CEO Credits Her Career Success to Advice She Got When She Was 11
By Morgan Smith
Beth Ford never imagined her career would make headlines.
The Land O’Lakes CEO grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, as one of eight kids. Her first job was detasseling corn for $2 an hour. During college, she cleaned toilets and painted houses.
Decades later, after working in a number of leadership positions at companies such as Mobil (now owned by Exxon), PepsiCo and Scholastic, Ford joined Land O’Lakes in 2012, where she would climb the corporate ladder to the C-suite.
Her appointment to CEO in 2018 wasn’t just a personal achievement, it was a historic milestone: Ford is the first woman to lead Land O’Lakes in its 101-year history, and the first openly gay woman to become a Fortune 500 CEO.
For Ford, “the best piece of career advice” she’s ever received came from her mother, she tells CNBC Make It.
At the time, Ford was 11 and “throwing a tantrum” about something she needed and thought her mother “should have understood” without explanation.
“But I have seven siblings, and I’m the middle child,” Ford explains. “So my mother turned to me and said, ‘If you want something, you should ask for it; I’m not a mind reader’ … and I remember that moment so clearly.’”
That moment taught Ford the importance of speaking up for herself, whether it’s at home or at work. It’s a skill that you need to learn to grow your career, she says.
“Often, we think, ‘Nobody is going to see the good job I’ve done,’ or we’re scared to ask for help,” Ford says. “Yet, if you do ask someone for help, or ask for what you want, people will reach out and give it to you.”
Challenging traditional beliefs about CEOs
Ford’s promotion shone a spotlight on her life, both as a newly minted CEO and an advocate for the LGBTQ community. At the time, she wasn’t worried. Ford has been out her entire professional life and is married to Jill Schurtz, CEO of the St. Paul’s Teachers’ Retirement Fund Association. They share three children.
Speaking to CNN in 2018, Ford said she decided to live “an authentic life” a long time ago and “if my being named CEO helps others do the same, that’s a wonderful moment.”
Once she became CEO, however, Ford realized that there were still harmful misconceptions surrounding women leaders. One is that the very existence of female executives meant they no longer face hurdles like discrimination and bias on their path to the C-suite.
“Some people think that if you get to this role, life has been easy for you,” she tells CNBC Make It. “But most folks, especially females, have had to be resilient and grit it out [to become CEO].”
There are currently 44 women CEOs who run Fortune 500 companies, a record high.
Women often have to make “tough decisions” about maintaining balance between their work and personal lives and “take risks with their careers” to better position themselves for the CEO role, Ford says, whether it’s scaling back on work to shoulder more child-care responsibilities or joining male-dominated industries where they might be the only woman on their team.
Ford hopes to use her platform to raise awareness of issues affecting both women and members of the LGBTQ community.
“Visibility is what is critical,” she told Fast Company in a recent interview. “I think it’s about showing up, doing your best work, being your best self and being visible — that encourages authenticity, no matter whether you’re gay or not.”