Bottling talent at Coca-Cola

Written by
Changeboard Team

30 May 2017

30 May 2017 • by Changeboard Team

Jia Gay

As group HR director of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region for the Coca-Cola Export Corporation, a subsidiary of the Coca-Cola Company, Jia Gay has been with the organisation for 21 years, starting her career in talent acquisition before moving into employee relations. She became group HR director MENA in 2012. Having worked across a variety of locations, Gay exemplifies the company’s commitment to career development and retaining top talent.

“I’m proud to work for such a great brand and help our people make the most of their talents,” smiles Gay. “Ultimately, we want to leverage people’s strengths so they can help us grow. And in turn, we give them unrivalled opportunities to grow themselves.” 

Global opportunity for growth

In Gay’s view, what helps to set Coke apart from the rest is the breadth of global opportunity it offers to employees. “We operate in more countries than the United Nations,” she laughs. “We are truly global. We believe that we offer these experiences better than anyone else, and that’s not easily replicated.”

The MENA region comprises 33 different countries and there are 27 nationalities working out of the Dubai office alone. There are around 250 employees across those locations, operating throughout 15 countries. The enterprise works through a bottling organisation to manufacture and distribute products – it’s a franchise system, with approximately 35,000 employees.

While Gay acknowledges that not everyone has the ability to be globally mobile, particularly women, Coke addresses this by supporting virtual working opportunities. “We just had a woman who lives in Morocco promoted to a group marketing role. The group office is in Turkey – she is not able to move there so she does the job virtually from Morocco,” explains Gay. “So she gets greater opportunity, exposure, and promotion, and doesn’t have to move.”

Always be constructively discontent

Gay believes that what characterises employees at Coke is an inherent passion for the company and the brand, which results in a hunger to succeed and do better. “[People] have the horse power in the head and the heart. They are intellectually strong but really care about the brand,” she enthuses, adding that: “Our talent is educated, experienced, driven, hard-working, collaborative and results-oriented.”

This outlook comes from the very top of the organisation, and Gay reveals that Coke’s chairman and CEO, Muhtar Kent, encourages people to constantly be “constructively discontent” and strive for excellence. Complacency could be easy with a brand that is steeped in a 128-year history.

Gay also believes that the company culture goes a long way to promoting engagement among the workforce, which in turn makes it harder for competition to ‘poach’ top talent. “The hygiene factors such as competitive pay and reward are there, but that’s not what people stay for,” she says. “It’s the leadership, culture, and the development opportunities.”

Moving the HR model

In 2010, Coca-Cola moved its HR model towards strategic business partnering with the introduction of Centres of Expertise and a global business transaction centre.

“We wanted to take the transactional work away from our business partners so they could be responsible for organisational design, change management, talent management and engagement,” explains Gay.

“This way, our business partners can build best in class tools as internal consultants to the business, and the transactional processes are dealt with in our transactional centre.”

Although Gay admits that the model has required “some tweaking”, the change has brought about great success and resulted in closer alignment between key areas including talent acquisition, talent management, compensation and benefits and global mobility across geographies and business units.

So how does the company ensure the processes are tailored to the needs of the region? “For example, our regional transaction centre is based in Warsaw, Poland, but we ensure we have Arabic and French speakers there who can communicate with our local colleagues where needed and answer any questions they may have,” reveals Gay.

“We absolutely need to ensure we have people who can support us from a regional perspective. Our talent acquisition manager is supporting us on a short-term assignment and works from Paris but he regularly visits the region. We make sure that the people who support us have regional experience and networks.

Fostering career development

Huge focus is placed on development, work environment and training – the organisation adopts a 70/20/10 approach. Coca-Cola University (CCU) is the company’s education curriculum, which provides a wide range of courses through classroom learning, e-learning and field training to help employees develop personally and professionally.

Gay explains that employees (associates) are encouraged to seek training through the company’s annual performance review process. This includes mid-year and year-end career discussions between associates and their managers, giving everyone the opportunity to assess their annual performance against set goals and objectives. Associates and managers discuss training and development and outline a plan for training and enrichment. The associate and manager are responsible for ensuring that the proper training and development is completed within the calendar year.

There are also opportunities for people to receive mentoring, executive coaching where appropriate, attend external conferences and undertake project-based assignments.

“Short-term assignments mean you might end up going to work in Canada for a year,” says Gay. “One of our admin assistants has gone over to work in trade marketing at the bottler for three months. It’s fantastic for people to get additional exposure outside of their business unit, function or geography that they can then bring back to their role.”

High-potential leaders are invited to participate in a six to eight-week sabbatical at Coke’s leadership academy, where participants are taken outside their normal roles travelling the globe to see, experience and understand the Coca-Cola system as they never have before. They confront real world challenges and successes. “It’s much more than typical classroom training,” says Gay.

As another form of high-level development, associates can be nominated to undertake ‘talent reviews’. This involves taking time out of their day job to investigate a particular issue or challenge faced by the business in an area that they would not normally deal with, and produce a whitepaper with recommendations for the business. They are then invited to present their findings to the senior operations committee in a detailed discussion. 

Striving for excellence

While Gay admits that Coca-Cola is not the number-one brand in the region, MENA has been recognised externally for its commitment to employees, namely Aon Hewitt’s ‘Best Employers’ survey where the company was placed 14th in the region, and separately won best employer awards in Morocco and Pakistan during 2013.

“Regionally, we are the fighter, the number two, but even so – and maybe because of this – the MENA team has been recognised across the world both internally and externally with a number of awards.”

The MENA business unit was the winner of the Coca-Cola Company’s ‘Robert W. Woodruff Cup’ in 2012. Named after Coca-Cola’s president from 1923 to 1954, the cup is the company’s most prestigious operating award, honouring the top-performing business unit in the worldwide Coca-Cola business system, and particularly the one that most directly connects its efforts and results to the short and long-term goals of the business.

“We are lean but making great strides,” says Gay, adding that the MENA business unit has been recognised globally by the company over the last two years for ‘best in class’ marketing.

However, she points out the importance of staying humble while also raising the bar for continued success. “The challenge is to maintain the momentum and remain constructively discontent. We need to stay fighting as we are always looking to improve and increase our share and business results in this region,” she adds.

“Our employees are our ambassadors, they are the defenders of our brand,” says Gay. Indeed, the office where we meet is covered with large images of employees from around the world, with quotes about what Coca-Cola means to them.

Collaboration is also key. “We are very relationship-oriented and we do like to have some fun too,” she says. “When you talk about open happiness in your advertising campaigns, it’s not authentic if you don’t live it in your operations. Yes, we have challenges but overall the culture is positive.”

Employees are encouraged to demonstrate high integrity, diversity and leadership (Gay points out this is not just about leading teams, but leading yourself and being inspirational to those around you). They need to ensure they are communicating, as people know what they need to do and how they fit into the bigger picture. 

HR stewards of culture

So what role does HR have to play in all of this? “We are in constant dialogue with the business and our people,” says Gay. Coca-Cola conducts full employee engagement surveys every two years and smaller ones the rest of the time to really take the temperature of the organisation and find out what people are thinking. “It’s a mixture between formal dialogue, focus groups and adhoc discussions to listen and understand how people feel.”

She highlights the importance of taking positive steps based on feedback, to show employees you are listening and taking action. Within Coca-Cola, HR has an action plan around the five core categories of: retention, learning and development, leadership, compensation and benefits.

Gay adds: “Our surveys help us understand what’s important to people so we take action based on what people tell us.”

Getting people embedded in the culture from the very beginning is of paramount importance. New joiners undertake week-long “orientation” periods, where they meet up with colleagues from across the globe. Senior leaders are also present to explain the ethos and aims of the organisation.

Then, participants are set a project that relates to something important within the business. This year, Coke introduced a new set of leadership competencies and asked people to think about how they can be brought to life. “Participants get to meet people from elsewhere in the business – both regionally and functionally – they network with others, connect and collaborate with them. People love it.”

Beyond this, each new associate receives a dedicated ‘onboarding plan’ with goals and activities, as agreed with their manager.

Within MENA, Gay reveals staff turnover is low and Coke works hard to retain people, creating a pleasant work environment and sustainable career development opportunities.

She also acknowledges the importance of her role in helping surface top talent. “There are many opportunities for me as HR director to expose great MENA talent so I never miss an opportunity to do this.” 

Whats your hedgehog concept?

So what is Gay’s message to other HR leaders in the region looking to promote a positive employee value proposition and hook the best talent in the market?

Firstly, she advises you to identify what it is that makes your organisation stand out from others and then “lean into” it. For Coke, this is the global offering and passionate culture. She encourages you to identify your ‘hedgehog concept’ – a term first coined by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great – which essentially means doing one thing and doing it well.

In the book, Collins utilises the story of the clever, devious fox and the simple hedgehog. The fox keeps coming up with new ideas to eat the hedgehog, but the hedgehog handily defeats him by doing his one trick: rolling into a thorny ball.

The concept requires the intersection of three answers: what are you passionate about? What can you be the best at? What can actually make you a living?

Once you have identified this, Gay believes you need to engage in “constant dialogue” with your workforce in whatever fashion works for them. “Understand what your people need, what’s on their minds, listen, don’t be defensive and react where you can.”

Finally, it’s crucial to understand your talent pools. “Pinpoint what’s motivating talent in your market and try to anticipate what they’ll need in future. What’s facing them socially?”

She adds: “Our strategic workforce planning [SWP] is based on long-term thinking about our vision – what competencies will we need and what do we need to move towards that? The key thing is to understand trends so that you can be ahead.”