The Accidental CDO

In 1886, pharmacist John Pemberton lugged a sizable portion of special syrup to his laboratory in downtown Atlanta, mixed it with tonic water and sold the first iteration of Coca-Cola for a humble 5 cents per drink.

Today, some 125 years later, Coca-Cola Co. continues to add to the ingredients that make its 500-brand beverage business pop, and diversity, inclusion and fairness are key pieces of the recipe thanks to the evolving demands of the global economy.

Steve Bucherati, a 21-year company veteran, was named Coca-Cola’s first director of workplace fairness in 2001. That became the chief diversity officer role in 2005. It’s his job to make diversity, inclusion and fairness successful on a global level, and to integrate the three into all aspects of the organization. Bucherati leverages a career heavy with global experience in marketing and human resources to meet today’s diverse marketplace needs.

“The pie of opportunity that’s called diversity, inclusion and fairness is absolutely huge,” Bucherati said. “But if you’re not careful, if you try and do too much too fast — or too much simultaneously — you can choke the organization and you can choke yourself.”

Since being drafted for the first version of the CDO role in February 2001, Bucherati has advanced the position from a three-person department — including himself — to a staff of six others. He said over the years he and his team have slowly implanted diversity into pivotal areas of the business, from talent acquisition to marketing.

He described one particular blend as a holy trinity. “That would be the office of diversity, the office of talent management and development and the office of talent acquisition. The three offices and three people who lead them do everything in a very integrated way, so none of us work in functional silos. We know that we have to be connected in our thinking, in our strategy, in our initiatives that we put together each year.”

The Accidental CDO

Bucherati speaks of diversity with boy-like excitement, like a kid collecting his favorite baseball cards or a car junkie talking horsepower. Peers who have worked with the native New Englander say the enthusiasm and dedication he exhibits toward diversity at Coca-Cola is infectious.

“He reminds me of one of those ducks that’s calm on the surface of the water, but his feet are patting 100 miles a minute,” said Kathy Waller, vice president and controller at the company. Waller has worked closely with Bucherati for the last four years. “He’s always on the move, but he’s very calm.”

His enthusiasm for his current position is even more interesting if you consider that when Coca-Cola’s senior vice president of human resources first approached him about taking on the role, he said no.

“I said, I have the best job at the company” — then the human resources director for Coca-Cola’s global marketing organization — “I just love doing what I’m doing. I don’t have a background in diversity, inclusion and fairness. I told him: ‘Look, in all honesty, have you noticed that I’m a white male?’ That was my own naive way of looking at things.”

Once the case was made for him to accept, he did, and Bucherati hasn’t looked back since. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s easily the best job I’ve ever had, and I feel blessed to have been doing this work for the last 10 years.”

Falling into a good thing seems to be a pattern for Bucherati. After graduating from the University of Maine in 1980 with a degree in political science, he landed a spot in an accelerated human resources development program with GTE — a telecommunications company that later became Verizon Communications.

He spent 10 years in the HR function at GTE, working in various locations. During this time, Bucherati said, he developed a background in labor relations, talent acquisition, development and succession planning, and equal opportunity and compensation.

In 1990, Bucherati was headhunted to become an HR generalist with Coca-Cola Co. After some time running Coca-Cola’s talent acquisition department, Bucherati’s career deviated and he spent four and a half years in the Coca-Cola Foundation, working with a variety of external organizations on behalf of the company. He returned to the HR generalist role and had a stint as HR director for a few other organizations within the company.

“I find it enormously helpful that I have a very broad and deep HR background because as I got into this job, having literally been in every aspect of human resources, it allowed me to think about how diversity, inclusion and fairness should play out at the Coca-Cola Co. in a very holistic and integrated way. It allowed me to think about how do we connect this work into what we do for talent acquisition, [for] talent development?” he said.

Leading a Global Charge

Bucherati’s HR background and global experience are important considering consumers in more than 200 countries drink roughly 1.7 billion servings of Coca-Cola products each day. In addition to leading a workplace fairness initiative — which includes complex data and regression analysis to ensure the company’s 139,600 employees worldwide are being treated and compensated fairly — Bucherati and his team work to create a unique diversity vision in each of Coca-Cola’s markets across the globe. He refers to Coca-Cola’s diversity mission as achieving true diversity on a global level. “We want to mirror the rich diversity of the marketplace that we serve,” he said.

This isn’t as clean cut as it sounds, considering the notion of diversity, inclusion and fairness is different in each of the company’s markets. “In the U.S., it’s race, it’s ethnicity, it’s gender,” Bucherati said. “But in different places of the world, there are different things that matter.”

One program Bucherati and his team are leading is a global women’s initiative. The goal is to accelerate development and representation of women in leadership roles at Coca-Cola. This will not only aid its efforts to balance its leadership ranks, but more women in executive positions will help the organization meet a key customer demographic’s needs and drive the business forward. “Around the globe, we know that 70 percent of the purchases of our products are made or influenced by women,” he said. “In fact, 85 percent [of women purchase our products] here in the U.S.”

Bucherati said a few years ago Coca-Cola’s percentage of women in leadership positions around the globe didn’t reflect this trend. Increasing their numbers involved drafting a talent acquisition strategy focused on recruiting women in roughly 206 countries. This, Bucherati said, is no small task, but the next step was to focus on developing talented employees once they are in the company, which reinforces the importance of the partnership between diversity and talent leaders.

Coca-Cola’s various employee business resource groups, such as Women’s Linc, also help nurture its diversity mission. “We have to have people inside our company that understand the consumers outside the company,” Bucherati said. “It’s what I call the ‘see and seize strategy’ — we can’t seize the marketplace opportunities for the Coca-Cola Co. if we can’t see them.”

Refreshing Success

Putting these kinds of programs in place is only part of the company’s diversity and inclusion strategy. Effectively communicating that mission internally and externally is almost its own separate strategy.

Even amid the tumultuous economic climate, Bucherati said diversity education is his biggest area of spending. And while he declined to comment on specifics regarding how Coca-Cola’s diversity budget may have changed — or what his diversity budget is — given the boom and bust cycles of his tenure, Bucherati said the company has equipped his team with more than enough financial resources during his 10 years in the CDO position.

“I have a good budget to do the work that I lead,” he said, adding that diversity initiatives at Coca-Cola are woven into the budgets of a number of different departments.

In addition to designing Coca-Cola’s global diversity mission, Bucherati and his team have developed the Diversity Speaker Series to help the company communicate its diversity messages to employees.

These large-production discussions have taken place some 30 times during the last five years. In October the company hosted CNN news anchor and reporter Roland S. Martin, who led a discussion in front of a packed auditorium titled, “Race Relations Begins With Personal Accountability.”

“The speaker series has been both entertaining and educational,” Waller said. “Most of them have been a palpable way for people to hear what they needed to hear, and it left them with something to walk away and think about.”

For Coca-Cola employees unable to attend the speaker sessions, each session is videotaped and is available via download so employees can view them online or use them as learning modules.

Since taking the reins, Bucherati has led a diversity mission that has added measurable value at Coca-Cola. One area where he said he sees a difference is in the amount of money the company spends with women- and minority-owned businesses. In 2001, Coca-Cola spent roughly $60 million on supplier diversity in the U.S. In 2010, it spent $633 million, a roughly tenfold increase.

Inside the company, the success of Coca-Cola’s diversity programs is measured via employee surveys. In 2010, the diversity score was the second-highest category of the questions included on an annual employee engagement survey.

As for how Coca-Cola’s diversity, inclusion and fairness efforts are moving to impact broader business results, those hard metrics are less clear. “Many things contribute to growth and productivity,” Bucherati said. “We hope that what we’re doing around diversity, inclusion and fairness is one of those drivers.”

Bucherati and his team aim to maintain and improve the programs they’ve built, and look for other ways to marry the diversity mission with efforts to increase innovation and other activities in emerging markets. “There’s always room for improvement,” he said. “So while we’ve certainly had success, our focus is solely on the future and ways to improve. I’m constructively discontent.

“The work of a CDO is a rare opportunity to have a legacy in an organization,” Bucherati said. “It’s incredibly rewarding for me to walk the halls or to walk into the cafeteria or walk into a meeting and see people who you know our work has helped.”

Frank Kalman is associate editor of Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at