It can be a tough climb to the top levels of business, especially for women. Which makes it even more important to learn the lessons of women who have succeeded.
Three of The Coca-Cola Company’s female directors – Helene D. Gayle, Alexis M. Herman and Maria Elena Lagomasino – gathered recently for an hour-long, wide-ranging personal Q&A session with Coca-Cola employees to discuss those lessons.
Coming from varied and diverse backgrounds including public health, finance, social work and global business, the panelists dished out timely advice to Coca-Cola’s women (and men): build your self-awareness, find your passion and take risks to follow it, focus, build support systems around you. And realise you don’t have to be perfect.
Recruiting, developing, advancing and retaining women is a key part of Coca-Cola’s aspiration to be the world’s most consumer-focused beverage company, President and Chief Operating Officer James Quincey said in opening remarks.
“The journey we’re on toward women’s empowerment is one of the great opportunities we have to grow and create value across our system in the years ahead,” Quincey said.
Highlights from the hour-long conversation are below. The session was moderated by Therese Gearhart, who is responsible for Coca-Cola’s business in 42 countries as president of the Latin Center Business Unit and also serves as co-chair of the Global Women’s Leadership Council.
Lagomasino: For me, I have a very long career working with and advising families on how to be financially successful. I think it was Steve Jobs who said “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, but you can connect them looking backward.” My career has been all about how to help families use the resources they have to benefit themselves, their communities and the world at large. I’ve been doing it about 40 years. Coming from Cuba has everything to do with that. It’s not difficult to work hard, it’s not hard to put in the hours if you’re passionate about it. I was a little slow to figure that out. It took a few years to connect those dots about why I was passionate about my work. But once I did, I just kept going.
Herman: I have a similar story, but in reverse. I started out as a social worker, working with Catholic Charities in Mobile, Alabama. But I realised in doing the traditional case work…I wasn’t seeing any change. It was more of the same. So for me, I got very involved in just trying to figure out what would it take to really mount change. So I started – without even really knowing what I was doing –organising the tenants. Figuring out who was registered to vote. Because you can have some power to change your lives if you vote. And they didn’t have jobs. So I started thinking about what can I do to help bring jobs to the community.
I was fortunate that I had a supervisor who just kind of let me do my thing. I spent my time during the weekend organising families and trying to get these kids off the streets. That led me to the shipyards in Pascagoula, Miss. I helped get these kids into skilled apprenticeship roles in the shipyards. Eventually, that led to work in Washington.
I came to understand that I needed to be in a change space. I have to see meaningful change taking place. Looking back, I can take everything I’ve ever done, and sort of put the label “breaking barriers” on it.
Gayle: Whew, kind of hard to follow that, right? (Laughs.)
My theory is that opportunities open up, and if you have a certain guiding principle, that’s what takes you to the next step. Because you know who you are and what’s important to you.
I started my career in pediatrics. I went into medicine because I wanted to go into a profession that makes a difference. I grew up in the 1960s, the “movement era” and I got this bug for social change. I eventually realised you don’t change the world all by yourself.
In my pediatric work, I’d see the same children coming in and out of hospitals. They were using the emergency room as their doctor’s office because that was all they had access to. I became interested in how we change systems. That led me to public health and to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where I stayed for almost two decades and did a variety of things. A lot of the work I did at that point focused on HIV and AIDS. When HIV first started evolving, people told me to “stay away from that – it’s not important.” Luckily, I didn’t listen to them. But that work with HIV got me thinking.
With HIV, people are disproportionately impacted because they’re poor or marginalised in many ways. It got me thinking about that connection between health and broader social issues. Coming to CARE, we’re interested in alleviating extreme poverty. I still feel like health is still very central and core to who I am. But I’ve realised you have to look broadly at all the things that impact people’s lives, like education.
I don’t think a career is necessarily about some deliberate journey. It’s about coming to work every day and finding what makes you fully alive as a person.
Lagomasino: For me, I was sitting on the pinnacle of my career, and the landscape really changed. The financial industry changed from a service business to a sales business. The system changed from, “let’s focus on helping families,” to using families to sell more things to them so that financial institutions could make more money. So I was running this organiation and I had a choice. I could be true to myself and leave, or I could stay and keep all the benefits. And it was clear to me that I needed to leave. It was the best decision I ever made.
Herman: Oh, I had too many (laughs). My challenge was staying focused. I needed to get very deliberate and intentional about my life. (Washington is on a short timeline) so it does force you to focus on where you can make an impact. I helped lead the effort when President Carter set up the first White House women business owners’ task force.
I chose the entrepreneur route for myself. I had $10,000 to my name and I started my business with that $10,000. I had a vision – I may not have had a strategy.
Gayle: When I think of pivotal moments, they’re about people. Having people around you that you can draw from. And being willing to take risks and get off of what was a traditional path.
I remember getting the recruitment call about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It took me a while to realise how big of a deal the Gates were in the world. And it took them a year to recruit me to move out to Seattle, because I had a comfortable life here in Atlanta. But it was a whole new experience that helped me see the world in a new way.
People inside Coca-Cola take some risks, too – moving their families around the world. Those experiences matter. I could have stayed on a single trajectory, but ended up running a large nonprofit. For me, all those things have been wonderful experiences.
The element of risk was there in all three of your careers, as you shifted gears at important times. How important is board experience?
Gayle: I think it’s a great opportunity because it’s a way of complimenting what you’re doing in your everyday life. I started on a range of nonprofit boards. It’s leadership experience, but it’s also a chance to break out of your comfort zone. By breaking out of the environment you know best, it’s also a way of tapping into a different part of yourselves. The opportunity to serve on a board that has something to do with your community…I think it helps us exercise our whole selves as people.
Lagomasino: It’s a huge learning experience. Hopefully you give as much as you get, because you get a lot. To serve on the board of a company like The Coca-Cola Company, that doesn’t just think in terms of shareholders – but they really think about stakeholders and making a difference in the world – that is a huge privilege. The leadership role this company has in terms of changing corporate governance and making the world a better place, it’s tremendous.
Herman: I would add that, in addition to the corporate boards and nonprofit boards that have already been mentioned, it’s crucial to have a personal board. When I started my company, I knew I needed a board. So I recruited three people. I had more board members than I had staff! But I had a board, and I liked being able to say “I have a board.” I have found that people of influence, when you’re working hard to make a difference, they’ll step in and help.
Can you talk about the discipline of reflection? If you gave advice to yourself when you were just starting out, what would it be?
Gayle: I would say, you don’t have to be perfect. It’s hard to generalise, but I think girls grow up with this sense of wanting to please and feeling like you need to be perfect. I think of myself when I was a young woman. I often felt I needed to do more and be better – I was young, female, and African-American. There’s always this balance between making sure you’re holding yourself to a standard of excellence but also not erasing your authenticity. One of the things people really appreciate, particularly in leadership roles, is you being willing to be vulnerable at times, make mistakes at times.
Bring your true self to a situation. I would have told my younger self to give yourself a break and realise you don’t have to be perfect. It’s okay to make mistakes. Sometimes making mistakes is where you learn the best. Don’t blame yourself for not being perfect.
Herman: I wish I had known earlier to acknowledge that I needed more of a support system. That I didn’t need to hold it all in. Creating those networks is so important – grounding and surrounding myself with people and asking them, “Wow – how do you do that?” You really have to make choices about who you spend time with. Those people can keep you motivated even when there’s a lot of negative stuff.
Know the importance of taking risks. You have to be willing to step out of that comfort zone. You always have to be open to that possibility. And you need to surround yourself with the kind of mentors you can learn from. Get advice, get the insights. Don’t just dream a dream anew, but let it be grounded. Keep it real – be practical about what you can do, what it’s going to take to get there. And make the investment to keep that journey real. Sometimes you can be so busy planning your next move that you forget to do a good job today. Make sure to remember today.
Lagomasino: One thing I didn’t really understand until my 40s was the power of your girlfriends, and the power of having that network that gives you positive support. We are incredibly powerful with each other. In my mid-40s, we started getting together again and having lunch and sharing – about our career situations, our family situations. I wish I had known the power of that earlier, and used it more, because my experience would have been richer.
As you look at your own journeys, what would you like people to remember you by?
Herman: Well, we’re not done yet! (Laughs.)
Gayle: I hope that I made a difference in people’s lives, and that I was a good friend. Because being a good friend and a kind individual matters. This whole thing about character. I do think being a good person matters. So hopefully people will say that I was a good person and good friend and that I strived to care about people.
Herman: When you have a child look into your eyes and say, “When I grow up, I want to be like you,” you realise what kind of impact you can have on the next generation. For me, it’s always been about passing it along. I would want people to say that I passed it on.
Lagomasino: So, I traveled with (American banker) David Rockefeller around the world. And he became my hero because of how he treated people. It didn’t matter whether it was the guy cooking his breakfast, the university president, the great philanthropist or business leader…David woke up in the morning and asked, “How can I make each person I interact with a little happier?” That’s what I’d like my legacy to be. I’d like to make everyone I touch every day feel a little better.
As a Director, how do you feel about the progress Coca-Cola has made as it relates to the advancement of female talent? What advice can you lend for us moving forward?
Herman: I would simply add, that I believe that Coca-Cola is really on the cutting edge of leadership with the pace of development and promotion that has occurred, since Muhtar made it a clear focus and priority. Therefore, when you have not just the accelerated growth, but also the positons they now hold, it takes an intentional dialogue on what are the specific steps to ensure they are successful and that the momentum continues. There are not a lot of models in the marketplace to speak to the Coca-Cola experience. Which means, when we are in a pioneering space and need clarity, what are the actions that Coca-Cola needs to take and who owns the process.
Gayle: As is the case in so many arenas, I think Coca-Cola is leading in prioritising advancement of women within the company. That said, it takes a consistent, focused strategy to make sustained changed. Leveling the playing field and incorporating women as full participants, able to realise their potential fully, will take consistent leadership throughout the company and a willingness to take some risks. More needs to be done, but I am encouraged by the direction I see. As board members, I think we have a responsibility to also make sure we hold management accountable for continuing to make this a priority.
Lagomasino: Coke is doing a lot of the right things, and we will stay steadfast and committed to continue doing it. I think we gave specifics as to being willing to take risks, take on assignments out of the comfort zone, and develop professional networks.
Dr. Gayle has been a Director of The Coca-Cola Company since 2013. Dr. Gayle is the Chief Executive Officer of McKinsey Social Initiative, an independent non-profit organisation founded by McKinsey & Company, which brings together expert problem-solvers to develop innovative approaches to complex social challenges. Dr. Gayle held the positions of President and Chief Executive Officer of CARE USA, a leading international humanitarian organisation, from 2006 to 2015. From 2001 to 2006, she served as program director in the Global Health Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Dr. Gayle started her career in public health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1984 where she held various positions over a span of 20 years, ultimately becoming the director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention in 1995. She is also a Director of Colgate-Palmolive Company.