Why it’s worth balancing a board seat with a high-powered corporate day job

Best wishes for a productive new year.
Best wishes for a productive new year.
Image: Courtesy of Land O'Lakes
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On the same day that Land O’Lakes executive Beth Ford was promoted to a chief operating officer role at the massive dairy and agriculture cooperative, she also was named board chair at Clearwater Paper, a publicly traded pulp and paper company where she has been a director since 2013. Both appointments are effective Jan. 1.

Ford’s situation is notable for several reasons, starting with the fact that with her new board role, Spokane, Washington-based Clearwater will be one of the only, if not the only, major public company with a female chair and a separate female CEO. (This also had been the arrangement at Buffalo Wild Wings, but CEO Sally Smith announced her retirement in June in the wake of an activist investor campaign, and the restaurant chain, chaired by Janice Fields, has now agreed to an acquisition by fast-food company Arby’s.)

And then there’s the fact that it’s becoming increasingly hard to find sitting executives on public-company boards. Chalk it up to the growing complexities of their day jobs or the increased demands on corporate boards—whatever the reason, active senior executives accounted for just 53% of directors at S&P 500 companies in 2016, down from 66% a decade earlier, according to placement firm Spencer Stuart.

Ford says both of her new appointments have the full endorsement of Land O’Lakes’ CEO, whom she says has encouraged her and other senior executives to take on outside board service as a step in their own development and as a way to round out their approaches to Land O’Lakes, which did $13 billion in revenue last year and is based in Arden Hills, Minnesota.

Ford joined Land O’Lakes in 2011,  from International Flavors and Fragrances. She has overseen the dairy and pet-food giant’s food and feed businesses, and her new role adds responsibility for the company’s WinField United agricultural-products business to her portfolio. She also is a director at the truck manufacturer PACCAR Inc., where she joined the board in 2015.

Ford spent her early career in supply-chain and operations-management roles at companies including Mobil, PepsiCo, Hachette Book Group, and Scholastic. She has a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University and an MBA from Columbia University. She recently spoke with Quartz At Work about balancing her day job with corporate board service and how each role benefits the other.

Quartz At Work: Congratulations on the new roles. But is it possible to do all this at the same time?

Beth Ford: The reason I have the ability to do these things is that I have a terrific team at Land O’Lakes. As you get more senior, you’re not in the day-to-day technical operating issues. You’re doing a lot of the strategic work, but your team is running a lot of the day-to-day things. So it always comes down to the team that you’ve built and your ability to inspire them, and then your ability to prioritize your own work.

How do you even begin prioritizing that now?

There’s a cycle in every business and there’s a timing in every business I’ve ever been involved in. We’re in key season right now at Land O’Lakes; this is where we sell a lot of our dairy products—it’s baking season. And it’s a push for our Purina business because animals eat more when they’re cold. So I consider all those kinds of cycles in terms of the level of priority and focus that I need, versus the timing I know for those businesses. I understand the key elements that will drive results, and I’m having frequent conversations with my team, and often that kind of engagement is aligned with the cycle of each business.

And because I am going to sit in the chair position at Clearwater, I’m respectful of all the other directors’ schedules, but they’re going to work around my schedule in some ways, so I can take into consideration priorities including dealing with the Land O’Lakes board.

Not every company wants its senior leaders distracted by outside work.

It’s true many companies don’t allow sitting executives to have outside board service, and some encourage it. Chris Policinski, our CEO at Land O’Lakes, is a very thoughtful, forward-thinking executive. He wants you to have that outside-in view and get a broader portfolio or platform to think about the business. He’s on a couple of boards; I’m on a couple of boards; Jerry Kaminski, who runs our international business, is on a board.

Has your outside board service to date helped you in your day job?

At Clearwater I’ve been on the audit committee and chaired the nominating and governance committee, so all of that has been helpful. And Clearwater, when I went on the board, had an activist investor—that was a learning experience. How the board is thinking about cybersecurity, heavy manufacturing—it’s all relevant. And Clearwater has a cyclicality to it, just as Land O’Lakes is a cyclical business, and we can talk about how you deal with things at different points in the cycle. The richness of the learning in each of those areas is there.

Not to be too pedestrian about it, but I would say it’s really terrific when you sit back and think about how [other boards] might have thought through the same issues Land O’Lakes deals with, and how that might apply to the things I’m seeing in my own businesses. And it goes both ways.

What would your reaction be if one of your direct reports said he or she wanted to take on an outside board appointment?

Some of them have said that, and I’ve encouraged them. It’s not like I think it’s good for me and not for you. Everybody’s at a different point in their development and has their own priorities. But we do have conversations about it, because it is part of development for very senior leaders, and these are EVPs running multimillion-dollar businesses, and so you would want them to get that experience.