Faces of HR

Top HR Pro at PepsiCo Shares Her Pandemic Experience, Advice for New HR Pros

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been wondering how HR personnel at large organizations have handled themselves, especially those who have a full complement of remote and frontline employees. It’s my pleasure to share with you all today a recent interview with Andrea Ferrara, CHRO for PepsiCo Beverages North America at PepsiCo.

I’ve been looking through your bio, and I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve been with PepsiCo pretty much your entire career, huh?

 Yes, I have spent my entire career at PepsiCo.

That is a little unusual, but it also says a lot. What were you thinking when you got into PepsiCo in the first place?

I get asked this question a lot. I grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, heavily influenced by labor which served as the impetus for studying labor economics in college. I was recruited by PepsiCo as a campus hire upon earning my Masters degree in Industrial and Labor Relations.  From the minute I arrived at PepsiCo, the thing that was most magical was the degree of accountability and autonomy you get as an employee. Of course, it’s within a scope you can handle, but I always felt challenged, valued, and connected to the values of the organization which has carried me through the past 30 years of my career in different roles and in different parts of the world.  

You had intended to get involved in sort of an HR role right from the beginning?

Yes. I’m actually one of those people who is practicing in the area they studied in school.   

That’s exceedingly rare within the HR community. I imagine you’ve seen quite a bit of change over your career within the HR world in general. How have you felt that that change has been reflected within your organization?

That’s a great question. The concept of how people lead, the expectations of managers, and how we handle career development have evolved over time. At PepsiCo, there is a high degree of focus on these areas.  When I started in 1990, you tended to go very deep into a discipline, and now, as the world has gotten more complex and, in some ways, smaller, it has forced us to look at both building depth and building breadth. This evolution has enabled our leaders to be better, stronger, and faster.  What the discipline of HR stands for has remained the same, but how we develop leaders has certainly evolved.

I can only imagine, with an organization as big as yours, the overall magnitude of the challenges you guys have gone through over the last year and then the level of detail of those challenges. You’re working in all these different countries and all these different states. What’s it been like over the last year? How are you guys doing?

I am extraordinarily proud of our organization. If you look back on the last 10 months, there has been a culmination of leadership lessons for me personally over 30 years coming into action which has enabled us to deal with this sustained uncertainty. I believe it is our ability to be very proactive, confident in our leadership team, and be extraordinarily transparent.

Our priority has been and continues to be keeping our employees safe and educated while keeping the business running. When you see our products on the shelves, it gives people confidence, and we were extraordinarily cognizant of that.

A lot of organizations, in the states anyway, got caught off guard. Suddenly, there was this mad dash and scramble—which, with the lens of hindsight, how could we not have seen it coming sooner than mid-March 2020? I wonder, how prepared were you guys?

We started preparing before March. As a global company, we have the benefit of having insight and information on what’s happening in other parts of the business. We had a good foundation from which to start, thanks to leaders who had previously started this work of putting in place crisis management plans. Now, that being said, things like procuring safety equipment and all the personal protective equipment (PPE) were a bit of a challenge because early on, they weren’t available, but our teams got extraordinarily creative in a variety of ways. For instance, we were able to produce our own hand sanitizer early on and had that shipped across North America. It’s always amazing to see how we can leverage our size and scale for the greater good of our people.

It’s refreshing to hear that a company had a pandemic plan at all, let alone one it was able to implement successfully. That’s just something you don’t hear very much. It’s a testament to crisis planning. Then, that lead time with being able to see what was happening in China is something I think a lot of people were ignoring or downplaying.

Unfortunately, nobody knew. We did not know it was going to be this bad. But to your point, I’m very pleased and I feel very blessed that we’ve had leaders over the years who took these things seriously and then laid the foundation.

One of the things I’ve been having a little bit of trouble with is finding people who have frontline workers. This is a rare opportunity to ask about it. I’m aware of the kinds of procedural things and the installation of security measures and safety measures, but how did you approach employee engagement, retention, and just making sure your frontline employees were doing just as well as those you were able to send home?

That’s a great question. I think one of the things I’ve always tried to do in all my roles at PepsiCo, and especially recently here with PepsiCo Beverages North America (PBNA), is to maintain high-touch leadership. That means being highly transparent, communicative, and connected to your associates. It comes to life in how we lead and operate. When you have this built into your culture and your ways of working, it’s a strong foundation from which you build.

For example, we were extraordinarily purposeful in how and when we communicated as an executive committee under the leadership of Kirk Tanner, the CEO of PBNA. We took a creative and multi-faceted approach to reach our office-based employees who were completely remote and our frontline employees who were moving and selling our product.

We did live video streams through which we could talk to our frontline employees and thank them and reassure them that we were taking every precaution necessary to keep them safe. We also had fun ways to celebrate their successes, such as the team that pulled together the making of the hand sanitizer. When you take this customized approach, you form psychological contracts with people, and I’ve always been proud of PepsiCo’s ability to do that. It’s about making it much more than just the standard “here’s your pay, and here are your benefits.”

It’s taking a much more holistic look at the employer-employee relationship. When you do that, you can make a company of our size feel small, and then you have something special. That is part of PepsiCo, and that’s part of why we were able to operate so effectively during the pandemic.

That psychological contract is really critical, and it’s something a lot of organizations and a lot of leaders struggle with. From my perspective, it’s always been extraordinarily simple. You start with the foundation of how you show people respect and how you earn their respect. Then, you build the rest of your organization around that.

When you’re looking at businesses from a financial perspective, that’s not automatic at all. That’s something you really have to think about in addition to and added to the concept of making money.

Developing a psychological contract with your employees is something that you have to build into your DNA, and that takes time. It starts with a well-articulated and a well-communicated set of values and behaviors. You have to hold your leaders accountable to live those values and behave those values every day. When you do that, it starts to gain traction, and then it becomes part of the fabric.

What is something you’re really looking forward to this year?

I’m extraordinarily hopeful that we’re going to get back to some level of normalcy. That’s the most obvious answer. But to build on that, we have learned so much more about ourselves and what we need to do to lead — being more agile, empathetic, and deepening the connection with your associates. When you start to apply those lessons, our ability to lead will just continue to be enhanced.

Not everybody’s built to be naturally empathetic. That doesn’t mean that people who aren’t naturally empathetic don’t care. They might just not have the capability to express it or the opportunity to include it. One of the things that’s happened over the last year is that you kind of have to now. A lot of leaders were going through the same thing their employees were going through. They were stuck at home or stuck at work in a somewhat dangerous environment. They were seeing the problems their employees were experiencing firsthand on Zoom calls or watching kids running to the screen. They’re watching people not have the time or people getting sick and their families and loved ones getting sick in a way I don’t think was accessible to a lot of people before.

It’s been really useful toward taking fundamental HR concepts that haven’t really been properly implemented over the last 5 or 10 years and really putting them in the fabric of how work is done. I’m hopeful those lessons aren’t forgotten when we return to something normal.

People watch what you do, and they watch what you say, and they also watch what you don’t do and what you don’t say. That was a lesson I learned early in my career, and I always keep it top of mind. I think leaders are going to have to continue to demonstrate those attributes, and one of those extraordinarily important attributes is empathy.

I feel like the longer we go into this, the more likely it is that it will have a lasting effect because if you look at the language people were using early on in March and April, people were saying, “Here is a temporary thing. We’re going to go home for a little while, or we’re going to implement these procedures for a little while.” And there was the idea, which is now basically a fantasy, that things would get back to normal.

That whole experience I think was a two-pronged issue. On the one hand, it delayed certain actions that needed to be taken early on in the hopes that things would return to normal. On the other hand, it stoked that fantasy of a return to normal. I believe that if COVID had gone away quickly, we wouldn’t have learned the important lesson, which is that the world has changed forever. In many ways, it’s changed for the worse, but there’s a lot of really good stuff in there we can all learn from and carry forward.

The pandemic has taught us that in order to lead through sustained uncertainty, you almost have to shift back to a conscious form of leadership. The longer you’re in a leadership role, much like driving a car, you do it almost subconsciously. I’ve been self-reflective in the last 10 to 12 months, and this period has forced me to be a bit more conscious and purposeful in what I do to lead. I think those lessons will stick with people.

So much has changed, like how awkward social aspects in television shows are or watching people hug each other and be near each other without masks or in quarantine-style episodes of older science fiction in which the masks are supposed to make us feel uncomfortable, but it feels normal.

It’s going to take a lot to feel safe again in public and to feel normal being near other people. What’s your approach to healing, to making sure that people are able to even do this when the time comes?

First and foremost, it is important to keep employees educated and informed. At PepsiCo, we are fortunate to have a chief medical officer who does briefings to provide the latest updates and answer employee questions. We’ve maintained COVID-safety protocol including wearing PPE and adhering to social distancing. Our goal is to continue to educate our people, so they understand the science and the facts behind this virus, so they can continue to make the best life choices for themselves and their families.

It’s hard to imagine, but even as many organizations shrunk or downsized, others flourished and new ones were created. There’s a whole new class of HR people joining us for the first time over the last year. What advice would you have for them as we march through 2021?

My advice to new HR employees coming in is that you need to network, you need to build relationships, and you need to learn our business—it might be done differently than in the past, but it is still important to make time to network.

In some ways, the pandemic has opened up avenues to connect in ways that you might not have thought of in the past. When you’re talking to new employees, you need to be honest, but you also have to lead with balanced optimism. It’s important to continue to give people hope and reasons to believe.

That’s excellent advice. You mentioned earlier that organizations have had to change, and based on what’s happened over there over the last 10 months, how do you think it’s changed you?

Partly, it’s what I mentioned earlier about trying to be a bit more of a conscious leader versus an unconscious leader. It’s been a bit of a balance for me around not being much more present, from a physical standpoint like showing up on Zoom meetings I might not have, but it’s a balance of not also stepping on your direct reports or trying to overshadow. It’s changed me because I’ve actually had to stop and think a bit more than I probably would have 12 months ago about where I show up and how I show up.

I’ve shared many more personal things with my entire HR organization than I probably would have, largely because I think it’s important they understand how I’m processing and what I’m doing. A few things I’ve done:

  • I’m in a personal writing club. I share my writing assignments. I give them the writing assignments to do, which they seem to like.
  • I’ve also written letters. I write letters to the function every month, and they’re letters that talk about what I’m doing, how I’m feeling, and then what we’re doing from a business standpoint.

As a participant, it’s certainly been interesting. I’ve always considered myself to be fairly stable. I’m kind of an introvert. I don’t really like going out, and while I can handle new circumstances professionally, they always sort of put me off. That made me think, “OK, well, I’ll be able to do this. No problem.” But after all of this time, I’m able to see how I’ve changed. It’s not necessarily bad, but I didn’t expect this to change me, and it has, and it’s changed a lot of people around me.

It’s been a really interesting time, with a lot of self-reflection and a lot of introspection like you’re talking about that have had to occur to stay ahead of some of the bad things this could have done to me or other people.

I think people look at themselves in two ways: (1) How they have changed from a professional standpoint and (2) how that change professionally, has impacted them personally. My advice is to take time to self-reflect and understand what motivates you and what you need to keep mentally charged—that is critically important. Everybody functions very differently, but there are absolutely two sides to that spectrum.