Sage advice

by Joel Crews
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If Donnie Smith ever quits his day job as president and CEO of one of the highest-profile meat and poultry processors in the world, he could fall back on a promising future as a motivational speaker or even an evangelist. During the College Student Career Program held at last month’s International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE), I sat among hundreds of career-focused college students to hear Smith’s keynote advice to the next generation. It’s easy to see why he holds the company’s highest title in corporate settings with analysts and journalists, but it is made even clearer how he ascended in the industry after hearing him share his philosophy on how to lead people, which for him is rooted in integrity, faithfulness and a passion for the industry. Despite being 25 years removed from graduating from college, I found myself motivated by Smith’s hopeful message to the job-seeking class of the coming year. His ability to educate, inform and inspire would make the late Zig Ziglar proud.

A longtime Sunday school teacher, Smith preached the value of achieving results, but never at all costs. Business success depends on the trust others put in their leaders. “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” was a favorite saying he shared with the students.

He also shared some of the attributes Tyson seeks when hiring workers and spoke passionately about the reasoning behind them. Indeed they are the qualities shared by most successful business people, including:

Integrity- Smith calls this the foundation to forming trust;

Intelligence- Simply put: “Smart people do smart stuff; average people do average stuff; and dumb people do dumb stuff,” Smith said;

Interpersonal Skills- In his role, “I don’t do anything,” in terms of producing or selling products, said Smith. “But I don’t get paid for what I do. I get paid for what I get done and what I get done is because of the people;”

Innovation- At Tyson, “you have permission to fail, but not to fail to execute,” said Smith.

His message was also to remind the incoming graduates of what he called a “very daunting challenge” facing the producers of the world’s food supply.

Over the next 40 years, which will be the approximate career span of the students in that room, Smith told the students, “you are going to be the folks that teach us how to grow twice as much food on this planet as we are growing today.” You could sense a collective gulp in what became a silent room. He reminded them that assisting them in getting a jumpstart on this challenge are companies like Tyson and others. Smith professed his vote of confidence in the next generation and scored a recruiting home run that afternoon for his company and the industry. Of the daunting challenge he concluded: “I’m all in and I’m going to help you all I can.”

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