More than 13 years ago Ceree Eberly, senior vice president and chief people officer for Coca-Cola Co., boarded a flight that would change her life.
With nothing but a one-way plane ticket, her 3-year-old son and some anxiety about living in a foreign country, the single mother stepped onto a plane headed for Latin America.
Eberly, who had been working in various human resources positions for the beverage company since 1990, was embarking on a new stage in her career: a role as an HR generalist that would put her on the road every week to a different country.
Her mission: Learn the nuts and bolts of the operational side of Coca-Cola, and get in the trenches to meet and interact with a small portion of the thousands of bottlers and employees who she would eventually lead in her role as the company’s top talent executive.
“My family, and rightly so, thought I was a little nuts,” Eberly said.
The new job carried significant personal risk. Eberly said she had no grasp of the Spanish language and knew no one in Costa Rica, where she would be based. Yet the Tennessee native didn’t think twice about taking the chance. The door of opportunity was wide open, and, drawing on her father’s influence, Eberly said she wasn’t about to let it close.
“We always talked about when opportunity knocks, are you going to let the door close? Or are you going to open the door and go through the door?” she said.
Eberly spent nearly four years traveling throughout Latin America, acquiring a taste for the company’s global talent business and its operations in more than 200 countries.
Aside from becoming fluent in Spanish to go with her college minor in French, Eberly said it was through her Latin American journey that she learned the true language of people, and the value they can have for a global business. Further, she said learning to take and manage risks allowed her to embrace the challenges that waited in her current role, which she has occupied since December 2009.
Tasked with leading a people function that oversees roughly 140,000 Coca-Cola employees, Eberly’s global experience armed her with the skills necessary to implement adaptable talent programs around the world. But it all began with that Latin American assignment. She said she had to walk into a completely different environment and learn to communicate in a new language and deal with customers and bottlers.
“I learned to become a global business person,” Eberly said. “That was my first overseas assignment. A single parent of a 3-and-a-half-year-old, moving to a foreign country, a one-way plane ticket, never done the job before inside Coke, and the ability to be a role model for women and other people who were different … Once I mastered that, I would tell you that was probably one of the coolest things I’ve done personally.”
Coca-Cola has set an ambitious goal — to double its revenue by 2020. The company dubs this its “2020 Vision,” and Eberly said cultivating a rich pool of talent is among the top drivers essential to achieve the goal.
“That’s a tall order,” she said. “If you look at that goal and everything we’re doing to achieve that — the war on talent and anticipating the future needs of where the world is going with the economy, where we’re going with the growth in the middle class, where we’re going with the way that people work — How do we actually get on the forefront of that and be ahead of the game?”
Being proactive in today’s war for talent requires an escalated level of professional courage and moxie, traits that people who’ve worked with Eberly say she has.
“Ceree brings courage to the job,” said Jerry Wilson, senior vice president and chief customer and commercial officer at Coke and a longtime colleague. “Courage to do what’s right, courage to challenge the status quo, courage to think about what we need to do even if the challenges to get there are very high.”
He said Eberly is also ambitious. Ambitious “to be the best in class when it comes to people engagement, people motivation and people development.”
The ambition began at a young age. One of seven kids, Eberly said she learned early the value of hard work. Her first job came at age 13, and she worked two jobs throughout high school. Eberly also worked her way through college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she majored in biology with plans to attend medical school.
But when college ended she put the notion of medical school on hold. “I ended up not going for a number of reasons,” she said. “From the standpoint of financial, to not getting into the school I wanted to get into.”
She said she decided the best course of action was to take a year off, re-apply and get into the next year’s class. During that year Eberly became a chapter consultant for the sorority of which she was president, Phi Mu, and she was asked to do recruitment. “I found I absolutely loved recruiting,” Eberly said. “I was traveling out of a suitcase for a solid year going to college campuses and recruiting chapters and alumni and [doing] public speaking. To go back to medical school was going to be a huge financial commitment for me, and something that I started having reservations about.”
Next, Eberly took a job with a small check printing company as a recruiter. “I decided to try it for a year to see if I wanted to stay in a professional environment or really go to medical school,” she said.
Free from the confines of seemingly endless studying, Eberly said she discovered a passion for corporate recruiting. This led her to Coca-Cola in 1990.
“It was a great opportunity for me to go global at that point in time in my career,” she said. Yet her first embedded global assignment didn’t come right away. First there were opportunities in staffing, as a generalist, and a number of stints in global talent management before she moved into the operational role in Latin America in the late 1990s.
When her time in Costa Rica ended, Eberly took on a large customer-based assignment with Coca-Cola’s McDonald’s business. She then accepted a position in London, as the HR director for the company’s European Group.
After her son Tyler, now 17, finished his first year of high school, Eberly moved back to the U.S. permanently to work out of Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta. She still commutes overseas, both for business and to visit Tyler in London.
The Globe Trotter
Talent management at Coca-Cola is viewed as an outgrowth of its overall business strategy — and the company’s people, Eberly said, are the secret weapons that keep the engine churning full speed.
The company’s business is separated into two sub-groups: the concentrate side focused on marketing and branding, and the bottling side. Each side brings its own talent, from front-line manufacturers and bottlers to entry-level roles, middle management knowledge workers and C-suite executives.
Eberly said this diverse combination requires that the people function keep up with the changing values of certain talent sub-groups to obtain and retain the best talent.
To do this, Eberly said talent management partners with Coca-Cola’s consumer insights and marketing group, delving into mountains of data that can lead to insights on what makes each employee demographic or generational cohort tick.
“[We] look at it from all perspectives,” she said. “What are their consumer behaviors? How are they as shoppers? If they’re employees, what’s important to them? We partner with marketing to look globally at the differences between baby boomers and Generations X and Y, millennials. That’s proved to help us set a baseline for what’s important to baby boomers that’s different from a millennial.
“We’ve actually changed a number of our pension plans around the world to be more contemporary [and] relevant across a wide segment.”
She said making these retirement plans more portable for Coca-Cola employees has grown more valuable to the younger generations in its workforce.
But, as the company’s global footprint has increased, accommodating the best talent doesn’t stop at age. Each country where Coca-Cola operates is viewed as a unique subset, which means Eberly and her staff have to drive various engagement and retention efforts.
Accommodations for working parents might vary by country or location. For example, the company offers paternity leave in Germany, whereas in Spain there are best practices around bringing children to work. Or, an on-site cafeteria or exercise facility might be an important benefit in some locations but not in others. The organization’s policies address whichever segment of the population is driving a particular need.
Coca-Cola is also testing programs that enable flexible working arrangements and telework. Eberly said the idea is for the company to recognize the needs of a country or locale before they become obvious, which maximizes the likelihood it can keep the best talent happy. Then, employees can stay focused and ahead of the curve in their respective specialties.
A Love for People
The talent efforts Eberly and her team have put forth around work-life balance and engagement seem to be working. The company’s global retention rate in 2011 was 92 percent, and similar retention measures taken for high-potential employees came in at 98 percent.
Coca-Cola also has invested in employee development. Eberly said these programs drive employee retention and keep the company on the fast track in the global war for talent.
The Catalyst program, which has been running for about five years, pulls from Coca-Cola’s high-potential talent pool globally and has participants work for about six months on special team projects that address business problems identified by senior leadership.
Last year’s projects were focused on business issues in Morocco, Europe, Latin America and Mexico. Eberly said business units within the company compete to have these teams try to tackle their problems, and the experiential learning aspect often occurs outside of participants’ daily roles.
At the end of six months, each team is brought in to present to the company’s operating committee and senior leadership team. Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent also attends the presentation.
“Those recommendations are taken back to those businesses and implemented,” Eberly said. “We’re finding that it’s great exposure for them to senior leaders — both in those operating geographies as well as our senior leadership team.”
These kinds of programs help to maintain a critical connection between talent and the business.
“Ceree brings a tremendous blend of hard-line accountability,” Wilson said. “She holds herself and her people accountable for delivering the expectations in these roles, and driving the performance of our company.”
As the global war for talent becomes more competitive, accountability for future expectations will retain a high value premium. A strong sense of constructive discontent for the status quo isn’t all Eberly requires of her staff; foresight is also mandatory.
“How do we build plans today that address 10-year, a 15-year outlook and start getting ahead of the game in some of those high-growth markets, such as India or China or Brazil?” she asked.
Eberly said in today’s business climate these types of business challenges require additional perspectives as well as a never-ending passion and understanding of what motivates top talent to fire on all cylinders.
At heart, Eberly said her no-nonsense approach to the people business is driven by just that — her love for people. It’s what wakes her up every day.
“That’s what makes my job so much fun,” she said. “I’m accountable at the end of the day to be the steward of the people in my organization; if we’re not worrying about the organization at night or looking at what’s right for the people, who is?”