All Articles Leadership Management Q&A: Emily Rooney, president, Agriculture Council of California

Q&A: Emily Rooney, president, Agriculture Council of California

Emily Rooney is president of the Agriculture Council of California, which means her daily task is to find the common ground on divisive topics.

6 min read


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This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?” As he writes in his introduction to this series, “There has been some incredible wisdom and teaching shared on topics such as; the definition of leadership, how to lead, and what it takes to develop leaders. But, I have found little on what it is actually like once you get there.”

iStockPhoto/Illustration by James daSilva

Agriculture, despite all of its changes, remains a male-dominated profession, and politics is not for the feint of heart. Yet part of both these worlds is Emily Rooney, who’s dynamic, equipped with a sharp intellect and an infectious laugh.

As president of the Agriculture Council of California, she is charged with advocating for the more than 15,000 farmers across the state. Her members include small family-owned businesses as well as some of the largest and best-known brands in the world. You need only to spend a few minutes with Emily to deeply feel her passion for the mission and the contagiousness of her personality. I was eager to interview Emily, because her role necessitates that she find the common ground in the midst of the most divisive issues. That is a tough challenge, and she does it well.

What keeps you up at night?

“The changing political dynamics in the state of California, and people’s disconnect with the food system.” As we explored this a bit further, she said she also worries about “What role do I play, and is it influential enough to change the situation?”

Where do you draw the courage to make the tough decisions?

“I’m lucky to have a membership and constituency that understands the complexity of doing business in the state of California, and, therefore, they trust my ability to make the best decisions on their behalf.” She explained that she’s close to her executive committee, and so when things “get sticky,” she makes sure to get them up to speed and get them involved.

What happens when you are wrong?

She laughed when I asked this question.

“When something ugly goes down, which in Sacramento, it often does, I eat the frog. I know my members well enough, that I call the ones that I know will have the greatest concern with the issue first,” she said. “Often things happen here so fast that I am the first one to let them know what went down, how it went down and the reason we made a particular decision. It is my hope that if/when these ugly situations arise, if I have the painful conversations first — or eat the frog — it will actually increase trust with my members by my providing total transparency.

“Sometimes I might have to make the best decision I can with the information I have at hand, realizing that we might have members that are not entirely with us,” she added. I asked her if she ruminates on those decisions. Again, she laughed, “It is always better to be as prepared as possible with as much direction as possible, but when I can’t, I feel better once I eat the frog.”


How do you work on your personal development?

“I do have an executive coach who I’m utilizing because some of the issues that I’m dealing with are so contentious, I can use some help sorting them out before I walk into them,” she said, chuckling.

What things do you do to care for yourself?

“As a young working mom, I do what I can to leave the office on time to hang out with my son for a couple of hours before he goes to bed. He’ll go to bed and then I can finish up work for the day or do whatever I need to do.”

She also volunteers at a hospital, which is “fun and exercises my brain.”

We talked a bit about the concept of work-life balance, which neither of us feels is an apt descriptor. She explains, “For me, it’s more of a tipping scale. It gets heavy on one side and then the other. There are some days that work will dominate your life and some days that your family is just going to dominate.”

“As women, we carry a lot of guilt,” she added. “Am I doing enough for work, and am I doing enough for family? You just need to kind of shed that.”

For the record, and I can’t speak for all men, but ,I too, carry a similar guilt, and I think this is something that should be discussed more often.

What do you wish your current self could tell your former self?

With a booming laugh, she said, “I don’t know, maybe not to be so hard on my mom in high school.” As her laugh quieted, she went on to say, “Any aggravation that I’ve experienced has made me smarter. My job is not easy and so I feel every struggle I’ve had along the way has helped me prepare for the bigger struggles I’ll have in the future.”

What drives you to do this?

“My family is in agriculture. I have a very strong sense of purpose for this industry. Even as difficult as the job is in this environment, I’ve got no question that I am working for the right industry and the right people.”

What is the best piece of advice that you have received?

“All of us carry backpacks with lots of bricks in it, so don’t let someone else put bricks in your backpack. It’s a good analogy for some of the weight that comes with these leadership positions.”

As we closed, we talked about what she is most proud of professionally and she said, “I’m proud of the organization I run. Even though it’s small, its influence is mighty.” The same can be said for Emily.


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Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief and Linked2Leadership. He serves as a thinking partner, providing clients with the clarity, focus, and tools needed to make good people and product decisions. He helps clients build lasting relationships with their customers, develop leaders who make others feel heard, cared for, valued and respected, and most importantly grow. Other ways to connect: GROW | Website | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Google+

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