04/24/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Jun 24, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Kathleen Ciaramello, President National FoodService & On-Premise Coca-Cola North America

Kathleen Ciaramello is President, National FoodService and On-Premise, Coca-Cola North America. In this role, she has responsibility for all global, national and regional customers operating within the Foodservice and On-Premise channels of business in the United States. Prior to this Kathleen was East Zone Vice President for the FoodService/On-Premise division with responsibility for the 22 east coast states. In this role, Kathleen led a cross functional team to deliver unique solutions that delight guests and grow beverage profits for our FoodService and On-Premise customers.

Kathleen is also one of 12 inaugural members of the Coca-Cola Women's Leadership Council sponsored by CEO, Muhtar Kent. The Women's Leadership Council is a sustainable advisory organization designed to help the Company meet the global leadership demands of a rapidly changing marketplace by increasing the focus on the development and movement of women into leadership roles. In her role on the council, Kathleen led work that became the catalyst for the Flexible Work Arrangements rolled out in 2009 across Coca-Cola North America and Corporate. Kathleen also led the Diversity and Inclusion Council for the Southeast Region of
Coca-Cola Refreshments for 2011 and 2012.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Over the years I have learned to take risks, to dare to cross the line. It is during these moments of uncertainty you really grow. Risk taking is something you can develop over time. When I started my career, I was what I like to call a "coddled mess". I lost my Mom when I was 7 and my Dad when I was 15. I grew up on a street with nine houses, seven of which were my family. I had so many people watching out for me and making sure that I was happy and safe that I never had to take risks. But then when I graduated from college and started my first job at Coca-Cola, I had to leave for training in Atlanta. This was the first time I dared to cross the line and take a risk. As my career progressed it became easier and easier. It is important to recognize that crossing the line is relative. Evolving does not mean you have to do things others have done, it means you have to push yourself to do things that dare to cross the line for "you."

What does your role entail?
I lead a division called National Food Service and On-Premise. This division helped steward our original business, the U.S. Fountain business. Food Service and On Premise includes all of our large regional, national and global Foodservice and On-Premise customers headquartered in the United States. These are the places where you would grab an ice-cold Coca-Cola in a bottle, can or in cup with ice like restaurants, movie theatres, theme parks, cruise lines, airlines, hotels, on-site providers, specialty retail etc.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Coca Cola?
One of the highlights of my career is being selected as one of the inaugural members of the Coca-Cola Women's Leadership Council sponsored by our Chairman and CEO, Muhtar Kent. The Women's Leadership Council is a sustainable advisory organization designed to help the Company meet the global leadership demands of a rapidly changing marketplace by increasing the focus on the development and movement of women into leadership roles. The Leadership Council also includes the Coca-Cola's global 5by20 initiative which aims to enable the economic empowerment of 5 million women entrepreneurs across our global value chain by the year 2020. 5by20 is working to help women overcome the barriers they face to business success. I'm incredibly proud to play a role in making this goal a reality through my work on the council.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Know what's important - the decisions then become easy. Be bold in stating what you need.

Assess your key personal and business goals at the beginning of each year so you can identify what is important to you and plan life accordingly. I also have learned to lose the guilt. When my daughter left for college, she made a scrapbook for me. At the end of the scrapbook was a letter that my daughter had written for me to read when I missed her. She talked about what a great mother, wife, business executive, sister and friend I was. She also wrote, "all of my life you have made me the priority and for that I will always be thankful." The letter had a profound impact on me. I had spent all of this time questioning whether I was doing enough - whether I was there for my daughter, whether I was contributing enough to her life, to our family and to my career. Now I know that I am a great mother and a great contributor at home and at work. My message: Lose the guilt. Don't waste time or emotional energy.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in the drinks industry?
My career advice can really be applied to any industry. It's universal advice. First, invest in you. Don't wait until you have the time - make the time to understand your unique strengths and build your brand. Do it early in your career and you'll see a compounding effect. Ensure there's alignment in how you define your brand and how those around you define it. Realize that a brand is a promise and a winning brand is a promise kept. Reinforce it in all you do.

Second, don't assume others see your great work. People who are collaborative tend to find it difficult to showcase their efforts. There are productive, humble ways to share your brand's success and you should view it as your job to do so.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
We tend to wait until we are 99.9 percent ready personally and professionally to take the next step in advancing our career. When we play it safe and are afraid to take a big risk, we lose out on the opportunity to grow. We need to stretch beyond what we know we can do to what we aspire to be able to do. We need to embrace and seek opportunities that seem outside of our capability or our day-to-day responsibilities. Once we do that, a whole world of new possibilities opens up for us that we may not have imagined before.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
The "ah ha" for me personally that is relevant to Sheryl's book is "lose the guilt". When you lean in and articulate what you want, what you need and what you are thinking, then you immediately set yourself free from the guilt of unmet expectations. You will have more emotional energy to concentrate on your goals and see them to fruition.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
As a member of the Coca-Cola Women's Leadership Council, we are able to champion the development of women leaders in our organization. Mentoring has played a large role in this program. Our mindset is "pay it forward and lift as you climb." Wherever you are in the organization there is someone behind you that you can lift as you climb. I challenge those I help to keep it going. If I spend an hour having coffee and sharing career advice, when they thank me I say, "No need to thank me it is valuable time for both of us. I do encourage you to go share an hour with someone else."

How are you actively involved in empowering women and promoting diversity in the workplace?
There are a few ways I do this. Through the Women's Leadership Council I can influence the policies and development opportunities of the Company. It's incredibly rewarding to see how these strategies cascade real change and attitude evolution throughout the organization. I am also an active member of the Women's Foodservice Forum (WFF) and created a scholarship program for high potential women in food service to attend the WFF Executive Leadership Program held at the Kellogg School of Management. This program is designed to help women attain the leadership skills needed to advance their careers in the foodservice industry. The other key way I can empower women and promote diversity is through my day-to-day interactions and decisions with my team and the people I come into contact with on a regular basis. It's all a matter of perspective. Often, the little things can amount to bigger things and create a ripple effect when you least expect it.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I am fortunate to have grown up surrounded by strong women. At the age of 12, my grandmother raised silk worms to earn enough money to come to the U.S. from Lebanon. My grandmother taught me not to see barriers and that 'no' really means 'not yet.' My mother raised six kids and started her own business designing hand-made bridal gowns. My mother made the most of every minute. I even remember one Easter morning where she decided I needed a new Easter coat and proceeded to whip one up. From my Mother I get my sense of urgency and a belief that procrastination is a disease. This mindset has really expanded my capacity. My mother passed away when she was 40 and I was 7. My older sisters, then 16 and 19 assumed the role of 'Mom'. From my sisters I've learned to keep my priorities straight.