Talent management in Coca-Cola: the fizz from within

by 19 Feb 2008

Forced to recruit marketing expertise externally, drinks giant Coca-Cola set about ensuring it had a flow of internal talent ready to step up. The UKs Nick Martindale reports

As one of the world’s leading brands, Coca-Cola relies heavily on marketing to retain its global standing, all the more so in an era with so much attention on healthy eating and child obesity.

The business also needs to have the capability to react to any potential crises with highly-effective marketing strategies. To ensure the continued success of the brand, Coca-Cola needs to ensure there is a pipeline of marketing talent within the company ready to step up when senior jobs become available.

The challenge

Coca-Cola runs regular people development forums to ensure it can identify and address any potential problems with its employees. And it was at one of these sessions in 2005 that a problem was highlighted in the European marketing department.

Put simply, a lack of skills and experience in the more junior marketing ranks meant the company was forced to rely on external recruitment to fill a number of senior positions. At the same time, the department had lost a large amount of talent as individuals could see no way of breaking through to the top jobs.

In response, Coca-Cola conducted a wider employee survey among its marketing staff, which revealed widespread dissatisfaction at the lack of development opportunities and confusion as to what they needed to do to be considered for a senior position.

“In a company that claims to be one of the most respected marketing organisations, we shouldn’t have to look outside, so we took this very seriously,” says Rebecca Messina, senior global director, marketing capability, at Coca-Cola.

The solution

Although the problem was initially identified in Europe, it became clear that, globally, the company needed to create a formal talent pipeline for marketing staff. The European HR team came up with a brief to establish a global development centre program targeted specifically at high-potential marketing employees who were one step away from the senior jobs.

Coca-Cola decided to partner with psychometrics and development specialist SHL, and the two companies designed a tailored two-day development centre. Selected participants experienced a ‘day in the life’ of a senior marketing leader using real examples from Coca-Cola, under supervision of the existing marketing heads and the organisation’s HR talent strategies team.

Participants also used SHL’s 360-degree development tool and its occupational personality questionnaire to pinpoint individual strengths and weaknesses.

“We had actual division presidents or business unit presidents playing roles within the exercises, so the participants got to role-play with actual leaders of the organisation,” says Stevens J Sainte-Rose, group HR director at Coca-Cola.

According to Messina, one of the biggest challenges to overcome was to convince participants that this would be beneficial for their career, and that they were not on trial. “A few people thought there was a code to crack or trick questions,” she says. “There was never any of that, but after the first couple of pilots, the buzz started and people saw that it was connected to their day-to-day work.”

At the end of the centre, participants were given comprehensive feedback on their performance and a development program to work on in their current roles, which would be regularly reviewed with their immediate manager, marketing leaders and SHL. Sainte-Rose estimates each centre cost around £36,000 ($77,737) to run, including transport and accommodation, but believes the investment has already paid off.

The outcome

After running a working pilot with seven high-potential European marketers in Paris in February 2006, and a worldwide pilot in October of that year, the organisation ran two further centres last year in Mexico and Singapore, and plans to host further centres in North America and Africa during 2008. Eight people attended each development centre after the initial pilot, meaning 31 potential future marketing leaders have gone through the process so far.

Although the aim was not specifically to fast-track people for promotion, 17 of the 31 employees who attended development centres so far are now in more senior positions. Just as importantly, according to Messina, all 31 remain with the company.

“Part of the trend we had seen in early-2005 was that we were losing that level of marketer because they weren’t getting that job and someone from outside was,”she says. “So the retention of those people has been a really big thing.”

Individuals have also benefited on returning to their existing jobs by applying the skills they learned.

Coca-Cola has also piloted a similar development centre for the next tier down the ladder in the marketing department, and the concept has now also spread to other parts of the business, including the customer commercial team, general management, the innovation department, and HR itself.

Employee perspective

Eugenio Mendez is global brand director at Coca-Cola, based in Atlanta in the US. He attended the Singapore development centre in 2007. He admits he was unsure of the concept initially, but was reassured when he realised that it was all about his personal development. “Being invited was the first acknowledgment that you are considered high-potential,” he says.

Mendez believes the most beneficial aspect was the feedback from the various assessors. “When you are assessed in the traditional way, you only have your boss,” he says. “In this case, you have a group of professionals and a group of senior leaders from the company.

“After the assessment centre, you get a lot of confidence and you know what the two or three things you need to work on are,” he adds.

If I could do it again ...

Since the initial pilots, Coca-Cola has introduced a number of new elements to the development centres, including assigning an existing marketing leader to help mentor participants through their development program. It has also brought in a new element to the content of the centres, where a crisis occurs at some point during the day, and participants must react to that as best they can.

“We’re now at a point where we can market it even more to our senior leadership team around the company,” adds group HR director Stevens J Sainte-Rose. “That’s an internal issue, but relative to the actual experience, there’s not much more we can do. We really haven’t left any rocks unturned.”

Guide to developing future leaders

• Encourage your leaders to actively engage in development processes. Doing so helps sustain the processes and sends a message to talented employees that they are valued.

• Ensure there is organisational clarity on the capabilities that underpin successful performance. This ensures the development processes are aligned against a common goal of growing the right capabilities to achieve and sustain organisational performance.

• So you know where tomorrow's leaders will come from; focus on the transition you are looking to help individuals make. Be clear about the specific challenges that particular groups of functional experts will face once promoted, and focus on assessing and developing these. Make sure individuals truly want to make the transition, and that they are ready.

• Continually review and re-evaluate the process: what is working, what could be more effective, how well engaged business sponsors are, and how the program benefits the organisation and individuals.

• Put in place processes to enable ongoing development. Mentorship, action learning and specific 'on the job' experiences are particularly beneficial.

• Involve your leaders as assessors. The skills they apply and hone during the process are invaluable in building the wider leadership capability of the organisation by developing leaders as coaches.

Source: Melanie Long, principal consultant, SHL

Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine. www.personneltoday.com