08/06/2013 05:07 pm ET | Updated Oct 05, 2013

Lessons From Muhtar Kent

If you think about it, most of us probably have our own Coca-Cola story. Coke has been -- and still is -- such a huge part of our American culture. It's just a part of our everyday lives, isn't it?

Here's my Coca-Cola story...

I grew up in the Deep South (Mobile, Ala.) as one of 10 children. Luxuries weren't something we knew. And Coca-Cola was most definitely a luxury. In other words, we were poor.

All through my childhood, we lived next door to my grandparents. My main connection to getting a few tastes of Coca-Cola were through my Grandpa Day (his name was David Stallworth, but we called him Day). Coke was his favorite drink. He used to get the glass bottles, of course. And man, what was it about those glass bottles that made that ice-cold Coca-Cola just taste so much better?

Anyway, Day could make a bottle of Coke last for days by taking a piece of towel and stuffing it into the bottle to keep it fresh. Every so often, I would sneak into their house and check to see if Day had a Coke. When I found it opened, I would savor a tiny sip. I loved the crispness of the drink.

One day he caught me. He just smiled and gently said, "Hey there baby sister (my nickname as a kid was "baby sister"), just make sure you save some for me." Then he turned around and went back into the front room.

Such a sweet memory of a dear man -- my Grandpa Day.

That memory was fresh on my mind as I interviewed Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola's Chairman & CEO at the 7th Annual Network of Executive Women's Executive Leaders Forum.


It's funny... people keep asking me what I thought of him. I guess because over my 30 years in the business world I've met many a successful CEO. Some good, some not-so-good.

But Muhtar is truly one-of-a-kind...

I found him to be sincere, authentic and gracious. Definitely one of the good guys. Definitely a strong advocate for women. And definitely someone to learn from, listen to and emulate.

Following are just a few invaluable snippets I picked up during our interview. Some bold lessons from Muhtar...
  • He emphasized that one of the most successful traits of a leader is to remain humble. He talked about how he learned how to always carry his own bag when he began his career (something his father taught him). And he still carries his own bag to this day.
  • Muhtar shared his beliefs on why empowering women around the world is good for business. He suggested that we, as leaders, have a responsibility to create a good path for generations to come. That we must find the courage to change the world in which we live.
  • Kent truly values women and their leadership contribution. When asked why other CEOs aren't aggressively raising the presence of women, he laughed and said, "Perhaps they don't care about 70-80 percent of their business."
  • "Follow your heart. It's all about being passionate about what you do." The advice Muhtar gave his daughter (now 28). After graduating college, she has become a jewelry designer in New York.
  • Muhtar stated that nothing will change until we hold people accountable and link behaviors to compensation. Coke has a special award that you can't even qualify for unless you have proven yourself to be a diversity and inclusion champion.
  • Kent shared that the mark of true leaders is not that they are successful once, but that they can repeat and sustain success.
  • He said that the game today is about expressions -- not impressions. Consumers know what they want and they'll go after it. But it goes beyond the products. Consumers want companies to be responsible to the earth and to people. He spoke of the innovation that Coke is driving throughout the world.
  • "Paint a picture for your customers. Give them a reason to want to do business with your company. Inspire people inside and outside." These are just some of the secrets he shared about building and growing the brand in today's environment.
  • Coca-Cola, he said, is a promise. And great brands keep their promise. A good brand is a promise kept. Successful organizations and leaders should continuously ask themselves the question, "What promises have I made? And how many of those promises am I keeping?" THAT'S the secret to sustainable business success.
  • Kent shared, "Leaders have character. Organizations have character. The key question is... do the values of the leader and the organization send the signal to the customer that they actually care about the product, the way the product is made, the way that it is distributed?" Today's consumer pays attention.
  • He said that technology, especially the smartphone, is allowing Coke and other organizations to create a sense of community with their customers. Creating a one-on-one customer relationship is now a reality.
  • Muhtar has traveled extensively since his youth. Because of that, he sees the world through a different lens. He is clearly culturally competent. This has been a significantly beneficial factor given that Coke does business in more than 200 countries. He said that effective business leaders today must understand what's happening globally. And he said it doesn't really matter if you are with a small or a large company. If you really want to grow, then you must expand your boundaries.

Let me tell you something... Grandpa Day would have liked Mr. Muhtar Kent. Both strong and bold men of character... both full of wisdom and heart.

Both leaders in their own lives. Both impacting future generations.

What an honor to have learned from both.