Robin Thomas: Guiding Principles

This Syngenta commercial recruiting lead is building on a legacy of ag mentorship.
Robin Thomas: Guiding Principles.
Robin Thomas was readying her steer for the 1977 West Virginia state feeder calf show when a storm rolled in and knocked the lights out. The calf didn’t seem to mind; after spending the day traipsing the Jackson’s Mill fairgrounds, it was too exhausted to raise a fuss in the pitch-black arena.

Thomas, who had spent the better part of her sophomore year of high school preparing for the show, wasn’t so relaxed. She was a bundle of nerves by the time the storm passed, and she didn’t get any calmer when the organizers moved the competition to the parking lot.

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She questioned if her calf could maintain its relaxed state in these new, unpredictable circumstances. Parents and teachers crowded around, shouting encouragement. Judges paced the asphalt, squinting and taking notes. It was a tenuous arrangement, and she was right to be anxious. Order shattered when a group of kids ran into the circle, oblivious.

“Everyone’s steers went berserk,” Thomas says.

But in the midst of the furor, Thomas’ steer held its ground. The calf’s calm made an impression, and the FFA state president took notice. After awarding Thomas with a first-place prize in showmanship, he pulled her aside for an in-depth conversation.

“We spent about an hour talking about his path to the presidency,” Thomas says. “Up until that point, I had thought leadership was something you were born with, especially in ag. I came to find out he was a coal miner. He didn’t even grow up on a farm. His granddaddy had a farm, and that’s how he got into FFA. That made me realize anybody who has the desire to learn can develop the leadership and communications skills needed to succeed in agriculture.”

“Our recruits are the future of our company. They’re the future leaders. I track and encourage them throughout their careers. I get to celebrate their successes and promotions.”

Robin Thomas
Now, as commercial recruiting lead at Syngenta, Thomas works constantly to help others develop the same skills that launched her career.

“It’s an adventure,” she says. “I really enjoy what I do. Our recruits are the future of our company. They’re the future leaders. I track and encourage them throughout their careers. I get to celebrate their successes and promotions.”

A Farming Legacy

Before she was a leader, Thomas was a girl trailing her father through the tobacco fields of Monroe County. She loved it out there and notes that she spent more time in the fields than both of her brothers combined.

“My dad took me with him to the livestock market and the feed mill, and taught me how to drive a tractor when I was nine,” she says.

Those early lessons stayed with her through her time at the University of Tennessee, where she studied animal science and agriculture. There, three professors familiar with her home region made it their mission to help her blossom.

“They nicknamed me West Virginia, and they constantly pushed and prodded me,” she says. “If I wasn’t engaging the way they thought I should be, they’d pull me aside and tell me to get my act together. They were very influential.”

Toward the end of her studies, the professors introduced her to the dean of the college of agriculture. He was the man who set her up for a developmental sales rep position at a Syngenta legacy company. At the time, Thomas wasn’t even sure she wanted to enter the job market; her sights were set on graduate school. She took the interview out of respect for the dean.

“The interviewer spent the entire meeting convincing me to give the job a try, because he felt like it was a better fit for me than research.”

Thirty Years and Counting

Those efforts weren’t wasted, and Thomas took the job. Since then, she has logged more than three decades in the agriculture industry. She spent her first 20 years as a sales rep in east Tennessee, where she broke barriers as one of the few women in her position. Nowadays, she travels around the country, attending trade shows and visiting with college students. The role gives her an opportunity to give back to the ag community, just as her own mentors once did. As a commercial recruiting lead, she provides support to both prospective employees and her own recruiting team.

“I love building relationships with students,” she says. “And the team around me is super. They’re supportive and helpful. Our skills are complementary. I’m able to teach them things, and they’re able to teach me things. It’s an open, trusting team.”

Thomas looks forward to the chance to build more relationships in the years to come.

“It’s important to understand people, to learn about them and care about them,” she says. “I never went in with the attitude that I knew it all. I still don’t, and I never will.”