As a leadership consultant, trainer and executive coach, it’s clear that leading in the current corporate environment is much different than it was even 10 or 15 years ago. Today, management at Fortune 500 companies is often uncertain how to best develop its top talent as requirements for success rapidly change.
To address this issue, I recently spoke with Taylor Flake, PepsiCo’s Vice President of Human Resources and Talent Development for PepsiCo North America Beverages. Taylor is responsible for leadership development, among many initiatives, for roughly 55,000 employees in the company’s beverage division. My question? What was this world-leading food and beverage company doing to prepare its best and brightest during these uncertain times?
PepsiCo recently began a novel approach to grooming its top talent for leadership roles, Taylor says.
“When I started at PepsiCo, we actually gave people templates that said, ‘you do this job, then you do this job’,” to climb the corporate ladder. “In a more stable environment, those jobs got you ready for the big job.”
In today’s ever-changing situation filled with ambiguity, economic changes, and added complexity, leaders need greater perspective and insight to stay agile and innovative, he says. And that’s precisely why PepsiCo now focuses on a framework of “critical experience,” to develop its leaders. This required that the company move away from the old job seniority-based hierarchy model. In addition to infusing the workforce with leadership and functional skills, the approach also seeks to “broaden” talent by adding these immersive experiences to their resume.
What do we mean by critical experiences?
“Critical experiences are more about job moves, as opposed to a competency model, which is more about skills,” he says. They are immersive, and necessary in today’s environment that requires life skills in addition to job training.
For example, if you visit a country, you get a level of understanding. If you live in a new country, you get a different level of understanding. Some of the deepest critical experiences involve moving to a different country or culture while tackling new roles and challenges over a relatively short period. One immersive experience might include a headquarters assignment where the employee interacts with senior leaders, which Taylor calls “a whole different experience.”
Other examples of critical experiences, which I wrote about in a recent column, include working in a high-performance culture, or turning around a failing company or department. Critical experiences include pioneering a new product or vision, involvement in an undercover project, community service or corporate responsibility. Critical experiences take you out of your comfort zone and open your eyes to previously unseen opportunities. They expose you to fresh perspectives and environments that broaden your observations and help you think differently.
By adding this breadth to your “career quiver,” Taylor reminds, you can draw on the insight and perspective gained no matter what challenge you face, “No matter where you’re dropped” career-wise, he says.
I couldn’t agree more. Historically, companies that rely on these experiences gain on multiple fronts. By diving into a whole new area or endeavor, employees can observe with the fresh eyes to see opportunities everywhere – and use survival instincts to do well in an unfamiliar environment. They’ll use their wide-angle vision to stay nimble and anticipate the unexpected before circumstances force their hand. They’ll be more likely to build strong teams, understand the power of collaboration and the importance of treating others like family. These critical experiences can infuse invaluable lessons about trust, loyalty, and transparency – even opening your heart to lead with kindness. They can help “high-potentials” learn to take risks, and reinvent and course-correct on quick notice. Budding leaders may also gain the humility to realize that failure is not fatal – that making mistakes helps you become wiser along the way.
I asked Taylor how PepsiCo pulled off this important cultural shift, when other corporations continue down a more traditional path. Several years ago, he says, company leadership began tapping experts who stressed the difference between “skills” and “experience,” and their importance in developing company leaders. Skills can be learned through training. Experiences are much broader, and provide perspective, insight and understanding to complement the skills. As they progressed, PepsiCo’s senior leaders discussed which experiences could most benefit future leaders and the company. Overall, a more global mindset and the ability to easily adapt to a fast-changing competitive environment are key, they concluded.
To take full advantage of critical experiences, Taylor says, your corporate culture “needs to be about people movement.” People know that to reach top leadership jobs at PepsiCo, immersive experiences are expected; frequent job shifts are the norm, he says.
“At PepsiCo, we carefully track our promotion rate to ensure job movement every year. So you have many people moving to new roles, which creates a culture in which people can pick up these critical experiences relatively early in their careers.”
Unfortunately, with cost cutting since the recession, other companies may be trimming transitional, immersive jobs – for example, roles that require living two years in a location, and then moving on.
Taylor mentioned a relative who recently turned down a position that would require five years in a new location, rather than two years, which he felt didn’t work for his family. He suspects this may be a trend, and one that may ultimately threaten companies’ ability to lead and compete effectively.
“I think it’s a real shame because it won’t result in well-rounded future leaders,” says Taylor, who has moved eight times around America and in Canada during his career with PepsiCo.
“Living and working in so many different types of places has been one of the best things the company has ever done for me and my family. Those eight moves represented multiple critical experiences that helped broaden my perspective and makes me the leader I am today.”
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