Leadership beyond Sanderson Farms
By Margaret Bucci
Sanderson Farms, Inc. was honored along with 11 other Mississippi corporations as a “Champion of Diversity” during the third annual ourMississippi Honors Gala in March 2016. In this article, Robin Robinson, director of organization development and corporate communication for Sanderson Farms, discusses the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and the role she has played in helping shape its diversity and inclusion strategic plan.
Robin Robinson’s success at landing a job as an accountant with Sanderson Farms in 1978 was a breakthrough moment for her and for the company.
For Robinson, now Sanderson Farms’ director of organization development and corporate communication, it was a career move that continues yielding a bounty of professional growth and leadership opportunities in the workplace and beyond.
For Sanderson Farms, it was a decision that brought a dedicated team player on board who understands the company’s culture, values its strong ties to the community and has the insights required to help shape the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.
“It’s amazing how well things have worked out,” said Robinson, who celebrated her 38th anniversary with the Laurel, Mississippi-based company in November 2016. “When I began here, I was the first female hired as an accountant. The only females in the organization before me had been hired as secretaries or clerks. So it was new ground for Sanderson Farms.”
Today, Robinson is one of many women who hold key positions at Sanderson Farms, where females compose approximately half of the workforce and nearly a third of the corporate board of directors. For the fifth consecutive year in 2016, Sanderson Farms was recognized by 2020 Women on Boards as a “Winning W Company,” an honor reserved for public and private companies whose boards are made up of 20 percent or more women.
Robinson’s success at Sanderson Farms also has led to a multitude of external leadership opportunities and board appointments with statewide impact. During his tenure as governor of Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour appointed her to the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees, for which she served as president; and to the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Services.
For the past three decades, Robinson has been actively involved with the Mississippi Economic Council and was elected to serve as its chair for 2016-17. Through the years, she’s seen the organization become more representative of the statewide business community.
“When I first began serving on MEC committees, there were no women or other minorities,” she noted. “Over the years MEC has come a long way. I think more diversity makes MEC and any organization stronger.”
Robinson is part of a team that knows a thing or two about making organizations stronger. Sanderson Farms has grown into the third-largest poultry company in the United States and is the only Fortune 1000 company headquartered in Mississippi. Sanderson Farms has more than 13,000 employees staffing its operations in five states — Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.
Being a star player in the poultry industry means that Sanderson Farms must be able to attract and retain a quality workforce. While diversity has always been valued as a cultural strength, Sanderson Farms’ leaders decided to formalize the company’s strategy in 2011 by forming a diversity and inclusion committee, which Robinson chairs.
The committee meets quarterly and comprises the company’s executive leaders along with at-large members from the field. Their focus areas include recruiting, hiring and promotional practices; professional development and training opportunities; mentoring and intern programs; and other strategies to enhance diversity and inclusion throughout all of Sanderson Farms’ operations.
Robinson stays busy year-round with speaking engagements and workforce recruitment activities in eight states and on 41 college campuses, including many historically black colleges and universities, and Sanderson Farms also is working to extend its outreach to Native American and Hispanic communities.
“We work hard to seek and attain diversity in our workforce,” Robinson said. “It’s also important to employ people with diverse perspectives, because it helps Sanderson Farms to become more well-rounded. I’ve said at meetings that if everybody agrees with me, then we only need me. It’s very helpful if you have diverse points of view. Diversity of thought makes us more effective problem-solvers, makes us better at motivating our employees and growers, and also helps us meet corporate objectives.”
There’s no question that Sanderson Farms has been the perfect match for Robinson’s professional interests and aspirations. But it was actually an unexpected career move for the Jones County native, whose goal after graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1978 was to be a lawyer. She’d already applied to law school and was accepted at the University of Mississippi for the fall semester.
Up to that point Robinson had demonstrated plenty of drive to accomplish whatever she put her mind to, and she was well-liked by peers. At Jones County Junior College, she served as president of the Student Government Association and vice president of the Phi Beta Lambda Business Society. She was chosen class favorite and class president both years at JCJC and was homecoming queen her sophomore year.
She kept up the undergrad momentum at Southern Miss, concentrating on her studies and earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in accounting. Passing the LSAT and moving to Oxford to start law school were two more steps she could check off on the way to her dream career.
But there was something about the dream that didn’t quite level with Robinson’s reality.
“I attended law school for a week and decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she said. “I came back home and had no clue what to do next because I was so focused on law school.”
Robinson wouldn’t linger very long in indecision, though. A former teacher from Jones County Junior College called to tell her she’d be contacted soon by Sanderson Farms about an accounting position. After the second interview, she was offered the job.
Robinson fit in well from the start and made connections with employees whose guidance was instrumental, namely Lampkin Butts, who went on to become Sanderson Farms’ president and chief operating officer.
“I adopted Lampkin as my mentor. If I had questions about a promotion or needed to talk through an issue, he was always helpful,” Robinson said. “His mentorship really helped me early on in my career, and I think mentoring is a must. He was a good leader and role model for me when I was getting started.”
As Sanderson Farms continued to grow and expand its operations, Robinson advanced through the organization in positions of greater responsibility. In 1986 she was promoted to chief internal auditor, in 1995 she was named human resources manager, and in 2000 she was promoted to her current position as director of organization development and corporate communication. She also serves on the Sanderson Farms executive committee and chairs the wage and salary committee.
As chair of the diversity and inclusion committee, Robinson recently helped the team issue Sanderson Farms’ first diversity and inclusion strategic plan with input from employees companywide. Their goal is to position Sanderson Farms as an employer of choice and establish the company as a model for diversity and inclusion.
Over the course of her career, Robinson has seen first-hand the powerful role diversity has played in driving Sanderson Farms’ growth and success. Even though Sanderson Farms didn’t have a formal diversity and inclusion policy when Robinson came aboard, the decision to hire her right out of college for a position that had never been held by a woman was a sign that company leaders were focused on her capabilities and her potential.
It ended up being a sound business decision that continues paying dividends for Sanderson Farms and one of its most enthusiastic team players.
“I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to move up at Sanderson Farms, and it’s not just because I’m a female. You have to work hard and perform and do well in your job,” she said. “Sanderson Farms has always had a very diverse workforce as a corporation. That’s because we believe that the uniqueness of each individual is a valuable resource. When you put all of us together and combine all of our talents, that just makes us a stronger company.”