Career & Success

Beth Ford on Being the Champion of Your Own Career

In this View From The Top episode, the CEO of Land O’Lakes talks about being a self-advocate.

July 07, 2021

| by Kelsey Doyle

As the CEO of Land O’Lakes, Beth Ford connects her success running a farmer-owned cooperative to her working-class Midwestern childhood.

In this View From The Top episode, Ford talks to Adriann Negreros, MBA ’21, about being the first openly gay female CEO of a Fortune 500 company and how she’s succeeded in a male-dominated industry. “You want to have humility, but you can’t be shy to make clear to your supervisors, your leaders, whomever, what your aspiration is,” she says. “Otherwise, people are going to just guess. Nobody, I promise you, cares more about your career than you do.”

Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund. During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.

Full Transcript

Beth Ford: Nobody, I promise you, cares more about your career than you do. And you have to remind yourself of that and do what you need to do to position yourself. To me, that means you enable others’ success and then you’d be surprised that kinda it’s a virtuous circle. Everybody wants to have you part of the team when you care legitimately about somebody else.

Adriann Negreros: That was Beth Ford, CEO at Land O’Lakes. Ford visited the Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of View From The Top, a speaker series where students, like me, sit down to interview business leaders from around the world. I’m Adriann Negreros, an MBA student from the class of 2021. This year I had the pleasure of interviewing Ford from her home office in Minnesota. She shared invaluable insight ranging from how to be a self advocate and champion of your own career, to the importance of investing in rural America. You’re listening to View From The Top, the podcast. Beth it is so great to have you with us today.

Beth Ford: Well, it’s so terrific to be here. As I said, I wish I could be there, but I’m happy to be with you all.

Adriann Negreros: This’ll work. As we chatted a second ago, I grew up in Indiana and I was living in Minneapolis before coming to school. It’s not often that we get a leader from Midwest talking to my classmates. The campus is just thrilled again, so thank you.

Beth Ford: I’m happy to be here in it. And what do you mean, you don’t get a lot of people from the Midwest? This is where it’s all happening, people. This is where it’s happening.

Adriann Negreros: We’ll convince them very shortly.

Beth Ford: Okay.

Adriann Negreros: I’m sure of it. There’s a number of things I wanna talk about, Beth, including your experience growing up in Iowa, leading a Fortune 200 and some broader topics like the food supply chain and rural broadband access, but let’s start by going back to Sioux City, Iowa. It’s your home, it’s where you grew up. It’s a town of about 80,000 people and you have a large family. There’s eight brothers and sisters, including yourself. You had a room which you shared with your three sisters and got one drawer all to yourself. What was it like growing up in your household?

Beth Ford: Well as I said, you have to have a drawer ’cuz you needed to place put the hand-me-downs, you know? So there it is. I was number five of eight, I had two older brothers, two older sisters, a younger sister, two younger brothers and my dad was a truck driver. We were very much a working class family. But no different than any other working class families there. Education was important to my parents. My mom, who is still with us, my father has passed. My mother was, I think has been the most significant role model to me in my life of an incredibly resilient woman. Left in an orphanage when she was five by her parents, with her brother, and then was adopted eventually at age ten. And here’s a woman who became a nurse and then became a minister at the end. And in between she was a psychologist, a therapist. She would say she worked on their body, their minds, and their spirits. And so she’s been an incredible role model. And so during that time, what’s it like growing up in a family of eight kids when you’re working class, and you’re kind of in a room with your three siblings? It’s noisy. Dinner is a kill or be killed exercise … ate a lot of chicken necks and wings.

As I said, I didn’t know there was white meat on a chicken until I was at least 17 and my older brothers were out of the house. It was very much a moving kind of a target in our family. My siblings have achieved good professional careers without going to college.

But you had to kinda work your way to college. So to your point, the first jobs I had were detasseling corn. I was a babysitter. I’m going to tell you a story I haven’t told you, Adriann, I’ve saved this for you. So I was probably 12 or 13, I was babysitting ’cuz you make some money is making like $2 an hour. I got like five kids. The oldest of the kids was probably about my age. He grabbed the keys to the car that they had, and he floored this thing, and he went through the house. I never got any babysitting jobs after that, shocker. I was like, my gosh, I had to call my mom.

I was like, oh mom, this is not good. But I did all of those kinds of jobs, the detasseling corn. I worked as a night cashier. I cleaned toilets in college. I mean I had all sorts of jobs. And it was very much a working class family, that the expectation was, if you wanted to achieve something you had to invest in your education and yourself and as well you had to work hard to get what you wanted.

Adriann Negreros: Makes a lot of sense to me, Beth. And you mentioned of course, the $2. I wanna make sure the audience and us are on the same page because adjusted for inflation, this is a rough estimate because I passed my finance class. I didn’t crush it. But it’s something like 10 or $11 in today’s terms. So it’s not too shabby, but it was hard work, you’re up at 5:00 a.m., right?

Beth Ford: Up at 5:00, got onto a bus with my siblings. Put on long pants and long sleeves that you didn’t get eaten up on detasseling corn. And it was hot and it wasn’t appealing work. Perhaps there was a whole strategy there, like you need to work harder on your brain so that you aren’t having to do this for a living going forward. But again, it taught me so many lessons in my life. All of those jobs that were not glamorous, that involved manual labor, wasn’t just I didn’t wanna do this, it was the value of hard work, it was the value of these people every day. And so I am grateful for that. And in fact, I almost feel concerned that I have three children and of course, they’ve never had to deal with any of those kinds of challenges. Where you have the wrong clothes or you don’t get to go somewhere ’cuz you can’t afford it. They don’t ever have to deal with that and I kinda think that they’re missing out.

Adriann Negreros: I imagine that these experiences, though, help you connect with your farmers in a very personal way. You can relate to working hard, being out in the corn fields. So, I think there’s a positive there. I’m sure your kids learn through the stories that you and your partner Jill share with them.

Beth Ford: I think so. I mean, Jill, my wife, we’ve been together 28 years and she’s a Peoria, Illinois native. Her family came from farming as well or I came from the Midwest and we’re in farming. And she was one of the first class of women at West Point and then we met at Columbia, her at the law school of mine at the business school. So you hope that they take away this value of hard work which both of us, obviously, have had as central to our lives. But I think sometimes it’s harder for me just to say no, because I can remember what it’s like to not have something. But I need to do better, to make sure I tell them no, make it hard for them.

Adriann Negreros: I would say hard work wasn’t the only lesson you got growing up. You got what you call. And you mentioned your mom, Carol, and you got what you call the most important leadership advice ever from her when you were young. So could you take us back to that conversation or moment? What did she say that stuck so closely?

Beth Ford: Are you talking about don’t be afraid to ask for what you want?

Adriann Negreros: That’s exactly it.

Beth Ford: Yeah, what it was, I was probably 12 or 13, I was having a tantrum about something. I don’t even remember what it was. But I’m tall, my mother is a smaller woman. She’s probably 5’2” or 5’3” and I’m 6’ tall … obviously took after my father who was a very big man. And you know I’m having that tantrum, I’m like, I can’t believe you didn’t do this. And she said, do you think I’m a mind reader? I’m not a mind reader. If you want something, you ask for it. And for whatever reason, I can see her face, I thought that that made such good logical sense to me. It stopped me cold, and through my life, I’ve reflected back on that where there are times, I think, in your professional career and those of you who’ve already had a career now you’re back in MBA school and you’ll go back out. I think sometimes we’re reluctant or we think, gosh, I’m a great performer, they’re gonna just notice me. That just doesn’t really happen. It really doesn’t, and you can’t be, you don’t wanna be a braggart. You wanna have humility, but you can’t be shy to make clear to your supervisors, your leaders, whomever, what your aspiration is, which ambition is to achieve. Otherwise, people aren’t gonna just guess. Nobody, I promise you, cares more about your career than you do. Nobody, and you have to remind yourself of that, and do what you need to do to position yourself. To me, that means you enable others’ success. You don’t wanna be the guy or the girl that nobody wants to work with because you’re all about yourself.

And instead you should enable their success. And then you’d be surprised that kind of it’s a virtuous circle everybody wants to be happy part of the team, when you care, legitimately, about somebody else.

Adriann Negreros: I think that makes a ton of sense. Thinking about, me and our audience listening, I think we all go in with like, we need to be humble, respectful, and that’s all true. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be confident in yourself and a self—advocate and say, hey, I deserve this. I work hard. I drive results. And I think that’s just an incredible message that your mom gave you. And I’m glad you shared with all of us.

Beth Ford: Yeah, I probably don’t, I don’t even say I deserve it. What I generally say is, this is something I aspire to, what do I need to do? Do you see me in that role, first of all? And sometimes people will tell you, no, they don’t. They don’t see you as achieving something. And to me, that’s a gift. It is a gift, but you have to get yourself in the right mindset to hear that. It’s a gift because then you can ask, why, what do I need to do? And if it’s not, if they don’t ever see you that way, that’s not your right place. And that’s a gift to me. That’s not a, it feels bad, even if it might feel bad for a moment.

You have to say, well, what a gift, I’m so glad and grateful I learned that. So, I usually just say, this is what I aspire to, is this possible? Do you see me in that way? What do I need to do to position myself? What are the other investments I need to make? What do I need to learn to be put in that position?

Adriann Negreros: I love that, I think it’s something we can all use moving forward in our professional careers. Beth, I wanna ask about post—college. So, after Iowa State, so let’s go Cyclones, right? You’re not a Hawkeye fan, I assume.

Beth Ford: No, I’m not a Hawkeye, I’m a Cyclone.

Adriann Negreros: Got it. After Iowa State you go to oil and gas … you mentioned your dad worked on the truck, so, they’re like similar industries. You were on the tanker, right? You described that as you and the dudes on the night shift.

Beth Ford: Well, so, out of undergrad I got this job interview, now … if you need to understand, okay, again, I’m kind of a working class kid. So, I had one suit, one dress. This is back in the day, and so I was wearing a blue button down thing, and I had this gray suit, and I got this job interview with Mobil Oil. And I went to their headquarters in Virginia. And I remember this so vividly, because we were staying at a hotel and the doors were on the inside. This wasn’t a motel. This was real stuff. There was real food there. So, I was like, okay, this is fancy. So, I go to the interview and I really liked the company. And so they said, okay, great, you’re going to Los Angeles. You’re going to go through operations training. So, my background, and a lot of my career I was in line operations. Yes, I manage tanker barge trucks, trucking facilities. I was in the refinery service and manufacturing facilities. I did some time on the trading floor.

So, I had, probably, nine different jobs in nine years with them. So, this me and the dudes, yeah, it was constantly me and 50 men or 100 men or me in training in South Padre with 50 guys or 20 guys. And that story I tell that you may be referring to is when you’re running a terminal for an oil industry or trucking facility, you have to go to Reno to learn how to put out a fire, and then you’re in South Padre to learn about what do you do if there’s an oil spill.

So, I was down in South Padre and it was me and 25 guys. And part of the training, as you’re going up in a helicopter, you got a chart where this might be. So, I’m there at the place we’re gonna depart and the guy yells out, and he was like, I’m gonna yell out your name and I need you to tell me what you’re weighted. I was like, what? This is off the hook, I’m not doing that. We’re not, I mean, whenever. I said what are you talking about? And he said, we need to make sure we balance the aircraft. I said, I’m gonna write this down on a piece of paper. I’m gonna give it to you, just in between you and me.

So, I’m standing there and he puts it in the computer and it’s five pounds heavier. He said that’s five pounds heavier. Every woman lies about their weight. It’s great, those are great, fun jobs. I mean, I had to tell one of the guys that work with me on the dock to bring his teeth to work. He kept showing up without his teeth. I was like, Tommy, it’s super distracting, man. You got to bring your teeth in, okay? You’re killing me with that. I mean, those jobs, though, it’s wonderful and I never was uncomfortable there. And the reason, I think, is because I kept thinking this could be my father, my uncle, my cousins, this was not abnormal for me. And I felt pretty clearly, based on what I saw from my father when he would come home from work or come off the road, the most important thing I needed to do was show up every day in a consistent, positive, forward-looking manner, as a supervisor, or as a manager, and help them understand how much their work was valued. What is your job today? Your job is to put out this many on the line or you have to make this many stops and there’s real value to that work. And, unfortunately, I think we minimize it. Now, today, of course, during the pandemic, everybody who’s a driver or who is doing that kind of work in food production, for instance, are highly valued, ’cuz we see that. But I learned that lesson pretty clearly that I needed to make sure they understood I respected them. I respected the hard work they did every day, and I think that that was a real benefit for me.

Adriann Negreros: That’s incredible, Beth, I think kind of looking back on what you’ve spoken about there’s great values, you know being a self-advocate, hard work, and determination. What you just mentioned being a good team player, even when your teammates asked you what your weight is. To me, it’s no surprise you’ve had such incredible professional success: seven companies, six industries, ending at Land O’Lakes. I wanna talk a little bit about your first couple of roles there. So Chris Policinski, the former CEO, had lots of faith in you. Within a few years being in Arden Hills, Minnesota, you led multiple P&Ls that drove the business. So, how were you able to drive such high confidence from Chris in you being there so quickly?

Beth Ford: Well, I’m gonna talk about that, but I also wanna talk about one other thing that I think is important for the why Land O’Lakes, and thus why I think I also was able to accelerate my career there. In the interim between Mobil and then Land O’Lakes, in those other industries, one of them was in publishing. I was in publishing scholastic Clifford the Big Red Dog, Harry Potter, Her Shed, Little Brown Boats, or the Twilight series. And what I learned about myself in those jobs was why would I do that? Well, because of the job at Land O’Lakes, all right, was about literacy and children, and so there was a power of meaningful work to me. I enjoyed, for instance, being on the trading floor for Mobil Oil, but I didn’t love it. Intellectually, I understood it, it was fun, but it didn’t speak to my soul the way the mess, as I say the mess of the human condition speaks to me. And this opportunity to deal with something like literacy and children.

At Land O’Lakes, when I went there, I had first thought, I’m not gonna do that. I was living in New York City, Jill was running a hedge fund, I was traveling around the world, we had our three children, I’m like, we’re pretty good here in New York City. And then something about the structure of the company about feeding a growing world population, about farmer steps spoke to me. When I started, so to your point, I started as chief supply chain officer, and I was running all the operating functions and it’s a pretty big platform. It’s about 300 plus manufacturing, etc., facilities, chemicals, food processing, you name it. And then I picked up R&D, and then it picked up IT, and then I started running the businesses. And then I picked up the last business and I became COO.

During that time, now I can go back to being an advocate for yourself. I did meet with Chris quite a bit. I, of course, got a lot of visibility to the board and I talked with two human resource officers. And I was pretty clear with Chris that my ambition, my aspiration was to take over as CEO of this company. Now, I had been in position in two other companies to be considered for CEO and I made the definitive decision that was not my right place. That I could do it, but there were others that were actually gonna be better than me, I thought. It was like in publishing, I think, if you’re publishing you love that, you know all the editors, the publisher, you just know it. And I thought it was interesting, but it didn’t speak to my soul. So, at Land O’Lakes, what I think that they saw was in my conversation with him was about the ability to continue to stretch me, active, dialogue with him, and then of course you always, in those situations, have to deliver results, otherwise, you’re not gonna be given that next step in your career.

Adriann Negreros: Absolutely, and you, of course, drove incredible results throughout your career at Land O’Lakes. Last Friday, super amazing Q3 earnings. So congratulations from us.

Beth Ford: Thank you.

Adriann Negreros: I wanna ask about the structure. I think you mentioned it briefly, the co-op structure. It’s not super familiar to everyone on the west coast, the Silicon Valley types. So could you tell us about what that means for you as CEO?

Beth Ford: Yeah, the cooperative. So I worked in the small private, I worked in private period. I worked in large corporations, public trade companies, and nonprofit boards. In a cooperative structure, the members or the owners own you, okay? So I report to a board right now that has 28 board members. They are elected locally. So there may be five out of California, for instance in the Central Valley, which is one of the most productive food production areas in the world.

And from that they … it’s almost like thinking it’s like the House of Representatives. But I say to them when they’re elected, once you step into the boardroom, it’s governance, you’re not the House of Representatives. You’re not there to worry about whether Joey had some animal husbandry issue, okay? You’re a board member of a Fortune 200 company and that’s a big responsibility. The structure then, we hold back from our earnings and that, the earnings are generated from either milk. For instance, we have dairy producers. Most people know Land O’Lakes is for our dairy production. We also own Purina, animal nutrition. We own Winfield technologies, which works with growers on the eight wheel Truterra — sustainable production business. And then we also have an NGO Venture 37, which does work around the world with the Gates Foundation and others on smallholder farmers, etc.

So this structure is interesting because really, we collateralize based on the assets and based on the … the hold back from these numbers. We do have a preferred tranche, so it acts like equity on our balance sheet, but I’m not out in the market selling shares, right? So you really have to … It’s a skinny margin business and food production because you have some part that is commodity, some part that is differentiated or value added or CPG like. But you have to — really that margin is so critical because it’s reinvested in the business. And then there’s hold back from the members for our, what we earn. Some of it goes back almost like the dividend. We call it patronage back to them, some of its held back at the corporate level. So there’s been great growth because let’s think about it debt financing right now, I mean the money is pretty cheap and we’ve got this private equity trumps. So we haven’t been held back in our aspiration for growing these businesses, but we also don’t access capital markets in terms of putting out in different shares.

We do report, we go through the whole sox compliance that our would be familiar with. We, I meet with the rating agencies and meet with investors kind of a similar situations, so it is different. This company was started in 1921 by Upper Midwest dairy farmers trying to get power in the channel and get their sweet cream butter into the population centers in the east. So they formed a marketing cooperative that was successful. So additionally, they formed a supply cooperative. The supply cooperative would be the animal feed side or your goods or the other things. So it’s a fully integrated platform. Literally we go right from the farm. We have to take our member’s milk. I can’t say, no, we don’t want it ’cuz there’s too much of it. No, that’s our job is to find a home for it. And the cows are milking two or three times a day so you got to figure that out all the way to retail.

Adriann Negreros: Right, that you mentioned your board and back in July, 2018, they named you as CEO. I read in the news release, I love it. They focus on metrics. You drove great performance and your multiple roles. Let’s put the people that do the best work in the high position. But more personally to you, and I’m sure this decision is made over a number of weeks. But can you take us back to the email or the phone call? The moment it became really real to you? I’m about to lead a Fortune 200 company. What were you feeling?

Beth Ford: Well, we had been talking about this for a couple of years, obviously. And then really, these processes start early. If you’re in a company and you’re in the top level, if you’re in the C suite during or before that generally like, as soon as I took over a CEO, I started to look at who’s to take my job in the future. So it’s really fairly early ’cuz you’re working on developing them. What I did is, and what they did is not dissimilar to other companies in which I’m sitting on the board on their comp committee or elsewhere. You go through a whole process. I did business cases. Think of it, just like the MBA school. I did interviews with the exec committee, which were, there were eight gentlemen who were on that committee, ran the process.

There were other internal candidates, so it was an unlearned candidate. And then they made a decision up front that they weren’t gonna be external. Now most companies, will say, if the performance of the business is what is expected … has been expected, we’ll stay inside. If you want disruption You wanna go outside. That’s kind of a general rule of thumb. I’ve made it pretty clear, and I think most people in my position would, if I’ve been there six to seven years at that point. I’m COO, I’ve done everything, I’m running everything. And you go outside, that’s a vote of no confidence, all right?

And I said that. If you do that, that would be a vote of no confidence and I will not stay. And they said, no, we’re gonna go inside, there are a couple of other candidates. So you go through a whole process, they bring in an external firm to interview you as well. You’ve got interviews multiple times with this exec committee. They’re doing background checks, they’re checking any board I’ve sat on, they’re looking at do I have any legal issues. So it’s a multi-week process, actually multiple months. And towards the end, what they did is they called and said we want you to fly into Denver where the whole board will be. And during that time, I met with the entire board, 28 of them, I stood up and I gave them my strategic vision for the company. And then I stood up there for three hours and they could ask me any question and I would answer those and then I left the room. And when I left, they voted and they made me CEO and I came back in. So then they said congratulations. Then I went down the hall and started doing press, they had already set up. I think Tim was on the phone, my head of communications. They had already set up interviews with Wall Street Journal and some of the local publications here. And then it was very funny ’cuz my assistant said, well, do you want us to put a plane over there? And I was like, well, I’m at the airport, I’ll just go, and then you’re kind of by yourself. So now you’ve done the interview, you’re kind of hanging out. Jill, my spouse was traveling with her mother to the west coast. All my kids were at camp, so it’s just me. And so I guess I went to the bar at the airport and had a beer. And then I got home and it was just me and the cat for god’s sake. I’m like, this kind of an anticlimactic moment actually. Who’s checking out the outfit for tomorrow when I’m gonna make this announcement? I guess you are, Mage the cat, ’cuz even the dog’s gone.

Adriann Negreros: I wanted to ask where do you celebrate in the Twin Cities after being named CEO? Apparently you celebrate Mage is what I just heard.

Beth Ford: Apparently, it was like yeah, I got to have one good glass of wine. And, no, it’s very funny, of course I called my family. I called my siblings and my mom and they were aware. And it was joyous and then eventually my family came home, but the first few days of course, if that wasn’t the case. It was probably fine because there’s so much that happens on that first day when you step back into headquarters, and you tell everybody, okay, that it was me who was selected as CEO. And we talk about what’s next and do constant rounds of interviews or talking to customers or talking to shareholders.

Adriann Negreros: I want to talk about a couple broader topics, Beth, that you work very hard and your team also. Firstly on rural broadband access, so I think simply put, tens of millions of Americans are online. And we sit here and it’s wonderful we can chat via Zoom, but there are kids right now that, they just don’t have any form of education. And I know you’ve partnered with the public and private sector to address this. What do we all need to do better? So private, public, people listening right out of this, to help students get online?

Beth Ford: Well, the first thing you need to do is be aware that there is this gap. That there are 18 to 20 million Americans that lack broadband access. Many of them don’t have any access to cellular at all. And the majority of them are in rural communities. Now they’re also in underserved areas. So I’m working two things. One, I’m part of the Business Roundtable.

I’m on their board of directors. I’m right now on a committee with Jamie Diamond and Robert Smith. Around wealth creation especially for underserved communities for the black African American communities. So that’s a portion and there’s over a third of African American black households lack access to broadband. In rural communities, it’s equally startling and I think people don’t understand that, they think it’s somebody else’s problem. I keep saying, listen, this is an American problem. The fact of the matter is that food security is a national security issue. Look at president Z in China, what is he saying? Food security is a major issue for them.

I could talk with you at length, and your eyes would glaze over about what we have going on over there. But it is a national security issue, so it’s not somebody else’s problem. It leaves us less secure as a nation. The second thing is yes, the kids there, 95% of farms are still family owned. And so they have families. These are young children and at the same time they’re having to make a decision. Do I run some of the equipment with whatever bandwidth I have or do the kids go to school? Teachers are having to drive out to these farms and give paper homework. The families then drive an hour to sit next to a school bus where they’ve got hotspots so they can get enough bandwidth to finish their homework on their cellphone. It’s just not acceptable. There’s a shortage of 40,000 doctors in rural communities. There’s Over a third of children are growing up food insecure.

There’s a shortage of housing. So there are so many issues here. What I say — you said, what can we do? The first thing you need to do is be aware that this is really a major issue. We can talk all we want and you’re on the ballot and I go so many times in there and I talk to entrepreneurs, and they got the greatest tech. And I say none of it can be used in these communities unless we get some technology in there, some broadband, basic wiring. This should be a right, like electricity, like mail delivery and otherwise, all of this innovation which this technology that is now under development can help us solve climate change.

We just started a partnership with Nori, which wants to be the eBay of carbon credit trading. We’re doing something else in Iowa right now where we’re connecting on water quality these farms and we’re giving a score with our Truterra insight engine. It’s got over a trillion data points. Where they can help improve their decision making on their farm, which will improve water quality and seepage into these rivers and from that they get a certain amount per acre. We’ve got to think of other incentive structures for these farmers. We can’t have what it is this year $40 billion of subsidies from the government.

Farmers don’t wanna be on the dole, they want open access to markets and we have to think about what will likely be this transition leveraging technology that will accelerate in the ag sector for many, many other pressure points that we again, I don’t wanna have everybody’s eyes glaze over about why electrification of the transportation sector is gonna have a deleterious impact on the farm community.

I can go into multiple issues that if you really looked at it, you’d say, wow, wait a minute, we gotta pay attention to this. This is gonna be a transformational moment in our society. Right now, I have concerns, I’m sure all of you are looking at this. Looking at the concentration of COVID cases in the upper Midwest, where I am, where many of our members are. And we saw this in February, we started what’s called our American connection project. It’s got over 125 different companies now. We are partnered very directly with Microsoft, I spent some time with Satyr. We announced A partnership, A on tools development, but B on also closing this digital divide.

And one of the things that we saw was that, since there’s a shortage of doctors, what’s gonna happen when this goes into the Dakotas where it is right now? And so what we did was we, I called all the governors and sent out letters to the governors, to the speaker, majority leader — all of them to say you need to change your regulatory framework to allow for prescriptions to be written if we see you on a Zoom, you don’t have to be in person. To allow reimbursement rates to be supportive of funding a doctor or hospital and with that there’s been an acceleration in healthcare of telemedicine.

The Mayo Clinic, who were also partnered with the Cleveland Clinic and others, tell us that there have been more telemedicine appointments in one day than all of last year. So it’s a long answer when you say what are you doing and what can you do. But any of you who are looking at your careers, I can tell you all of these things are different factors on this transformational moment in our society. And the opportunity is to recognize how enabling technology is and if we do not have it in these communities, it leaves us less secure as a nation. That’s why job creation has lagged in those areas, and we can go on and on.

Adriann Negreros: It’s incredible but I think, I imagine you’ve enlightened a lot of people listening and also invigorated a lot of people listening that we can do more and it’s a group effort here. It’s so clear to me how much you care about communities in the rural Midwest, farmers, kids. You often are the only one like yourself in the room, whether that’s on the tent here with the dude’s, whether that’s running a $14 billion business, that’s more than Airbnb and Lyft combined if anyone’s tracking in the audience. Beth, I know that the press loves their headline, they like their clicks and their views. They like to put us into boxes, when I researched for this, I couldn’t find an article that didn’t have in bold triple underlined, first openly gay female CEO and except actually your press release from your own company, right?

The board focused on results, so, there was one. But you’ve talked about authenticity and identity in a matter of fact way. It’s who you are, it’s in your DNA. You want your members, your employees to bring their full selves to work. So you want to do the same. I think, though, by doing that, by being you, it means a lot to a lot of different communities. And for those of us that are part of the LGBTQ plus community, 10% of the Stanford class is. For women working in male dominated industries or for the little kid in Iowa, who can look at you and say, I could be the next fortune 200 CEO, you’re making a major difference and I just wanna say thank you.

Beth Ford: Well, that’s very kind of you. You know again, I don’t find my life that interesting, I guess it’s probably that whole thing might when I talked to one of my sons today who’s like, what are you doing? I said, I’m gonna talk with these students at Stanford. So that’s great he’s thinking about it. He’s like, why do they wanna listen to you? Because in real life, I’m like, there’s a lot here, there’s a lot, he just laughed. But I appreciate you saying that. What I recognize is all of us look for moments of hope or, for some, this possibility that this is possible.

I’ve told these stories about people who have kind of — I had literally thousands and thousands of people connect with me to talk about the leading your authentic life. And thank you because that’s so helpful, including parents of young children, who’ve come out as gay. But one of the ones that was most touching to me was, I was at an event in it was here in the Midwest somewhere. And I was waiting to go speak to the speaker who was going off the stage. And there was a big man, a big gentlemen, now and I’m six feet tall. So if I’m telling you the man is big, that’s a big man. And he’s standing there, I thought, I’ll go and introduce myself. I said hi, I’m Beth Ford, he goes I know who you are. And I was like, okay great. And I’m thinking, what does that mean? And he goes, I just wanna say, and he stood there and he started to cry. And his lip was moving and I went over to him and I said, it’s okay.

It’s gonna be okay. He said, no, it’s my son, my son is gay. And he said, I’m just so proud of you. And I’m so grateful for your courage and I just held him, I said he’s so fortunate to have a father like you ’cuz all of us just wanna be, I guess, valued, seen. That to me was such a profound moment. I can literally see it, I can feel it now, just holding him and saying I’m grateful that you took the time to say that to me. And he was I just, I it was it’s so hard but I’m so grateful that you’ve been so authentic about this. It’s really that pain and as I say, most of the time when I’m contacted like that, I feel that pain, the pain of the journey. It’s not really about me at all. It’s about the pain of the emotion, that hope for themselves or their children that, of course, all of us understand.

I understand, I’ve got three children. I hope everybody values them and they think they’re good people. And so most of the time, I don’t think it’s me at all. So when you say that I’m grateful, it’s not me, it’s a reflection of this moment of in what level of concern pain, joy, happiness, pride is present. And so I’m grateful to be there with those people at that moment to tell them they’ll be okay, that is gonna be okay.

Adriann Negreros: That’s incredibly touching and powerful. Thank you so much, Beth. I have one last question before we turn to audience Q&A. It’s something we’ll ask all of our speakers here. It’s obviously been an incredibly challenging year. What principles do you rely on as a leader when facing these tough moments?

Beth Ford: Calm is contagious, calm is contagious. I kinda gave everybody a Minnesota, you’ll know this, view in the snowstorm in the car, you don’t jerk the wheel. You pump the brake, don’t jerk the wheel, for God’s sake, we’ll go into the ditch. And then the priority is always your people, your people, your people, your people. I know I’ve said I felt like I was pretty engaged with my team before, but not nearly. Now I’m really reflecting back and saying, maybe I’m really wasn’t as present. Because there’s an intimacy, here you’re sitting here, I’m doing this from my home office. I’ve had multiple situations, I do live interviews with Washington Post or something and one of my sons is low crawling in here in his underwear to get his technology out of my office. You see people, the whole person, you don’t see Beth, who’s the CEO. You see, Beth, she has these kids. We’re going camping. I’m not really a camper, but now we’re doing that, there’s the dog, there’s the cat. I mean, there’s almost this joy of this moment, this intimacy, and there’s been a flattening. Right, there’s not this hierarchy really, it’s this flattening. I do lunch with Beth, breakfast with Beth, I do all sorts of things.

And so the principle of the people first, and I tell them, and we have a hotline — thousands of calls. I say, you’re not gonna hear me say, aren’t we just lucky that you have a job. I don’t know, I’m not living their journey. I don’t know what’s going on in their home. I don’t know what the pressures are. I don’t know what’s going on with their parents, their children, whatever. You can’t sit there and say well, you should just be grateful. No, it’s hard, it’s emotional, this is a marathon. And so the principle of people first, and second, and third is what I live with. And then like I say, keep calm. Calm is contagious, don’t jerk the wheel, let’s stay in the lane here.

Adriann Negreros: Wonderful message to leave us all with, Beth, thank you so much. That will conclude the main part of the interview we’ll invite Ed an MBA 2 to ask our first question right now he should be on in a second.

Beth Ford: Hey Ed.

Ed: Hi Beth, I’m Ed, second year MBA student at the GSB. Thanks so much for being with us here today. My question is related to the Black Lives Matter movement and the call for racial equity. Your headquarters is only 15 miles north of where George Floyd was killed, last May. And I guess my question is how did you manage your staff in the days and weeks that followed that?

Beth Ford: Listen, that was a painful, awful time. Still this is a fraught environment, let’s all agree, and it’s not just here in the Twin Cities it’s elsewhere around the country. It was painful to see somebody basically murdered in front of us, right, and there are a couple things that I would note. There are 17 Fortune 500s here in the Twin Cities, that are headquartered here. And it is an expectation kind of the Midwest, you are involved in multiple organizations as the CEO or as a senior leader, if you’re on the C suite. 85% of our team volunteers. So this is an active involved community but the fact of the matter is there are disparate outcomes from an educational perspective for minorities in this community. And let’s agree, education is a foundational issue for wealth creation, for job opportunities, for all sorts of things.

But we’re like 49th out of 50, it’s just stunning. Not because there’s not investment or well-meaning people, but clearly we’re not listening so would you say, what did you do? How did you handle this as leader? Well the first thing we need to do is step back, listen to our team, we had listening sessions as did many of the companies in town. It was led by our ERG, our black, African American ERG. They shared their fear for their own children, things that had happened to them. It was really eye opening and painful, frankly. They asked then, for more transparency about our progress that we’re making on diversity. And what I was quite honest with is, listen, we attract good talent, minority talent, we don’t retain well.

We’re clearly not connected, we need to do better, this is gonna be dirty. So the first thing we did is listen, we tried to be more transparent and then outside of you ’cuz what I recognize is when people leave, it’s one thing to say you’re safe here, you’re engaged inside the four walls of the company. It’s another thing to say you’re safe in your community, or you should feel engaged in your community and welcome. And so we have been trying to work in our community and in the communities in which we do business to, again, say we will make investment, we wanna make sure that there’s opportunity.

We wanna make sure that the policies are appropriate, we’ll work with government officials, all sorts of things. So it’s both an internal and external thing, and then it’s really saying it’s not, we did that session now we’re done. No, no, this is gonna to be an ongoing thing here. Minnesota Business Partners has the CEOs of all of the major corporations in town. And then I sit on the business roundtable part of directors and the CEOs, there, over 200 of the largest corporations, that one’s led by W. Bone at Walmart is. We’re all working to say what are the investments we need to make to make a change?

Ed: Thank you, Beth.

Beth Ford: Thanks, Ed.

Adriann Negreros: One more question, Beth, that’s from Morgan, who’s an MBA 1.

Beth Ford: Hey, Morgan.

Morgan: Beth, I’m Morgan Kitson, MBA 1 at GSB. My question is around the future of the industry. So, how will the agriculture industry evolve to meet greater demands for food with higher sustainability requirements? And how do you prepare existing companies to meet this challenge?

Beth Ford: Well it’s like you’re in my head Morgan. You probably said it more articulate than that. The fundamental issue is that we’re gonna go to nine and a half to ten billion people by 2050. You almost have to double food production in that time, with less land, less arable land, less water, right?

Fresh water is always a priority problem. Where’s most population growth gonna occur? Africa, India, and some of those areas are water scarce anyway. And their technology, let’s say, if our yield for corn production for instance on average is 176 bushels an acre, they might get 40 or less. So, when you say what are we gonna do? Now and then let’s think about the transformation, I get this a lot. I’m at an event and somebody will say, what do you think about plant based, Beth? Beth what do you think about sulfates what do you think about, and I’m like yes, I am an advocate for innovation.

I’m gonna go have a regular burger, you have your plant based, okay? And I have a burger. But I don’t mean to quip about that, because your comment is really one that I spent a lot of time with my team on. I’ve mentioned these other pressures, the electrification of the transportation sector. Let me just say, 40% of corn produced goes into ethanol, biofuels. Now, California, Governor Newsom I’ve met with him personally, I mean, he’s a thought leader, what did he say? By 2035, you know all have to be electric vehicles, right? So biofuels, which has been central to the profitability of farmers in addition to exports, or net exporter, same thing for dairy producers.

What happens when biofuels are no longer necessary? How quickly is that gonna happen? Of course, we could get into a lot of those discussions. What’s gonna happen with the geopolitical environment then, when that transitions over the Middle East? I mean, there’s so many factors here, so when you say how do I think about it or what are we doing? What I have to do is what I did initially with the COVID crisis. Is I said, I gotta protect the enterprise. I immediately checked liquidity, I had my CFO running all sorts of models. I talked with our bankers, I mean I was looking at every scenario, okay? Can we withstand, how long can we withstand, what does this imply?

So when I’m thinking of this, I have to protect the enterprise and then I have to protect the members. These are families, they have their entire life’s investment in this. If the sector is gonna transition in different ways that we just discussed, whether it’s biofuels, whether it’s different types of food production. And let’s all agree, I’m a big believer in biodiversity for instance. We basically have three main crops that feed us, and there are what, 30,000 plant varieties or something? I mean, we need to do something and there’s been a significant destruction of biodiversity on the planet. So we know we have to do something, and what I have to do is think about it from what is the member? What is the enterprise? And then how do we set up different incentive structures to allow different revenue sources for farmers as this transition occurs or as we work towards this? Because the technology is there to feed this world’s population, I can tell you that already. How do we know that? There’s excess supply, yet we also have a billion people that go to bed hungry every night. There’s a distribution in the economics and the equity issue. And with that, then, there are multiple ways I can answer your question, Morgan. What I think it takes is fundamentally in the capitalist society here is to come up with different incentive structures. Whether it’s in carbon capture, whether it’s in, as I said, carbon credits. There are other ways that incentives can be put together for farmers. And then the sector that will stabilize them and allow us to move to this transition, but it’s also better for society, and for other bigger problems like punishing.

Morgan: Thank you.

Adriann: Thank you so much to Ed and Morgan for those awesome questions. I’ve got great classmates, Beth. I’m very lucky to be here.

Beth Ford: Yes you are, you are smart.

Adriann Negreros: Want to end with our lightning round, Beth. It’s a tradition here on View From The Top. I know you have experience, so the expectations are pretty high.

Beth Ford: I’m gonna do my best here, okay.

Adriann Negreros: I’m gonna have you finish some sentences from the perspective of a few different people, okay?

Beth Ford: Okay.

Adriann Negreros: The first one is simple, you are yourself, I think you can do that. All right, so I’m Beth Ford. Over the past few months, I’ve been binge watching?

Beth Ford: Yellowstone.

Adriann Negreros: Okay, I thought maybe that’d be a problem, I don’t know what I’ve been watching. I like it.

Beth Ford: No, no, no I was thinking Yellowstone. But then most recently I was going back to something I watched a few years ago, Newsroom with Jeff Daniels, I like that one. So most recently I’ve been watching that and then I really wanna get into this, what is it, the Queen’s Gambit?

Adriann Negreros: We just finished that.

Beth Ford: Is it good?

Adriann Negreros: Amazing, I love it, love it.

Beth Ford: Gotta do that one.

Adriann Negreros: Okay, I’m a Columbia MBA and I love that heart NYC, go Lions. But if I could have gone to any other business school, it would be?

Beth Ford: Well, of course Stanford. I’m not sure they would have taken me. So, if you said what is the presumption? The presumption is that they would have wanted me, right? I’ll tell you, I’ll be very honest and transparent why I went to Columbia. I had met Jill and she was going to Columbia Law School and I was actually gonna go further south for my MBA and she told me she thought it was a good idea if I went to Columbia. And I was kinda smitten, so I said, of course I’m gonna go to Columbia and there it is, 28 years later.

Adriann Negreros: Great, okay, I’m a Stanford MBA. And I hope one day to be as incredible a power couple as Beth and Jill. To do that, the number one thing I must do is?

Beth Ford: Marry the right person.

Adriann Negreros: That’s what I was thinking, you gotta find somebody first. There’s a lot of singles in our class, so.

Beth Ford: Well, I mean, that is the most important career decision you make. That’s no lie, and in my career and her, I mean, she’s was a lawyer too. She went to West Point, and then she was coming out, she went to law school. She was a scout and then she became went into banking. And then she became a CEO of a hedge fund. And but we make life decisions about careers, right? Life decisions because it’s never individual, you’re hiring the whole person, we have three children. We’ve got a very busy life so it’s who you marry that is critical for your career.

Adriann Negreros: I love that, makes sense. Last one, Beth. So I’m the CEO of Land O’Lakes, and I try to eat dinner as often as possible with Jill and my three kids. My favorite kid is? You don’t have to answer, only if you want to, but —

Beth Ford: No, we asked my mother that one time, we said you know you have a favorite. We know who it is, because there’s eight of us. And she goes no I don’t, but then we gave her half a glass of wine which is her max. And she told us and we knew it was my older brother Micheal. Michael, we’re like, of course, he’s the best of us, he’s the smartest. He was a Navy captain, he’s got his PhD in like something smart, nuclear engineering or something. He’s teaching at Harvard and we’re like, of course you’d love Mike best. We all love Mike best, he’s so much smarter than us. He’s a good guy, but I will not say I have a favorite. I love them all.

Adriann Negreros: That’s the perfect answer, thank you so much, Beth, for the time today. Thank you for all you do for farmers for rural America in the great state of Minnesota.

Beth Ford: Well, thank you, and thanks for the invitation to be with you. I’m wishing all of you the very best. Good luck on your journey. Please stay in touch, I’d be happy to help in any way I can.

Adriann Negreros: You’ve been listening to View From The Top, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by me, Adriann Negreros, of the MBA class of 2021. Lily Sloan composed our theme music, and Kelsey Doyle produced this episode. You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website, Follow us on social media at Stanford GSB.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More