pursuing leadership roles. Too often young people retire from the game 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’m doing, I’m going to accept responsibility for any failures I have, but I’m going to look ahead.”

She concluded with advice she would have given to herself younger: “Please continue the journey of life,” she said. “Life is bumpy, messy, hard, sad and joyful, and all of that – you have to accept it all. Be intellectually curious… Don’t be so linear, or so focused on one thing – it’s not interesting. The more you can expand, the more you continue to invest in yourself and…using your intellectual curiosity, the better off you are going to be and the happier your life is.

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[This article has been reproduced with permission from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. This piece originally appeared on Duke Fuqua Insights]

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