Dave MacLennan '81
"No one ever got ahead or succeeded without someone else’s help."
Amherst College students are uniformly passionate and driven, but many of them are unable to predict what they will be doing by age 40. Dave MacLennan ’81 was no different. He thought he wanted to be a teacher; he was wrong. However, according to MacLennan, uncertainty isn’t such a bad thing. Now the President and Chief Operating Officer of Cargill, a large agriculture, food, and trading company, MacLennan offers this simple advice: “Don’t spend too much time worrying what you’re going to do when you’re 40 or 50 – stay flexible and don’t be afraid to take some risks.”
MacLennan’s path to a position in which he helps lead an organization of 140,000 people was not necessarily one that he had planned. During his time at Amherst, he followed his own advice by utilizing the freedom of January interterms, venturing down to the county courthouse to watch trials, working in radio broadcasting, and even washing dishes just to make some money – all while still holding on to his initial intention to some day be a teacher. However, after graduating from Amherst, MacLennan found his calling while working at the Chicago Board of Trade, a futures market, where he “recorded orders, confirmed trades, and emptied waste baskets – basically whatever they asked [him] to.”
Though his first job was far from a glamorous, MacLennan was fascinated by the ins and outs of the business world, and thus decided to pursue a MBA at the University of Chicago. Soon afterward, he began his career at a small firm where he met his first mentors – the owners of the company. The two business partners took an interest in MacLennan, awarding him great amounts of responsibility at a young age: “the owners of the company taught me not only about business, but about common sense and decision-making. The more I got to know, the more I liked it.”
While MacLennan credits his rise to a leadership position to both an Amherst College education and his own will to work, he has always valued others’ mentorship and advice, describing the role of a mentor as, “someone who can help shape your thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if you tried to make every decision on your own.” A mentor is an invaluable resource, he says: “No one ever got ahead or succeeded without someone else’s help.” That is why MacLennan not only values the guidance he has been offered, but is also excited to pay it forward to current Amherst College students.
He believes in the value of a liberal arts education, and likens the intimacy of the Amherst student-professor relationship to that of a mentor and a mentee. “That’s exactly what a mentoring relationship is – it’s the personal connection and the professional intimacy where you can share ideas and where all ideas are accepted and debated. There is a strong parallel between the Amherst experience and a mentoring relationship.” MacLennan looks forward to offering his guidance to current Amherst students, with the hopes that he will have a strong impact: “The most gratifying part is seeing the people for whom I’m a mentor succeed.”