Focusing on People and Purpose at The Coca-Cola Company
Lisa Connell: How did you get into HR?
Lisa Chang: It was through a college internship. I had no idea what HR was before that. I started as an assistant and enjoyed learning the people side of business. I loved how important HR was to both employees and management. It lined up with what I wanted to do: focus on people, while contributing to the business.
Connell: Describe some lessons you’ve learned as an HR professional, even some perhaps learned the hard way.
Chang: I started in an administrative capacity and then moved through different functions. One of my lessons was how diverse HR really is. HR can sometimes get boiled down to the functions, but HR is very wide. Another lesson is that you can’t prejudge the impact you can have in HR. At each step, I looked at my impact on the people. Even administrative tasks were important to the employees that are affected. I find value and meaning in everything I do in HR.
One of the hard lessons was that you must continuously prove your value. You don’t get instant credit. That is something that is changing, especially with the pandemic. Those that are thriving are people-driven organizations. It’s been a long journey and I continue to stress how important it is to show the value to the business.
Connell: What advice would you give to a rising HR leader?
Chang: In addition to functional expertise, I also look for the 3 As.
- Attitude: If you have the right attitude, you can learn anything.
- Adaptability: Things are changing so rapidly today, and great HR leaders must be ready to pivot. People are creatures of habit and it can be challenging, but we have to be adaptable. The pace of change today is exponential.
- Acumen: The only way HR can contribute to the business is to understand the business. HR leaders need to understand those levers of success and competitive advantages. The more I learn about the business, the better I am at my job. Great HR leaders show up at the table as a business partner first and an HR person second.
Connell: How do you think the role of a CHRO is going to change in the next five years?
Chang: The pandemic has been a litmus test to the future of HR. Shifting from traditional HR functions of recruiting, compensation and training to the higher order responsibility of helping keep employees safe, physically and psychologically, is a huge change. HR plays a big role in that with not only establishing people policies, practices and processes, but also in helping build capabilities for the future, supporting leaders and their growth, and defining culture. Culture leadership is one of the most critical roles HR will play in the future.
The role of HR in building capability in an organization will also continue to be extremely important. HR needs to ensure that we have the right capabilities across the organization, including technical and functional skills as well as leadership capabilities. Management in the era of command-and-control was much simpler—it was not as nuanced as it is today. Now it’s more difficult to balance all the needs of employees and their expectations. What employees expect from us as employers is different. It is our job to help ensure that our managers and people leaders are equipped to help people navigate this environment.
HR has a role of influencing and encouraging decisions to be made with people first. We have a responsibility to push our leaders to lead from the front. Our job will get harder, but the level of respect for HR will increase as well. Using data will enable us to build a stronger strategic business partnership.
Connell: What is your strategy for building relationships with your team members and peers?
Chang: It starts with listening and acknowledging that individuals bring different perspectives. You have to give everyone a voice understanding you have the same objectives. Transparency and communication are critical to building trust. Building trust comes from being authentic. I lead with transparency and by example. Simple things like kindness, empathy and understanding are important. We have to remember that everyone is a person.
Connell: What is your leadership philosophy? How did you adapt your leadership in response to business changes from COVID-19?
Chang: The heart of my leadership philosophy is being inclusive. It is important to me to make sure diverse perspectives are considered. At the same time, there are times when I need to make tough decisions. That is difficult but as a leader, making tough decisions doesn’t mean you can’t be sympathetic or considerate. You have to be firm, set expectations and at times make unpopular decisions. That’s part of the package of being a good leader. Being transparent and providing clarity helps too.
An area I’ve had to evolve during COVID-19 is leading remotely. Influencing and building community digitally is difficult. It’s hard to read engagement levels online versus picking up on signals in person. Leaders must be extra observant and check in on their people. Sending emails and messages just asking people how they are doing or asking for a touch base that doesn’t have a specific topic and just talking are all ways I’ve tried to build a bridge during this time.
Connell: Companies made many shifts in response to the pandemic and its continuing effects. What changes at Coca-Cola are you most proud of?
Chang: The shift overnight to go remote so quickly was a testament to the investments we have made over the years to progress our digital strategy. Miraculously it all worked seamlessly.
Prior to COVID-19, we were on a culture change journey. We revamped our company’s purpose in December 2019 to “Refresh the World. Make a Difference.” We are anchoring our culture to our purpose and the pandemic gave us the opportunity to put our purpose to the test. Everything we did, we did with a people-first, authentic, transparent mindset. I am proud that we have been living up to that purpose. We held global town halls with our employees, emphasizing the importance of their health and safety as our top priority. We also created an internal portal, specific to COVID-19, that included FAQs, resources and tools to support our employees. In May 2020, we launched an employee engagement survey. We received the highest scores ever, the highest participation rates and the highest leadership scores. We are super proud of that.
As a global company with employees in more than 200 countries, we learned from ourselves. We learned from our China operations as COVID-19 moved around the world. We pivoted our resources and focused on the work that mattered most.
Connell: Many companies have found that the pandemic accelerated trends in the business world, such as the digitalization of talent management. What areas of HR at Coca-Cola were pushed forward suddenly?
Chang: We accelerated our digital learning platforms shortening a six- to nine-month implementation to just a few weeks. The idea was that with employees at home, now is the time. We didn’t aim for perfection, but rather improvement through iteration. Our adoption rate was high right from the start.
We launched Opportunity Marketplace, a combination of workforce strategy and technology. It’s a way to post internal opportunities for projects, not jobs. We wanted to have cross-functional solutions on certain projects. For example, we had employees whose customers were closed because of the pandemic. Because of the Opportunity Marketplace, we were able to deploy those employees to a different project. The COVID-19 situation compelled us to create this talent technology tool quickly. It fills a short-term project need, but also a long-term talent need by giving people experience to grow.
Connell: What do you envision in the new world of work? What will change? What parts may not return?
Chang: The geography of work will remain different. I anticipate that for many companies, while some employees will eventually go back into the office, the way we will work will look different. It will be a hybrid form. People will likely only come into the office for intentional meetings, while independent working will remain remote.
Geographic boundaries can be opened. With a digital workforce, this may help organizations attract talent regardless of location.
A challenge will be how to create a culture and maintain engagement with everything being virtual. Once we stop running on adrenaline, we need to be able to keep up the engagement levels and this means more than virtual happy hours. We miss those watercooler conversations. How do you create relationships that are not one-dimensional?
Connell: Increasing social justice and eliminating workplace bias are critical needs. What actions is Coca-Cola taking in pursuit of these goals?
Chang: We are fortunate to be part of a company that has a history of being on the right side of social justice around the world. We have a strong foundation of leadership in diversity and inclusion. Our CEO, James Quincey, has advocated for-— and supports-—a four-pillar framework.
- Listening: We are listening and trying to understand perspectives of employees, customers and groups outside of our ecosystem like community leaders.
- Leading: We are leading in renewing our D&I training that highlights recent issues. We added new leadership through a cross-functional group to lead a social justice agile team to help us find areas to improve. One of the team’s recommendations that we adopted is making 2020 Election Day a paid holiday in the United States.
- Investing: The Coca-Cola Foundation supports causes and organizations working for change. We are committed to investing in areas where we can make a difference.
- Advocacy: We make our voice heard for policy changes. We supported the passage of a hate-crime bill in Georgia, and we are committed to continue using our voice as a corporate citizen to help the community.
Connell: You’ve led HR in several global companies. How can HR leaders adopt that global mindset?
Chang: The global mindset is about not being fixed in the way you look at the world and pushing yourself to think differently. When you are global, you have cultural diversity in addition to ethnic and gender diversity. You need to appreciate how different people are, and yet how similar we all are. At the end of the day, we are all human and have the same need to be valued and appreciated. We all want to contribute.
Connell: What are you learning right now?
Chang: As an organization, we are learning how to prepare ourselves to emerge stronger from this crisis. The company is on a journey to re-invent itself and it is requiring us to learn how to be comfortable through ambiguity and move at a faster pace. Personally, I have learned not to stress over things beyond my control, but rather lean into the areas where I can really make a difference. This is not only more impactful to me personally and the organization, but it is also more rewarding.
Connell: The future of HR is…
Chang: …unpredictable, exciting and transformative.