The Many Faces of Innovation: A Conversation with Coca-Cola’s Global CTO Nancy Quan
The current tides of the world have asked for more innovation among businesses to adapt to the fast-changing times. Nancy Quan, Global Chief Technical Officer for the Coca-Cola Company, talks about the many faces of innovation, leadership, and personal risks. Nancy talks about that willingness to step through every open door and see the difference it can make in your career. She gives us her own personal journey as she develops into a position in Coca-Cola that oversees teams working at vital posts within the company around the world and across different cultures. Looking back at her life thus far, Nancy shares some great tips for leaders out there – to have the courage to stretch themselves and go into discomfort, manage relationships, and become visionaries.
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The Many Faces of Innovation: A Conversation with Coca-Cola’s Global CTO Nancy Quan
I am pleased to be able to bring to you a fascinating conversation with one of the leaders of the Coca-Cola Company, Nancy Quan. I have the distinct pleasure on my last trip to Atlanta to sit down with Nancy and I was impressed with the breadth and depth of her wisdom and all that she has learned from working across the globe. Not only did we talk about leadership and innovation, but we talked about personal risks. The willingness to step through every open door and by doing that, it can make all the difference in your career. I want to share a little bit more about Nancy. She has an amazing background and level of experience. She is the Chief Technical Office for Coca-Cola and her areas of responsibility include R&D, transformational innovation, technical commercialization, quality safety and environment. Her teams oversee an amazing amount of work. They partner with the business to create, drive and execute an impactful innovation and growth agenda. Another interesting piece I would share as part of her responsibilities have included overseeing our external technology acquisition group. They structure strategic partnerships with universities and research centers, technology startups and others to source new technologies for sustained competitive advantage.
What’s interesting about Nancy is that her career has been global and multicultural in nature. She has built teams across a range of countries and cultures which can make it very complicated. In addition to the US, she has worked in the UK, The Netherlands, Belgium, China, Japan, India and Australia. In addition to all these and her career, she has received various recognitions including Top 40 Women in Innovation, Outstanding Alumni Award and she was inducted into the Hall of Fame Nutrition Department at Purdue University. As if all that isn’t enough, she serves on the Industry Affiliates Advisory Board for the University California Davie MBA Program. She is a member for the Board of Directors for the Liberty Mutual Group and FIRST Executive Advisory Board, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It’s a remarkable amount that she does. In this conversation, she will share what she has learned. She is powerhouse of energy, commitment and global experience. Please enjoy the conversation with Nancy Quan.
Roles And Responsibilities At Coca-Cola
Nancy, we’re going to get started with the conversation and I have to say thank you because you are incredibly busy, you have so much going on. I’m so grateful that you took the time to have this conversation and speak to our community and share some of your leadership insights and wisdom. Thank you so much. With that, what I thought we would do is ground all the audience in a little bit about who you are and your roles and responsibilities at the company. I’ll let you share that.
I’m the Chief Technical Officer for Coca-Cola, North America. I’ve been in Coke for about eleven years and previously was about seventeen years with Mars, Incorporated. What does a CTO do in Coca-Cola? It’s not the digital IT space, it’s more the physical sciences. My teams do research and development for all the new products, packages and new equipment. We’re also the quality governance team as well as the safety and environmental sustainability. When you think about reaching our world without waste goals or the water replenishment goals, it’s one thing to state the goal, then a team has to go back into the background and figure out how to deliver, that’s my team. My team has a lot to do with that. We are also very connected to the government through FDA, USDA and the regulatory body.
I have scientific and regulatory affairs, which are very connected with how is the regulation going to impact what we can or can’t sell and what we can or can’t say. Then lastly, there are two other areas. One, I have technical commercialization, which is once the R&D guys come up with something on the bench top, then the commercialization team takes it into the factories. They work on the large scale, plant trials, equipment, things like that where they have to make sure that it can be run and we can make millions of bottles. We recently added a team called Transformational Innovation, which is there to help us compete. It’s our entrepreneur. It’s to compete with all these entrepreneurs that we’re seeing pop up everywhere outside. It’s a team inside that’s there to help us keep looking forward as well as compete in that entrepreneurial space. Then the last thing which is a very critical role is to make sure that we keep challenging internally what we’re doing and we’re keeping pace with how fast things are moving outside.
What you just said is a huge amount of responsibility. It runs the gamut from so many different areas of our organization. It’s easy to think about innovation. People think about it as the technology and the digital and it’s all the really sexy things you want to see but how things happen, how we get it to market and how we make sure that we’re developing the most relevant things for the market is so important. Nothing can happen unless all of that happen. Did you ever imagine you’d be in this type of work as you think about your career? I know you’ve done R&D in the past. Did this just evolve or were you very intentional like, “This is what I’m going to be doing?”We become the person based on all the things that we've experienced - positive and negative, successes and failures. Click To Tweet
To be honest, I didn’t think that I would go into the breadth and depth of this area. Throughout my career, I continued to walk through open doors. One of the areas where the doors kept opening for me was experiences and opportunities around the world. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work not just in the States where I went to school and was born, but I’ve been able to work in Europe a few times. I worked in China as it was opening up. I worked in Australia. It’s been great and you’re back, that’s where I joined the company, but that’s been good. Every time you go to a different culture, a different area, it forces you to get out of your comfort zone and learn different things. In that sense, the only thing that’s been a little bit more constant for me has been the technical area. We call ourselves the nerds and the scientists and the engineers that are behind the scene. We’re making sure that everything that you drink, everything that you put to your mouth, everything you see, you taste, touch and feel is safe. We’re there to help protect the business, then with the R&D and innovation space, bringing in new things to help grow the business.
What a beautiful sense of purpose. You are making it safe, you’re making sure that everything is working for all of us. To me, that’s very meaningful work. I love what you said about walking through open doors. Often, we don’t do that enough because it requires some risk or it requires change. How do you think being global and working in so many different cultures, because they are very different, shaped you as a leader after doing that?
The first one was always the most difficult. Leaving your home country and for me, it was the States and thinking, “I’m going to go work and live in Holland, which I had never been to before and I know no one.” My view on that has always been it’s easier to come back than to find the opportunity to go. I launched off and took it and what I found is because I’ve worked in so many places globally, that it’s become almost second nature for me to figure out how I can fit in, how I can add value and how you can almost achieve a comfort level in an area that’s not comfortable. As a leader, that’s a huge part of my career and my past is, “How do I keep stretching myself?” It’s easy to stay in my four walls and do what I’m familiar with and for scientists it’s easy. You have all these pictures of people in labs and things and for me, it’s sometimes a little bit more of a push internally that I have for myself to say, “You’re not uncomfortable enough. What are you failing at that you haven’t stretched yourself enough for?” At the end of the day, the person that I’ve become is based on all the things that I’ve experienced, positive and negative, successes and failures. That shaped who I am.
I remember when I joined Coke, I grew up in Florida and it was an offer to go work in California and after hearing what you said, it doesn’t feel very heroic at all. I got on the plane and then I went to California and not knowing anyone. You’re right, there is like a muscle. The first time you do it, it’s very intimidating because you’re maybe used to a certain space and then you do it and you conquer it. I remember at the time my market was San Francisco and coming from a smaller town in Florida and then when you enter into San Francisco you’re like, “This is a bit overwhelming.” Then when you start to conquer, you’re like, “I got this. I can do this,” it is like a muscle. If you think about your childhood or what you did before all this, is it a DNA that you have this courage to stretch and to go into discomfort?
What I would say is not knowing that it was, it has been. Let me give you an example. My dad came to the States to go to university. To this day, my dad’s 94 years old, he’s still driving. He’s still pretty healthy and his mind is still very active and my mom is thirteen years younger than him. The two of them at 94 and 81, I took them to Hong Kong because they are still so keen to go and see the world. I didn’t know I had the gene in me but I’m sure I get it from them. Every year, I take them on a trip somewhere because, for a couple of reasons, one is they are still keen to go and I want to keep them as active as I can. The second thing is it gives them hope and something to look forward to. The trip was in August and they were packed by May. They’re so excited, it gets them moving. That must be in my DNA. That’s one of the things that I love about them is that they’re still so active and still want to explore and see the world even in an age where it’s easy to just say, “I want to stay at home and not do anything.”
Being A Leader
You definitely do and I love this. You’re making us safe and you’re keeping your parents young and vital. You were doing so much good in the world with all of this. Thank you for sharing that. We’ve talked about this DNA of change and growth and opening new doors and all the experiences you’ve had both globally and domestically in different organizations. Certainly, you’re moving to a new role within our company, which is a huge leadership position. If you think back on all of this, what leadership experiences, maybe it’s one or a couple, that have shaped you the most, where maybe something didn’t go right or there was an a-ha moment for you? Anything that you could share with our audience about leadership experiences over time?
One that sticks in my mind a lot and it definitely has shaped how I lead my team and how I operate. I was in Australia at the time and I had a great team. There was someone on my team that was not the strongest, so I’d call it a little bit high maintenance. I almost felt like I wasn’t giving them a fair shake if I didn’t keep trying to help them succeed. It was painful. At the end just wasn’t in their remit and they didn’t really want to go there from a leadership behavior perspective. In the end, it didn’t work out but I spent a lot of time and I felt almost like it was a failure on my part. The thing that was interesting is when that person left, it was a breath of fresh air for the team under her. The learning that I had from that is here I was trying to help with the one person succeed and I saw it as a failure on my part when I didn’t think about the impact on the whole team underneath.
That was a huge learning for me. When I lead and when I build teams and things, it’s very critical who you put in leadership positions at all levels. If you don’t have the right leader, it’s not just about that person, it’s about the team underneath. For me, that was a huge learning because I didn’t do justice for the team underneath because I was worried about the person in the role and trying to help that person. I probably waited too long to make the call. We eventually made the call, but it was a little bit too long because what I didn’t realize and appreciate was the team underneath. Making the hard call is never easy, but sometimes you have to do it not just for yourself but for the business and the people that are part of the team.In business, it’s not just about having the right leader; it's also about the team underneath. Click To Tweet
I absolutely agree and thank you for sharing that story. I was at a conference one time and there was a speaker talking about exactly this. Often we, as leaders, want to fix the problem. We think we can. We’re like, “With enough coaching and care and focus, I can make this work.” Oftentimes, it’s the compassionate thing to do. We think we’re being compassionate by trying to make the situation work. Sometimes you can with the right coaching, but oftentimes the compassionate thing to do is to make the hard call both for the team that they’re working with and for them. No one wants to be in a situation where they’re failing. It doesn’t help them and how many people have we spoken who have moved on from that situation to maybe it’s their own thing or another organization and they come back and go, “That was the best thing that ever happened because I found the right role for me.”
I’ve even had people come to me when I had to let them go and say, “I was very angry because I never would have made the call myself but thank you for making the call because I’m so much happier.”
I know in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, he talks about the right people on the bus. I know from my leadership experience when you have the right people in the right roles, with the skill sets to drive the business, it’s magic. Great things happen and we, as leaders, it’s our responsibility to make sure the people equation works for all of us. Speaking of people, I’ll just pivot a little bit onto some of what’s near and dear to the summit, which is the community. The fact that no one makes it out of here alive and no one makes it out of here alone. We are about helping each other and through diverse thinking and diverse minds so we can co-create. I want to ask this question from two perspectives. One of them more personal from how has your network of help or your people that you confide and familiar, how has that helped you be stronger? The second is more from a business standpoint and strategic partnerships and how do we as a company and you as a leader, use strategic partnerships to fuel the business? Let’s start with the first part in your own personal network of help.
There have been a lot of people that have helped me along the way. It’s also a pay-it-forward opportunity. Even from my first job when I was right out of school or even in school, a lot of people that you didn’t realize were mentoring you along the way and so that’s been great. Here at Coca-Cola or previously at Mars, some people that would tell you what you needed to hear as well as continue to support you and help you build confidence. One of the things that I had was a coach that gave it to me straight, to a point where sometimes those things are painful and there was a point where I said, “Can we just talk about something positive?” That’s been helpful. My family and support system are helpful. I started on a board for Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. The board members there have been great as far as partners.
I’m the youngest person by far on that board and it’s early days for me. I’m just learning. They’ve taken me under their wing and given me lessons that I can use in the boardroom but also in my current job or outside of work. For me, there are people that you definitely know that you could always learn from and there’s chemistry and just the combination of those, sometimes is extremely powerful. I try to do what I can like I was at a United Way luncheon and they’re looking for mentors for the underserved communities. Especially for kids that they want to make sure are on track to go and continue pursuing their opportunities from an education perspective and things. I was talking to the person that’s running the program. I’d love to figure out how I can spend some time with kids and add back because it’s amazing how sometimes you don’t realize that 30 minutes or that hour can make a difference in someone’s life.
Often, we don’t know what imprints we’re making. It’s wonderful when we get to see a direct result of our work or our efforts because that’s great. You’re like, “I did something good.” I am a big believer and there are certainly lots of stories about this where you take these actions out of faith and out of goodwill and good intention and you don’t necessarily know what happens after that. You do it in faith anyway that I want to do something good that could plant a seed for something to happen. It’s beautiful.
Because we’re the scientists, the engineers and the nerd, I do a lot with STEM. Dean Kamen is an inventor that runs this program called FIRST. It’s to help enable kids in science and technology. I’ve been working with them as well in that community.
The other thing you mentioned is this whole idea of truth tellers. In leadership, so often there are people around you that tell you maybe what they think you want to hear. It’s a natural dynamic that happens. When you have people in your network and in boards or places outside of business are so great because there’s no agenda. It’s purely helping each other, but to have those people in your life that will give it to you straight, if it’s a coach or a mentor or a friend is so important because we all have blind spots. We can’t see them. If someone doesn’t tell us about them, we’re going to keep on doing it. It is the greatest gift to have that. Thanks for sharing that. On the business side, strategic partnerships, how does that further our success?Making the hard call is never easy, but sometimes you have to do it not just for yourself but for the business. Click To Tweet
In Coca-Cola from a technology and R&D, engineering perspective, we don’t have an ivory tower of scientists sitting here in Atlanta. If you look at P&G or Nestlé, they have thousands of PhDs. What we try to do, because we’re so global and we’re so connected externally, is we try to leverage what’s available in the outside. With technology moving as quickly as it is now, the last thing you want is to build a capability then the technology has moved on. We rely very heavily on connecting to the outside world to know what’s going on and pulling in things that are relevant for us. How do we do that? I go to Silicon Valley at least a few times a year. I help teach a course or classroom event in UC, Davis with kids there because that’s one of the best agriculture schools.
What does Coke have to do with agriculture? We buy probably the most oranges than anyone in the world. We buy tea leaves, we buy coffee beans. Just staying close to what’s happening at the university level and then in the startup community is important for us. When you look at technology, it’s not just about what’s in the product or in the bottle, it’s also how do you connect it with consumers. How’s that bottle or the digital connection going to be to have consumers be excited about what they’re purchasing or consuming. It’s also about supply chain, how do you move things faster logistically and how do you get things to consumers a lot faster and in the best quality that you can.
It’s so interesting for us and for Coca-Cola as a company being 130-plus years old, our roots and our origin being in manufacturing, distribution and now we have to learn how to also be a technology knowledge-based company. You have a very large team touching so much of the business. How do you enable that mindset? I know here at Coke, we’re talking a lot now about growth mindset. How do you set the tone for them to be thinking about innovation from all sides?
My team, scientists and engineers and techs, it’s easy to just look internal. You’re focusing on the formula or the immediate issue that you’re trying to solve. One of the things I always say to all my teams is, “If you close your eyes and all you see is what you see every day in the four walls that you’re operating, whether it’s the person you sit next to or the lab that you’re in. It’s not colorful and that you don’t see where things are moving to or some of the things that are moving outside that are fast or some of the technologies that are emerging, then you probably aren’t looking outside enough.” What we try to do is we do trips to different places.
We have suppliers come in and share the latest technologies. We also do things like understand trends and consumers, where consumers go and where do they need to go. We try to make sure we stay connected. I go talk to students. That’s a big area for us as well to stay connected to Millennials and to kids and understand where they’re going. It’s important for us to make sure that we’re looking outside because at the end of the day, as a company, Coca-Cola has got to be active outside and we’ve got to be keeping pace with what’s happening in the world. You don’t end up staying still relevant after 132 years if you’re not doing that. That’s important for us.
We talked about walking through doors earlier. As humans it’s very easy for us to get into our groups and it’s natural because our group make us feel safe, we know what we’re doing. One of the books that’s been out there, it was Marshall Goldsmith that wrote What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. The essence of it was you can’t just do the same thing as a leader all the time and expect that you’re going to advance and grow. Being out in California, the more time I spend in the valley or with our VC partners or visiting a startup to see how they’re thinking about the world. It is so eye-opening. For you to move your brain into a different place of paradigm, I’m like, “I never looked at it from that angle.” I even laughed at my twelve-year-olds, they’re talking about words or apps and I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I thought I was relevant and I’m so not relevant. We learn from our kids and we learn from younger generations on what do we need to know to take the legacy of our knowledge that we’ve earned through time, combine it with what’s happening so that we can create something new.
Consumers are expecting a lot more from us too. Whether it’s on water replenishment from a sustainability. We have that goal of replacing every drop of water we use and we’re at 106% right now or even packaging. There’s a lot of pressure on plastic packs, especially one-way packs. We’ve got to stay connected and understand how do we continue learning and bringing that into our system. If the system stands still, you become irrelevant or you become something consumers don’t want. A big part of what my team does is figure out how do we increase recycling? Recycling is such a big thing. How do you increase recovery? You can’t get to recycling if you don’t recover the bottles. Even if you think about it as a consumer, do you really follow the bins and do you put in where you need to the different packs? Those are the things that we’re trying to figure out how do we get stronger with and leveraging technologies is definitely an opportunity there as well.
It’s so fascinating having been with the company for so long and seeing the changes. There was a project that I led several years ago where I interviewed entrepreneurs to understand their culture versus our culture. In that process, I learned this mentality sometimes of the small innovative versus the big slow hierarchical companies. I believed there’s a place for all of us to work together because what we’re doing and what I see that we’re doing here in Coke is we’re a product but we’re so much about the idea of being a global force for good, of being absolutely accountable for what we do in the world and for creating good positive experiences. When we combine that with strategic partnerships like you outlined, it’s so powerful because together we can do so much more than if we’re in an “us and them” mentality of big and small.Look forward as well as behind. Make sure that you're not getting stuck in the now while moving as fast as the pace of change. Click To Tweet
That was something that I found when I moved to Coca-Cola is Coke opens the doors to NGOs, WWF and their partners, which is amazing because in many industries, you don’t have that. That’s been important because we learn from them. We also get challenged in the right way. That makes us better at the end of the day. It’s hard and there’s a lot of pressure and they will be the first to call us out if we’re not doing what we need to. At least, it’s important for us to make sure that becomes a voice that we’re listening to and we continue to evolve how we operate.
The transparency is critical and important because that’s how you live your values authentically in the marketplace. It’s important and I know we all share that desire to be living those values everyday with every action we take across the world. One other thing I’d love to explore is back to more of a personal leadership acumen. As I’ve had these conversations with people, one of the common topics I love to discuss is this whole managing the space to be visionary. Let me explain what I mean by that. You outlined between all of the teams that you lead, the massive responsibilities you have. The fact that you lecture at universities, that you serve on the board, that you want to mentor youth, that’s phenomenal and that’s a lot on your plate. Nancy, how do you, as a leader and as a human, do all of that but yet still keep enough space in your life to be thinking about where you want to go or where you want to take your team? How to be visionary? Many leaders I speak with are like, “I’ve got so much that’s urgent,” the tyranny of the urgent. How do you do that? How do you manage it?
One of the things that we don’t do enough as anyone working is thinking and especially forward-looking. It’s easy to get sucked into the day-to-day. Fortunate for me, I have an amazing team that gets sucked into the day-to-day because they’re much better at it than I am. Myself and my leadership team, I’m always challenging and pushing them together as a group to say, “What’s next? How do we make sure that we’re moving in the direction that the business needs rather than reacting or staying status quo?” If you know me, I’m the person that’s always challenging. People that are in my team would say probably I’m one of the most challenging bosses to work for. I’ll give them a lot of challenges, but they probably have learned and grown some of the most in their careers. For me, it’s critical that we’re always thinking about what’s the future hold and what’s next, especially in my role with the innovation, but also in what the future looks like from a technology and supply chain and those types of perspective.
If we’re not doing it, no one is because it’s so easy to get sucked into the day-to-day and think about, “Am I selling this case or not?” We see it. It’s built into our vision. As a leadership team, we’re always talking about let’s talk about now, but let’s talk about what’s three, five, ten years from now. If that was a scenario of what happens, what do we need to be thinking about now to enable that? It’s sometimes a mind exercise to force the scenario thinking. It’s so important because it stretches everyone in those conversations to think beyond where they are now. If you don’t have the routine to do that, then unfortunately you could get easily slip into the day-to-day and three years later you’ll realize you haven’t thought beyond now. It’s an exercise that is critical.
As leaders, it is our accountability to be that forward-thinking paradigm. It’s always like, “Where are we going? What’s on the horizon? How do we meet it?” and anticipating those changes. The other thing that I heard that is beautiful, we talked about DNA, is as much as you have stretched yourself and push yourself into your edge and been growing, you’re doing the same thing for your team because you’ve learned about how valuable that is for growth and development. You’re doing that with them. It’s very true so often the leaders that push us the hardest, the time we’re very uncomfortable because they’re making us uncomfortable. You look back and you’re like, “That’s how I grew.” Not by just staying in my group, not by staying in my lane but by being pushed into a place of maybe I wasn’t sure I could go.
That’s what a leader can do for people is they see what people are capable of even before sometimes the person themselves. Especially for women, sometimes it helps when the leader pushed them and gives them the confidence and says, “You can do this,” or challenges them. Then they rise to the occasion and then that’s another tick in their box that they could build their confidence with.
I agree and it resonates personally. My first leadership role in this company years ago, I was a national account sales lead and my manager’s like, “You need to be in leadership.” I’m like, “No, I’m fine where I am,” and he pushed it and I’ve never looked back after that. Sometimes we don’t see things in ourselves that are there. We talked earlier about planting seeds by our good works. Leadership is another form of planting seeds, not just in your actions but through your team. As they create good works and they grow and they develop, look what can happen from that. It’s a beautiful thing. The audience to this podcast is the CMO Summit community, sales and marketing associates of the company and anyone else who stumbles upon the conversation. As you think about any general wisdom, if I was someone you were mentoring or anything that stands out for you that I’d like to leave the community with a couple of thoughts from your insight and experience.
You need to look at now, you need to also look forward as well as behind. The reason I say behind is forward is pretty obvious, because you want to make sure that you’re not getting stuck in the now and you’re moving as fast as the pace of change. It’s fast. If you take your eye off the ball, you could easily lose the momentum. The looking back is for two reasons. One is in history, there are always rich learnings whether it’s good or bad, there are definitely learnings. I’d say as importantly is to see what you yourself have delivered and done in your career so that you gained the confidence. That’s important as well. I’d say that and then the second thing I would say is to never underestimate yourself. The more you stretch yourself, the things you try, not everything has to be 100% successful or perfect. Don’t underestimate yourself so that you think that you might not want to go there or try that. Be bold and stretch yourself and have confidence that you’re going to figure your way out. That would be the only thing I would leave. People do amazing things when they are not afraid to try and things happen. They might not be exactly what you thought it would be, but it certainly will help you continue to grow as a person.People do amazing things when they are not afraid to try things happen. Click To Tweet
That is exquisite advice. I want to thank you for everything that you shared in our conversation and for taking the time out of what we have all learned. Thank you so much.