PepsiCo’s Lisa Walsh is an advocate for courageous leadership and risk-taking​

Lisa Walsh has built a career on the backbone of data, analytics and taking calculated risks. But it’s the time with her family she really counts on.

Tell us about your professional journey.

I started in the industry doing market research for both IRI and Nielsen, which gave me a great foundation around analytics and data that ended up driving my future career path. I moved on to the manufacturing side, at a household products company which is now Reckitt Benckiser. There I helped drive the discipline of category management—specifically, how it interacts with sales and strategy, in addition to developing new channels of business for our portfolio. It was a great company that afforded me the ability to do big things, which set me up to move to PepsiCo, a much larger company with a much broader portfolio. I built up my reputation and credibility by working in functions I knew well in the areas of category management, analytics and strategy, so that I could focus my learning around direct store delivery (DSD) and big food and beverage categories. It was very different than coming from a warehouse company.

Over time I had the opportunity to broaden my horizons, and I moved into franchise management working with our bottlers. That assignment enabled me to prove I could succeed in an operations-driven role versus the analytics foundation I had established. Later I moved into a PepsiCo role managing sales functions and teams, as well as leading our industry association collaboration. Now I’m venturing into a new business for us, which is eCommerce.

You mentioned eCommerce, which is clearly a big trend in CPG right now. What is your take on how (or if) consumer goods companies should be focusing efforts on eCommerce?

First and foremost we need to understand where the consumer is going. Consumer trends today show a high degree of urbanization, need for personalization and growth of dual-income households, so customers' time is pressed. At the same time, technology is ubiquitous and becoming an integral part of peoples’ lives. These trends are causing consumers to look for convenience and value everywhere they go, naturally leading consumers to migrate to more online shopping. It started in other industries, of course, with books, electronics and computers. And although some said no one would buy shoes or clothes online, look at the current success of Zappos, Gilt and others who have come before us.

Now consumers want to access as much as they can online, and we're following this trend very closely. Projections for online food and beverage growth show a dramatic increase in consumers shifting their behavior from trips to the store to trips online, often using their mobile devices while they are on the go. We're very bullish that there's going to be some growth opportunity to capitalize on, but we also recognize the role that brick and mortar stores play and how important that is to the shopper base. We have to be more nimble about understanding what consumers are looking for when they do make the shopping trip, and how we can help our retail partners create that experience. Most retailers are trying to figure out their own strategy online, as most of them have now understood that they need an omni-channel strategy if they’re going to succeed with future generations who have grown up with technology. This means we need to take a hybrid approach, selling through online channels while continuing to support traditional retail stores as they adapt to this eCommerce trend.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing CPG companies today, and what can these organizations do to turn those challenges into opportunities?

The biggest challenge is finding long-term, profitable and sustainable growth. There is no silver bullet that is going to solve the growth challenge. It will require a series of initiatives across our portfolio to be successful. For example, our operating models were previously built for scaled, one-size fits all approaches, but now consumers want personalization and a unique experience that's different and unique to them. We have to be able to find ways to understand consumer demand for our products that leads to shopper solutions where and when they want them. Social media, targeted marketing and technology will all play a critical role in reaching the shopper in this new way. On the talent development front, we have to be able to recognize what the workplace of the future is going to be in order to attract, retain and advance the best and brightest to drive growth. If we just expect to do things the way we've always done them, use the same performance metrics, hire the same way, recruit the same way, train the same way, we're going to be challenged to find talent to bring us into our next decade of growth. Right now we're questioning a lot of our existing processes and empowering our people to think boldly and creatively at ways to work smarter and enable a greater degree of flexibility. If your workforce is diverse, represents your consumer base and is happy to come to work every day, it correlates to better performance. So in the end, it all comes back to growth.

It sounds like confronting these challenges will require taking risks. What was one of the biggest risks you’ve taken in your career?

I mentioned that I spent some time working with our bottling partners earlier in my career. At the time this was a lateral move from my existing role, and I chose to take that opportunity instead of going after a promotion. I realized that I needed to have a greater understanding of the franchise operations in our business before I could succeed at a higher level. The first three months were very challenging and difficult. I was totally outside my comfort zone working in a primarily male dominated environment, and working in an area of the business I knew very little about. But I found my stride and learned more than I could have ever anticipated, not only about our bottling system and what makes our franchisees successful, but even more about myself and what I was capable of. It made me an infinitely better leader, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

You are very passionate about what you call “courageous leadership.” Tell us what that means to you.

Courageous leadership for me really is really about engaging with and understanding people. If you are going to be a great leader, you have to know your peers, team members and customers. You have to be a good listener and spend more time leaning in and investing in relationships. That establishes a level of trust and respect that opens to doors to the truly authentic conversations, whether giving tough feedback to empowering and motivating teams.

You also have to take risks in doing certain assignments that put you out of your comfort zone so that you can grow and develop both professionally and personally. And you have to be willing to lead change. In my experience, the women and the men who tend to be most successful are the ones who do all of their due diligence to understand marketplace dynamics and form a well thought out opinion, and then are bold and courageous enough to drive it through the system. In many cases you will be met with adversity and resistance, but it's those willing to power through because they believe in the desired result that tend to be our best leaders.

What do you like to do in your (very limited) spare time?

Most importantly, I make sure that I do have spare time! My family is the most important thing in the world to me. I have two young children who are still in elementary school, and as amazing as my husband is, there are still times when they need their mom. My family is and will always be my biggest priority, their love and support enables me to be my very best at work. But it wasn’t always that easy; I’ve had to learn along the way to be present wherever I am. That means when I’m home and with them the phone is down and they have 100 percent of my attention. The same goes for work; when I am traveling, with customers or with my teams I know that my husband is taking care of things at home so I can be completely focused on my job.

One of my favorite things to do with my family is vacation. I feel like travel is such a gift by expanding your horizons and perceptions of different people and cultures. It enables us to put all the technology down and really interact as a family. So I take every bit of vacation, and I enjoy all the elements of vacation planning from where we go to where we stay and even where we eat. Sometimes we travel with extended family or friends, but we always make sure we have time just for our core family to spend critical time together. That recharges my batteries and energizes me to come back to work fully motivated.

Of what achievement, personal or professional, are you most proud?

I am most proud of my children. As they are growing up and becoming their own people, I see the impact of what my husband and I have taught them about equality, gender roles and the fact that either of them can do anything they want. I have a son and a daughter so seeing me as a professional mom and having a dad who manages the home, coaches their teams and helps with the homework hopefully reinforces the notion that both men and women can be anything—gender is irrelevant. Watching them grow up has made me revise the lens through which I see the world and made me examine my own gender biases. For example, I was so excited when my daughter came along, because I thought for sure she would share my love of Disney princesses—the dressing up, the fairytale stories, the pinks and purples. She’s nine now and has never been interested in princesses. What did she want to be for Halloween this year? A storm trooper—a powerful, confident and courageous storm trooper. She’s her own girl, and I couldn’t be more proud.