During a career spanning 30-plus years, Andrea Ferrara has never encountered an HR challenge like the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s “largely because of the duration and magnitude of its impact,” says Ferrara, CHRO of PepsiCo Beverages North America. No other event has touched every single worker in such profound ways, she says, adding that “there’s no playbook for how to manage during a global pandemic.”
Ferrara, who leads a 400-member HR team supporting about 60,000 employees in 400 locations across the U.S. and Canada, has risen to the challenge. She and her team devised a plan that has helped put the organization and its people on a successful, sustainable trajectory. At the heart of the approach is a culture of transparency and trust that Ferrara strives to instill.
Transforming the Business Structure
PepsiCo hasn’t been immune to supply chain bottlenecks and inflationary pressures. Even so, the food and beverage giant has seen robust revenue growth of late. Ferrara credits the company’s ability to weather pandemic-era challenges in large part to an organizational transformation involving a move to a decentralized operating structure that she and her HR team have helped implement over the past few years.
“There’s no doubt in our minds that we fared better in the pandemic than we would have if we hadn’t been in this structure,” Ferrara says.
PepsiCo has grown its business by acquiring CytoSport (maker of Muscle Milk) in 2019 and Rockstar Energy Beverages in 2020. Prior to these acquisitions, eight regions reported to headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., but that centralized operating model “didn’t really give us the ability to pivot and react quickly,” Ferrara says.
So, in light of its expansion, the company started to shift to the decentralized operating structure it currently uses. Now, there are four U.S. operating divisions and a Canada division, each with its own president and leadership team in charge of a geographic area. The goal is to place leaders closer to customers and the front lines. With greater decision-making authority, the regional leaders can respond more swiftly to their local markets.
Along with this change, the organization appointed 18 new vice presidents. Ferrara and her team helped this select group learn how to lead more strategically, thanks to a leadership acceleration program that was launched in early 2020. Throughout the 18-month program, executive team members developed mentoring relationships with the new VPs, sharing hard-won insights on forming teams and leading during turbulent times. The initiative proved so successful that in 2021, PepsiCo created a similar mentorship program for the VPs and their own direct reports.
The idea for the leadership acceleration program stemmed from what Ferrara calls PepsiCo’s “proud legacy of building leaders from within. PepsiCo historically has been a company that grows its own talent,” she says. “I never, ever take that lightly.” The company takes a buy-and-build approach to talent, Ferrara notes. That means bringing in junior employees and developing their skills and capabilities so they can rise into senior roles.
Pivoting in a Pandemic
While the organizational transformation put PepsiCo in a strong position to confront the pandemic, the company nonetheless had to make rapid adjustments. All but about 15,000 of its roughly 60,000 employees are front-line workers who cannot do their jobs remotely. To maintain social distancing and promote safety, Ferrara and her team worked offsite as much as possible. That included engaging in online hiring, onboarding and training.
During the initial lockdowns in 2020, PepsiCo’s front-line workers no longer had the opportunity to service suddenly shuttered restaurants and stadiums. To keep these workers employed, the company reassigned them to grocery stores, which saw spikes in demand.
At the same time, for the corporate employees who began working remotely, Ferrara’s team provided training on conducting effective video meetings and remaining engaged while working virtually. Her team also supported managers during periods of sustained uncertainty by helping them hone their people skills. The HR team encouraged these managers to touch base with their workers more often and with a greater awareness of employees’ mental and emotional health. Managers learned tips for gauging their people’s well-being and helping them through challenges.
“People had their worlds completely turned upside down overnight,” Ferrara says. “It forced managers to stop and be more thoughtful about each individual on their team and what they were going through.”
Leading by Example
In addition to providing guidance to PepsiCo managers, Ferrara led by example. For her, strong leadership comes down to communicating openly and candidly. “I think that’s what good leaders do, particularly in times of high stress,” she says. “I’ve always tried to be transparent, first and foremost.”
That meant relying on more than just corporate-level communications. Ferrara also took a personal approach to her interactions with team members. Early in the pandemic, she began writing letters to her team every few weeks. In addition to recognizing and thanking her staff for their hard work, the missives revealed how Ferrara herself was faring. “The letters were much more on a personal note than I ever would have done in the past,” she says. “I thought it was important they saw and felt how I was processing the disruption.”
Ferrara, who participates in a writing club in her spare time, also started a similar club at PepsiCo. She asked HR team members who were interested in doing so to share their thoughts in writing.
“During COVID, Andrea made a tremendous effort to connect with the entire PepsiCo HR community,” says Jennifer Wells, who has known Ferrara since joining the company in 2007 and now reports to her as vice president of HR. “Andrea worked tirelessly to connect with the HR community through weekly calls, letters, e-mails, personal stories and reflections. She emanates warmth and care for the total HR community.”
Gabriela Garcia met Ferrara after joining PepsiCo in 2008 and has seen firsthand the value of Ferrara’s people-first leadership style. “She’s always so human, so willing to understand what’s going on with you personally and not just in the business,” says Garcia, senior vice president of HR at PepsiCo.
Almost a decade ago, a promotion opportunity led Garcia to move from Mexico to Connecticut. Although she had been an expat a few times before, Garcia and her teenage daughter had a hard time adjusting to such a different culture without the social support they had back home.
“It was the toughest experience in my career,” Garcia says.
She dreaded telling Ferrara that she might have to resign. Ferrara’s response: “No worries, we’ll make it work. The most important thing is your daughter and your life,” Garcia recalls.
With Ferrara’s support, Garcia moved back to Mexico and remained with the company. Ferrara’s people-first leadership in that moment “changed my life,” Garcia says.
Autonomy and Accountability
Ferrara herself has directly benefited from PepsiCo’s commitment to supporting and developing its employees. In 1990, the company recruited her while she was finishing her master’s degree in economics and labor relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she also earned her undergraduate degree. Ferrara has been with PepsiCo ever since, working in HR functions such as employee relations, compensation, and talent management and acquisition. Along the way, she has steadily climbed the ranks, landing in her current role in 2017.
“From the minute I got here, the thing that was most magical for me was the degree of autonomy and accountability the organization gave you,” Ferrara says. “The more capability you demonstrated, the more the organization was willing to let you take on.”
Ferrara’s interest in employee relations began at an early age. She grew up in a small coal town in western Pennsylvania, where her friends’ miner fathers went on strike in the 1970s and again in the ’80s. Ferrara’s father, who taught at the same university she later attended, was also a union member. “Labor relations was always around me,” she says. “I always found it so interesting. It’s about human nature.”
A New Normal
For all the workplace hardships the pandemic has introduced, the most pressing challenge, Ferrara now finds, is understanding that this hurdle is not just a temporary aberration but the new normal. “The challenge with this sustained amount of disruption is how we take the current environment and not make it a detraction but a source of distinction for the company and our associates,” she says. “I spend a lot of time thinking about that.”
Her thinking has helped PepsiCo consider ways to sustain and nurture a company culture that its employees used to experience entirely in person and now also experience virtually, as the organization embraces hybrid work.
In mid-2021, PepsiCo launched its Work that Works initiative. The program allows managers and their employees to decide together what work can be done remotely and what needs to be done in the office. While the program applies to corporate-office employees, Ferrara wants to offer similar flexibility to PepsiCo’s front-line workers.
“Providing flexibility to people who make, move and sell every day is challenging,” she says.
Her team has begun addressing that challenge with a pilot program involving flexible shifts and schedules. One outcome is that it allows more people to work for the company in a part-time capacity.
For Ferrara, greater flexibility in the workplace is far more than a pandemic-era trend.
“Companies that can get creative and innovative in their value proposition to their associates will be the ones that succeed in this time,” she says.
Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.
Photos of Andrea Ferrara by Brien Adams.