Attain the Impossible, Attempt the Absurd an Evening with Debra Crew, President of PepsiCo
by Laurie Thompson
POSTED: April 22, 2013
An innate drive and desire to travel the world were the start of Debra Crew’s journey to become a leader in business and her current role as president at PepsiCo. While many may think of PepsiCo as the distributor of Pepsi, the company is much more with its 22 food and beverage brands that each generate more than $1 billion in annual sales.
During a presentation, hosted by Journeys, Debra shared life lessons and business advice from an impressive career spanning military intelligence, food manufacturing, and her current role at PepsiCo.
From her earliest days in a small town in Texas, she dreamt of travelling and learning another language. She broke convention by leaving to go to college and ultimately becoming a military officer in intelligence, when “it just wasn’t done.”
Following the military, Debra embarked on a career in business where that same drive and focus resulted in leadership roles at Mars Inc., Dreyers Ice Cream and Kraft Foods. Debra says her business philosophy can best be summed up in a quote from one of her favorite books, Don Quixote: “to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.”
Debra has a strong commitment to mentoring and helping others achieve success. She shared five principles she believes are key to success and growth:
1. Clarity - Be absolutely clear about who you are — the faster you can do that, the better.
From the Army she learned that if you aren’t comfortable with who you are, you won’t be credible and won’t be as effective. She saw firsthand in a deployment in Bosnia that the fear of the future is the most critical thing to address when you are leading. Debra says you need to take the fear of those around you and turn it into a vision of the future. “People really are happy to be led -— they just need actions and role models to see where the road leads,” she said.
2. Capability - When all hell is breaking loose, do you have what it takes to lead?
Are you taking on challenges and building your capabilities? Debra likes the approach of Lou Gerstner, who took over the CEO role at IBM in the early 90s, when the company was failing. Gerstner knew the team felt the “ship was sinking” so he didn’t focus on a high-level vision or long term goals, instead he kept everyone focused on the day-to-day work, small successes and growing the company’s capabilities. Debra says her best advice is to “take the hard jobs — especially the ones that scare you. Leap ahead and grow into it so you can learn. Be the best you, that you can be — it’s likely enough.”
3. Change - It’s the best way to stretch and grow, but it must begin from within.
In 2006 PepsiCo recognized the corporate environment and customer preference was changing and saw that responsibility and growth were intrinsically linked. The company took a hard look at their products and made new commitments to environment, health and wellness, summarized in a new motto — Performance with Purpose. Many questioned PepsiCo’s efforts but now, seven years later they have proof that you can be successful by doing what’s right for business and what's right for people.
4. Courage - If you have courage, you can make big changes to big things.
Debra believes courage informs and strengthens all things. Reflecting on her career, Debra says she has regrets in situations when she choose not to speak up and those are decisions she wishes she could make again. She has also seen firsthand that innovation is driven by making bold, and often unpopular decisions “With courage, you can take on harder projects and will speak more willingly about what needs to happen to the business,” she said. “When I’ve been the most scared to speak up and I had to courage to do so, I’ve never regretted it.”
5. Collaboration - You just don’t get anywhere alone.
In business today, the pace and depth of change is at a fever pitch and it’s no longer about the individual. Debra believes organizations are looking less for personal heroics and more for those individuals who can work on a team. “I believe it’s my duty and responsibility to mentor and take the hand of someone who has helped me. Giving help means more than getting help,”she said.
Following her remarks, Debra fielded audience questions ranging from work/life balance to her views on the book called Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Debra stated her strong belief that opportunity needs to be available to all good people in an organization regardless of gender. In achieving her success, she acknowledged the partnership and trade-offs she and her husband have made to support their careers. She is an avid runner and enjoys spending time with family and her two beagles.