Being the best, Principles for Success

By Grace Puma, Executive Vice President, Global Operations at PepsiCo

I want to share a few lessons I’ve learned as a diverse woman in business that you can apply to your own journeys.

As I reflected on my own career…what I learned in over the span of my career…things that I kept front of mind and applied over and over again.

I came up with one rule and five principles that I want to share with all of you.

Let’s start with the rule, because without it, none of the rest of what I’m going to say will help.

If you want to be successful, commit to performing at your highest level. Focus on giving your best. It’s about self-competition.  You don’t need to look to your right or left, just commit to being the finest version of yourself.  The fact is, if you don’t perform at your best, you’re not going to achieve what you want.

Now here’s the difficult bit.  As a woman or diverse person in the workforce, sometimes it may take you longer to build equity in your organization.  Meaning you may feel you have to do more than others to gain sustained equity. It’s not going to feel fair, and it isn’t, but it happens.  In the spirit of excellence, embrace that.  Let it challenge you and fuel your success.

I remember when I first made VP. I was young, and as a diverse woman, there was a ton of pressure to perform. When you get to that point at a young age, you’re wired to embrace the challenge and run full speed ahead.  But to be successful, I had to be mindful to seek out more senior colleagues to learn from. I seized the opportunity to build my capacity, and ultimately, it fueled my success.

So, above all else, the most important thing you can do is commit to being the best version of yourself under any circumstance, seizing opportunities to grow and learn.  Once you do that, there are five principles that I believe can help accelerate your career.

First, take a stand for yourself, every day.

I wish I could tell you that a day will come when you’ve broken through some glass ceiling and things like unconscious bias are no longer an issue, but unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. Over the last 30 years, I have learned to recognize unconscious bias. I have developed my own personal awareness and understanding of it.

During your career you will likely experience bias, versus observing it happening to others.  In those moments, you have to allow yourself to be human. Take a deep breath….But then, step back and get clear about what is happening.

Own managing the situation, and remember, YOU are empowered by your choices and reactions. When I’m not sure about how to react to a situation, I often ask myself, “What advice would I give to a stranger?”

Usually, that advice is to have a courageous conversation, because if you don’t address the inequity, you risk letting it become a distraction.

At other times, it may mean simply being proactive in your everyday life, taking your own seat at the table…remember, you don’t have to wait for an invitation.  Unconscious bias does exist, it’s a fact of the world we live in today, but you can’t allow it to break your soul. You have to own your own response,  and be proactive.

Once you’ve taken a stand and established yourself, you need to

Take risks. That’s my second principle.

Often times the best opportunities are not the most obvious, and getting to the next level will require grit and guts.

Here’s an example. About 10 years ago, I was well established in my career and working in a stable industry when the CEO of an airline approached me. He was sourcing a new leadership team to help him transform his business and he wanted me to join them as Chief Procurement Officer.   Admittedly, my initial thought was, “are you crazy, work for an airline”?

The only thing I knew about the airline industry was that it is plagued with challenges, and boom and bust cycles, and that everyone at some point has a bad airline experience!

Personally, at that time I was a single parent with one child in college and one in high school, and my family needed my steady income.

But I took a risk, and accepted the job for two reasons.

First, the CEO is a remarkable leader. He is bold, smart, seasoned, and he was committed to the transformation. The job gave me an opportunity to learn from him and work closely with a small, tight-knit leadership team. And the second reason I accepted his offer was that I thought it would give me remarkable experience… and it did…one of the experiences it gave me was watching our stock fall to the price of a grande latte during the financial crisis.

But it also taught me how to be part of a senior leadership team during a difficult times and how exhilarating it is to set strategic direction for an organization.

In the end, we successfully sold the company to another airline, and I joined PepsiCo as Chief Procurement Officer, where because of my experience at the airline, I had the chance to lead an unprecedented transformation – the creation of a truly Global Procurement function, managing $30B in spend.

Which brings me to my third principle:

Learn to trust your gut.

In reflecting on my PepsiCo career, the decision to take that CPO job was a critical step in my current career progression. But, I almost didn’t take it.

When I left the airline, I had job opportunities in Chicago where I was living at the time. My son was 17 and just about to enter his senior year of high-school. I was approached by PepsiCo and remember thinking, “I am never moving to New York. I’m a Chicago girl!”

But when I considered it was PepsiCo and an unprecedented transformation opportunity, I wanted to explore the possibility. I interviewed with PepsiCo’s CEO at the time.This was the biggest CPO job out there, a massive career opportunity, and yet, she could sense my hesitancy.

During our conversation, she asked outright, “What is it! What’s holding you back?”

Finally, I told her, “It’s my son.”

I am very close to my son and it was hard to imagine the cost of disrupting his life in his final year of high school.  So,  I went off to give it some more thought.   Anytime I have to make a risky decision, I get really quiet and try to listen to my intuition.  That’s what I did, and I kept hearing the phrase, “take a leap of faith.” I took that leap, and it was a good decision!

I also reflect on the importance of transparency and speaking my truth.

Intuition is incredibly important, both in making decisions but also in dealing with people.

Here’s another example, sometimes when I walk into a meeting, I do a mental check to reflect on where my relationships are. I look around the room and think “green” to myself if I’m synched up with a person and “yellow” if I find someone who is disconnected.  It’s a helpful exercise to force you to get attuned to the energy of your team and your colleagues.

If I leave a meeting feeling like there is a relationship that needs attention, I will follow up and try to reestablish a rapport.

It’s been a remarkably powerful habit, but it requires intuition, listening to your gut, and reading people’s energy.

I personally think a strong sense of intuition and connection with people is a contributor to success in all relationships.

I’ve spoken a lot about teams today, so it is probably not surprising that my fourth principle is, be a team player.

One of my foundational career lesson’s came in my early 30s when I joined a new company as a Director.  I entered that role with a lot of energy and was laser focused on transforming teams and raising performance.

Quickly, I was able to help them reach a whole new level. As a result, in less than a year, I was promoted to a new role with expanded responsibilities to Vice President.

I was very young for this role and my peers noticed.  I could feel a new, unspoken tension in meetings and conversations –this is where intuition is valuable.  I quickly made a proactive effort to operate as an inclusive leader.  I reached out to long-tenured team members and actively asked for their advice and perspective.  I sought to elevate new voices in our team discussions and to publically recognize individual members’ good work.

These actions created a more cohesive and committed team, and ultimately, they helped raise the entire team’s performance.

If you can learn to elevate every member of your team, and make sure they are all actively engaged, you will go a long way as a manager and a leader.

Finally, fifth, maintain your love of the game.

The number one rule for success in business is to be excellent.

Outstanding performance has to come from a place of passion and a desire for achievement.

You can’t be motivated solely by level, or recognition, or even pay.

Those things are important and you should make sure that you are being fairly compensated and recognized, but they alone will not drive your long-term success.

You have to find motivation in your own love for the work.

I’ve been enormously lucky in finding work that excites me and that I find meaningful. It has driven my success.  Find work that is meaningful to you…work that excites your passion and commitment…and let it propel your career.

Our responsibility as diverse and female leaders is to become the highest version of ourselves.

We owe it to ourselves to continuously grow and learn…to make sure that our talents and gifts are not wasted.

So, stay humble and hungry.

Focus on making the greatest contribution you can with your talents.

Take a stand for yourself and take risks.

Trust your gut and be a team player.

But above all, be excellent at what you do.

If you do those things, I have no doubt you will succeed.

And as you succeed and grow, keep in mind the words of Angela Davis, “We must always attempt to lift as we climb.”

As diverse leaders, we know how difficult at times career journeys can be, but we’ve also learned how to navigate them successfully.

Share those lessons.

Reflect on what you’ve learned, but also reflect on who you want to share what you’ve learned with.

Ask yourself, who will I help lift up this weekthis month?

It’s that question more than anything else that will drive progress and build inclusion.

The above article is excerpted from Grace Puma’s keynote address at the 2020 North America Edition of Break the ceiling touch the sky®, held on Feb 20, 2020 in New York, USA.

About Grace: Grace Puma is executive vice president, Global Operations of PepsiCo, where she leads the global operations center of excellence, global procurement, concentrate operations, safety and security and advanced manufacturing systems. Prior to joining PepsiCo, lead n senior positions at United Airlines, Kraft Foods. Earlier in her career, she also worked in strategic procurement at Motorola and Gillette. In 2018, Grace was ranked #2 on the Most Powerful Latina by Fortune magazine and the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA). She was recognized as the “Executive of the Year” by Latina Style magazine in 2016.