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Five lessons from 30 years at Land O’Lakes
Land O'Lakes Venture37 Group Director – Operations, Mary Jo Robinson, looks back
Let’s zoom back to 1989. The Berlin wall was falling. George H. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan. Microsoft Office was first released. The world looked different, and Mary Jo (known here as MJ) Robinson will be the first to tell you that Land O’Lakes, Inc. looked different, too. This is the year she joined what was then a regional supply and dairy cooperative.

From audit manager in Corporate to accounting manager for Ag Services to her current role as Group Director -Operations for Land O’Lakes Venture37, a nonprofit affiliated with the nearly 100-year-old farmer-owned cooperative, MJ’s 30-year tenure with Land O’Lakes has taken on several roles on various teams.

Here are five important things she’s learned along the way:

1.    Get to the field to see the work being done. This lesson came early in MJ’s career when she was supporting Midwestern dairy plants with financial audits. “I loved seeing firsthand how things were done. And it was important to get-to-know the people on the ground,” says MJ. This lesson is just as relevant to MJ’s current role. She recently returned from Rwanda, where she helped start up a newly awarded project and onboarded the Chief of Party. “Land O’Lakes Venture37 is evolving as an organization, and it’s important that this resonates with worldwide staff. We are focused on high performance, flexibility, failing fast and collaboration. It’s important to have those discussion in person.”

2.    When you can’t get there in person, appreciate technology. Before email and Skype, a big portion of MJ’s day was faxing. And long-distance phone calls. “I’d get on a long-distance call with our controller overseas to talk through a faxed excel file. We’d run up huge phone bills trying to discern one number that was off. Advancements in technology have removed a lot of hurdles to doing business internationally,” she says.

3.    Be open to different types of opportunities. “Early in my career, when I was still in internal audit with Land O’Lakes I saw a Post-It on a bulletin board. International development was seeking volunteers to go to Eastern Europe to lead Farmer-to-Farmer workshops,” says MJ. She became one of Land O’Lakes Venture37’s first corporate Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers. Today, MJ leads operations for Land O’Lakes Venture37. And it all started with a Post-It. 

4.    Take a seat at the table. As a 25-year-old woman traveling to do business in Eastern Europe in the 1990’s, MJ faced challenging power dynamics. “I had experience, I had an MBA, I was smart, but at the time it was still challenging to be an effective influencer with local management. It took some time, but I learned that I needed to pave my own way and show people that I’m good at what I do,” says MJ. “And if you feel like you’ve hit a roadblock, find a path that’s open and move on. Go get what you want.”

5.    Embrace failures and recover. Business changes over time. Investments that were once promising may not work out. MJ learned this while supporting corporate joint ventures in Poland. When the board made the decision to divest, she was disappointed, but learned a lot. “We’ve adopted this ‘fail fast’ mindset at Venture37. It means that’s it’s ok to try something and fail. Take a moment to learn from it and quickly adapt. It makes employees and our organization smarter and more efficient,” says MJ.

A lot has changed in 30 years. Land O’Lakes, Inc. is now a $15 billion premier agribusiness and food company with a global reach. Land O’Lakes Venture37 is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit unlocking the potential of agricultural business ventures around the world.

But over these 30 years, MJ says one thing has remained the same: Land O’Lakes is a great place to work. “Land O’Lakes has taken me to places I never thought I’d go. In my 30 years here, I’ve never had a job a didn’t like. I’m always learning and seeing new opportunities to grow.”

Here’s to change. Here’s to constants. Here’s to 30 years.
By Ashley Peterson 12/09/2019