PepsiCo VP Emily Silver: “As you get more senior, people are less likely to push back on you; Find people who will be brutally honest with you”

As you get more senior and manage bigger teams, people are less likely to push back on you. And because you become more confident in your style, you might be less likely to solicit feedback or ask for different points of view. Find people who will be brutally honest with you (inside and outside of work) and ask for it. It will ensure that you aren’t solidifying blind spots.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Silver.

As VP, Innovation & Capabilities at PepsiCo Beverages North America, Emily Silver spearheaded the company’s game-changing innovation framework, enabling a paradigm shift that has evolved how PepsiCo approaches product development and marketing. Throughout her fourteen years at PepsiCo, Silver has been responsible for managing breakthrough campaigns and initiatives such as the Pepsi Refresh Project and the Pepsi x Empire integration. In 2019, she also helped to launch PepCoin, PepsiCo’s first-ever loyalty program. Prior to PepsiCo, Silver spent five years working on political campaigns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. She graduated with a BA in Political Science and Economics from Brandeis University and an MBA from Yale’s School of Management.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Emily! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve always been interested in current events and the news — as a kid, I’d even watch news instead of cartoons! As I got older my curiosity about how politics, business, arts, sports and media influenced each other to create pop culture grew even more. So, I majored in politics, minored in art history, and started working on political campaigns immediately after college. I loved the fast pace and dynamism but felt that I could me more effective if I could bring some traditional management skills to campaigns, so I decided to go to business school. That’s where I realized I was a marketer — marketing a candidate. After attending a PepsiCo corporate presentation and feeling the same energy and cultural connection, I landed at PepsiCo Beverages and have been here ever since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I am extremely lucky that I’ve had many varied and interesting roles and experiences at PepsiCo, which is one of the reasons I’ve been happy here and stayed so long.

One of the most interesting experiences was being asked to create a new entity focused on developing and accelerating growth of smaller, emerging brands with strong consumer potential in high-opportunity segments in North America, which we named the HIVE.

It was an incredible growth experience to create something from scratch (in the safety of a big company), from designed vision and mission to culture. I got the opportunity to build a full business team and bring in expertise from outside, which meant spending time with entrepreneurs to learn and bring new capabilities in house. We have now transitioned learnings back into beverages and building innovation and capability there. I am stronger and smarter from my HIVE experience that reminded me to take time to “look up” and bring the outside in.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It didn’t seem funny at the time, but in my first role as an Assistant Manager at PepsiCo I was working on an innovation proposal and was asked to share test results with the brand Vice President. It was my first time having a meeting with him and I was quite intimidated. The meeting was supposed to start at 4:00pm and he was running late. At 6:00pm, I was still waiting so I sent my husband an email saying I was going to be home late for our dinner plans because I was waiting to see the VP and I wasn’t sure when I’d get to talk to him since he “always worked late,” but I hoped it was soon because I’d been prepping all day and I was nervous.

After I hit send, I realized I’d sent it to the VP and not my husband. Thank goodness he found it funny — he ended up calling me right in, apologized for being late, and gave me a pep talk about confidence despite level. It was mortifying but has stuck with me to this day.

The lessons learned:

1) Always double check who you are sending an email to, especially when it’s about someone else.

2) Don’t build up people in a way that is unfair and puts you at a disadvantage.

3) Now that I’m at that level, I try to have empathy and remember how I felt that day, so I make myself more approachable to junior colleagues.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been extremely lucky to have leaders and mentors all along the way and I am grateful to all of them. If I had to call out one person it would be my dad, who passed away in 2015. From a young age he instilled in me the importance of a learning mindset, the belief that girls can do anything they want, unconditional support if I made mistakes (a part of learning), and love.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I’m a big believer in stress management and the importance of the mind body connection all the time, which is why I’m a fan of yoga and plan some alone time to think every day.

Before an important event, I try to block off a chunk of time in advance (2–3 days) to prepare — collect data, anticipate questions and practice. Then the night before, I eat well and have a good night’s sleep. I’ve been doing this since college — I’m a huge proponent of the power of sleep — and my mind processes at night.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

I believe it’s important for an executive team to accurately mirror the full range of the population in all senses so they can more easily connect and empathize with people from all backgrounds and experiences. While I fully believe an intelligent executive can academically and rationally understand through insights and research, it’s the human, emotional understanding that brings about authenticity and innovation. Diversity makes the organization more interesting and dynamic, and helps executives learn from each other and be more empathetic overall.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Know your own biases and how they change over time. I try to hold myself accountable for bringing my current experiences and own bias into my leadership and my job scope. For example, I try to be very careful about that now in my role leading white space innovation. I try to be conscious of my life stage (mom with young kids) and the fact that I happen to be female and am naturally health conscious, so I’m not just designing products for myself. I need to make sure I’m building products that have the most mass potential and aren’t overlooking meeting key segment needs. I also try to make sure I’m not projecting my biases onto others…I mentor a lot of women and I’m happy to share my experiences but also try to draw them out about theirs so make sure my advice actually applies.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Executives have the ability to look ahead and challenge the status quo; to set culture and expectations of culture through inspiration; to prioritize, listen and build coalitions.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

You know everything, you have all the answers, you need to be arrogant and aggressive. When I think about it, I’m not even sure where I got these perceptions. I didn’t grow up around a lot of executives, so it wasn’t from personal experience. I honestly think it was from TV shows (Who’s the Boss, Simpsons…) and movies as a young person that would usually depict the “boss” as aggressive and someone to be feared.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

As women, most of us are constantly battling internal guilt, created by childhood talk tracks of what qualifies us as a “good” girl, which don’t always mix with the expectations of being a business leader. So, I’ve found it’s incredibly important to figure out the unconscious talk track in your head and where it comes from, so you can work through it (and try not to pass it on to your own children). This also accompanied by the realities of female biology.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I used to think that being able to hold a job at the executive level was about imparting your experience and knowing how the job works. The real job, however, is pushing for progress — challenging the status quo — and building confidence in and removing boundaries for others.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

  • I believe one needs to be comfortable in their own skin, high EQ, selfless, unsatisfied with the status quo and comfortable with change and energy.
  • Know yourself, it’s not a popularity contest.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

  • Get to know yourself extremely well and be comfortable with you who are. Learn what works for you and what doesn’t. Comfort in your own skin is key to leading others.
  • Find your style. Share advice freely, but let others build their own systems that work for them.
  • Set high expectations but lead with empathy and non-judgement.
  • Always maintain a learning mindset.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I try to lead by example, for other working mothers that have big career aspirations — you can do both, and more. I’ve taken this leadership outside of PepsiCo’s walls, as a board member of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.

Things usually get more complicated the more you progress in a career and as life happens, it’s critical to learn how to take care of yourself physically and mentally early on and form good habits. When I was first starting out, I would often skip everything from regular meals to annual physicals because I thought I was too “busy.” I look back now I have progressed in my career and have added a husband, two kids and a dog to the mix and shake my head at myself — prioritize your holistic health, nothing is more important!

As you get more senior and manage bigger teams, people are less likely to push back on you. And because you become more confident in your style, you might be less likely to solicit feedback or ask for different points of view. Find people who will be brutally honest with you (inside and outside of work) and ask for it. It will ensure that you aren’t solidifying blind spots.

Try to keep your identity multifaceted — it will make you a more interesting person and will candidly spread out the pressure that we as women tend to put on ourselves. It’s easy to pigeon hole yourself into one thing (executive, mom, wife) or overly prioritize one of these over the rest.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Years ago, I was part of a small group that started a program called PepsiCorps that sent groups of associates around the world for a month to work full time to help find solutions to societal issues. I’m a big believer in public/private partnerships and am proud of PepsiCo’s legacy in that arena. I’d like to inspire and enable more collaboration amongst executives with different areas of expertise coming together in a more formal way to “sprint” against defined challenges and see what we can do!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” — George Bernard Shaw

My dad was an English Professor and I was often subjected to quotes (daily actually) but this one always stuck with me. Always have a strong point of view but be willing to listen and take in other opinions in an authentic way — that’s how progress happens personally and in the world.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d love to meet Christina Koch, who set the record for longest single spaceflight by a woman, to learn what drives her, and how she manages fear and the mental and physical toll of space.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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