Hometown: Decatur, IL.
Title/Position: Chief Executive Officer, United Soybean Board
Briefly describe your role: As the Chief Executive Officer of United Soybean Board, Polly Ruhland (@pollypencilplow) works on behalf of U.S. farmer investors to advance agriculture’s sustainability through research, education and promotion programs.
Prior to joining USB, Ruhland served as Chief Executive Officer at the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board. She served as a senior vice president at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and early in her career, she was an agriculture journalist and editor.
She holds a master’s degree from Colorado State University, where her research focused on agricultural education reform and strategic decision-making at farming cooperatives.
Polly is an Eisenhower Fellow. She is a certified mediator and holds professional credentials in the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts.
She was chairperson of the Commodity Roundtable for Chief Executive Officers of Research and Promotion Programs for two years. Her interest in environmental partnerships led her to serve on several community agricultural land-use boards, and as a volunteer for American Farmland Trust. For 13 years, she was an ethics advisor on the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at a private animal research facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. During the same time, she served on the editorial board for Winds of Change, the official publication of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. She currently serves on the advisory board for University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture, Lone Oaks Farm.
Q: Is what you’re doing now what you always pictured you would do?
A: Not even close. At various times, I wanted to be a lawyer, a veterinarian, a translator for the United Nations or write fiction. Even as lately as 10 years ago, I still imagined I’d be a subject matter expert in marketing communications my whole career. The CEO thing took me (and a lot of people who know me) by surprise. But I love it! I’m currently living my best professional adventure ever.
Q: What do you see as the greatest challenges for women in your chosen industry? What are the greatest opportunities?
A: More than ever, the agriculture industry recognizes the value and power of diverse voices in our future. This growing realization means that women and minorities are contributing more, at higher levels, than ever before. That said, as an industry, we have some distance to go before all people are treated equally and fully respected for the unique value we bring to the table. Those of us in positions of leadership must take personal responsibility to mentor individuals as well as speak openly about how we make even greater progress toward this goal. The many young women I know in agriculture are tremendously impressive—smart, capable, technically proficient and visionary people with a bright future in front of them. They shouldn’t be afraid to ask for mentoring, and to be mentors, for those of us who are mid-career and beyond.
Q: Who has inspired you in your life/career?
A: I have always been blessed with a strong network of mentors, both male and female, to advise, guide and correct me. I believe that nurturing relationships with those who can teach you something keeps you eager to learn, strengthens your character and, if you pick people who will shoot straight with you, keeps you humble. Make no mistake, humility becomes even more important as one is gifted with higher levels of leadership and responsibility. As one of my childhood teachers said: To whom much is given, much is expected. These skills are critical to continued success in any servant leader role. My mother, father and brother also played significant roles in my personal growth and development. I was lucky to have an amazing, supportive family who still have a bit of difficulty believing that I’m an ag executive today, when what I was best at as a child was hiding in corners and reading book after book!
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring professional?
A: Fail regularly. And if you don’t know why anyone would do that, I recommend this short Forbes article.
Q: What’s been your secret to success?
A: Harsh lesson--there is no secret to success. It takes diligence, perseverance, patience, an extremely forgiving sense of humor and some level of blind luck. Further, I never say that I am successful—there always are more exciting challenges just around the next corner that must be conquered before I am a “success”.