Land O'Lakes CEO on making history as the first openly gay woman to run a Fortune 500 firm

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·Head of Yahoo Finance UK
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Beth Ford, President and CEO, Land O'Lakes. Photo: Land O'Lakes
Beth Ford, President and CEO, Land O'Lakes. Photo: Land O'Lakes

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is imperative to business success. Leading by example is Beth Ford, the winner of the Yahoo Finance/INvolve OUTstanding Top 100 Role Model LGBT+ Executives 2020.

Ford is the president and CEO of Land O'Lakes, an American member-owned agricultural cooperative focused on the dairy industry.

The group’s latest financial results showed net sales of $2.9bn (£2.1bn) and net earnings of $66m for the third quarter ending 30 September, 2020. It also clocked $54m in year-over-year earnings and liquidity up 70%.

At the helm of the company, Ford made history as the first openly gay women to run a Fortune 500 company. In her words, she has “made it a priority to share the message that everyone benefits when we bring our authentic selves to all aspects of our lives, including work.”

For her, D&I is the bedrock of business success and she leads through action.

Ford is the lead of the Land O'Lakes Executive Diversity and Inclusion Council, which drives inclusion across its workforce, and works with 11 Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), as well as the company’s Supplier Diversity program and Diversity Impacts Business Board.

“One of these, the Land O'Lakes Pride Alliance Employee Resource Group, exists to provide a safe and inclusive environment for LGBTQ employees and their allies,” she says.

“Through this, we represent Land O'Lakes' commitment to LGBTQ employees, customers and members; recognizing their contributions and value in the marketplace.”

Amongst various other initiatives, Land O’Lakes has been one of the only Fortune 500 companies in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis–Saint Paul) to celebrate Transgender Awareness for the last two years. The group was named a top-rated workplace by Indeed and place #23 on Forbes’ Best Employers list.

How does it feel to be the winner of the executive lists and what does being a role model mean to you?

BETH FORD: It’s certainly an honor to have been named to the top of this list for 2020, but even more of an honor to be among the other individuals on the list. I am clearly in great company. Being a role model means being a champion for others and being invested in others’ success just as much as in your own.

Why are lists like these so important?

BF: It’s not the rankings that are important, in my opinion, but rather the personification and collective illustration of the important work done to empower the LGBTQ+ community this year. These lists are indicative of the progress made, and of the progress possible.

Was there ever a lightbulb moment for embedding D&I into your job and sphere of influence?

BF: I wouldn’t say there was a “lightbulb moment.” Bringing your authentic self to work, and enabling others to do so, has always been an integral part of who I am and what I believe in.

We hire the whole person when we recruit. Showing up as your authentic self means you are more likely to drive best performance. That said, it’s a very personal decision and each person needs to decide, given their own journey and feeling of security, how they show up.

What have been particular challenges you've faced and how did you overcome those?

BF: I’ve worked in many traditionally male-dominated industries throughout my career and each presented its own unique challenge in terms of who I felt I could – or could not – be in those roles. Overcoming those took confidence, trust, and the support and encouragement of those who knew me best.

With your company, why is D&I so important and do you bring customers as well as employees along with you?

BF: With Land O’Lakes’ farmer-owned cooperative structure, our success is built from diverse perspectives. Everyone benefits when we bring our authentic selves to all aspects of our lives, including our work. Diverse voices are absolutely critical.

In light of the many divisions 2020 brought, it was especially important to re-examine and re-commit to D&I throughout our organization. And that’s what we did, all the while acknowledging there is always more work to be done.

I’ve also made it a priority to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. We make it clear that every employee is valued for exactly who they are. We expect our customers and employees to feel the same.

As an executive, what does success look like to you and how do you measure this?

BF: As an executive with responsibility and oversight for a Fortune 250 company, performance is the bottom line, with a clear focus on the people who deliver that performance. In addition, we have a responsibility to advocate for our members and the communities in which they live and work.

That’s why one of Land O’Lakes’ most important initiatives is the American Connection Project. Broadband connectivity is critical for success and, as a champion for our communities and others lacking connection, we know our future success is dependent on it.

How has 2020 shaped your future leadership and company strategy?

BF: Our 2021 strategy focuses on agility, optimism, innovation and meeting people where they are – consumers and employees alike. 2020 brought about some of our greatest challenges, but also some of our best examples of teamwork and creativity, and I couldn’t be more proud of my team.

As a leader, I’ll push to maintain this momentum and new way of thinking to reach even more new and exciting milestones in 2021, in both our business and our culture.

What would be the one piece of advice you'd give to your younger self?

BF: Go on life’s journey, being the “unique you” and caring about others’ success, as well as your own, because that will be your true legacy.

WATCH: INvolve’s Suki Sandhu on where businesses fail on diversity

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