Craig Weatherup: Learning from success and failure

May 23, 2007

Craig Weatherup, now retired as chairman and CEO of The Pepsi Bottling Group (PBG), has had more than the full measure of success in his career.


Recently he shared some of the insights he gained during his 29-year career at PepsiCo with some 650 W. P. Carey MBA, masters and doctoral degree graduates at the school's convocation. Weatherup talked about leadership and success, but his message veered from the usual CEO script. Value and use failure, he said. "You will not grow without risk, and will not risk unless you value failure as a teacher."


An unconventional business guru


A 1967 graduate of the W. P. Carey School, Weatherup was in the lead when Pepsi marketers came up with some of the brand's most memorable marketing initiatives. There were catchy jingles that you couldn't quit singing, and the famous "Pepsi Challenge," which pitted Pepsi against beverage powerhouse Coca-Cola and converted countless testers into instant customers. Perhaps most significantly, starting in Japan, he built Pepsi into a favorite of local residents the world over -- not just American expatriates eager for a taste of home.


Weatherup is widely acknowledged as a primary driver behind Pepsi's extraordinary success. But hear him describe his leadership style to the new grads, and a strikingly unconventional business guru emerges from the pinstripes and polished wingtips.


Some experts advise dusting off your resume every five to seven years, but Weatherup spent 30 years at PepsiCo.


As a new accounting graduate, his goal was to run a major division of a huge company someday. Over the years, his general goals stayed much the same, while his specific goals evolved. And indeed, the day came when he did run a major division. He began his career in 1974 as Pepsi-Cola marketing director for the Far East, stationed in Tokyo, Japan. Then he spent the next eight years in international operations in a variety of positions.


In 1982, Weatherup joined the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Group and was named president of the division in 1986. He was appointed chief executive officer of Pepsi-Cola North America in 1990. In 1996, he was named president of PepsiCo, Inc., and later that year, appointed chairman and chief executive officer of Pepsi-Cola Company.


In addition, Weatherup realized leadership is not the sole province of the top executive. "Everyone aspires to lead others in some aspect of their lives," he told the graduates. One person is called to teach Sunday School to kids, he said, while others might lead in a community or civic group. Each is a leader, although often not identified as a decision-maker at their place of employment.


Grow by taking risks … and sometimes failing


Weatherup embraces "servant leadership," which he described as "seeing leadership as an extraordinary privilege given to you by those you lead." The chief mechanism of leadership is "making the right decision." But, as he pointed out in his speech, that leaves an enormous question: how do you acquire the insight, will and perseverance you need to make the right judgment? 


"Barring conflicting facts, half of the room will always want to go left and half of the room will want to go right. At the end of the day, leadership is making that call," Weatherup explained.


Leaders function at their highest, he said, when they constantly expand their life experiences, both on and off the job. "It's all about breadth of experiences," he said, "which is something only acquired through risk."


This is the heart of Weatherup's message: Taking risks develops leadership skills, but it also carries the chance of failure. Weatherup left his first post-college employer, General Foods, for a marketing management position with Pepsi way back in 1974. That early leap from accounting to marketing marked one of his first major risks, he told grads.


"I acquired breadth of experience by taking small and sometimes big risks, going into the unknown," he continued. "You will be uncomfortable. You will understand that you just don't know the answer, and you need to find it."


Train to be a leader


There are three steps to building leadership skills, according to Weatherup.


Start by seeking out opportunities that widen the breadth of your experiences. Failure is a possibility -- but so is success, he said.


"Living as the most complete human being you can be" is a goal that results not only in mastery of the skills and knowledge necessary for top-notch leadership, he said. It's also a direct path towards a healthy balance between work, family and play. If you're living as that most complete human being as a way of building leadership skills and boosting your career, then there's plenty of time and attention scheduled for family, friends, hobbies, volunteer work and the like.


To keep on schedule, he lives by a few rules. For instance, by noon on Saturday, if not earlier, his briefcase is packed up and stashed in the closet until it's time to leave for work Monday morning. Before he retired, when he was in meetings, his staff was instructed to interrupt for only two people -- his wife or the company's chairman. And, he and his wife always reserved at least 10 days for a family vacation every year.


His second piece of advice on leadership-skill building is to embrace lateral or unexpected career moves. The payoff will not be in big raise or fancier office now, but could position you for even more satisfying experiences down the road a bit.


Another aspect of success and leadership that Weatherup could have mentioned is generosity. Inducted into the W. P. Carey School's Hall of Fame in 1986, he continues to be involved with the university, currently giving his time and insights as the chairman of the ASU Foundation Board of Directors. And he has put resources behind his passion for developing leadership in managers through his sponsorship of the Weatherup/Overby Chair in Management. Angelo Kinicki, whose research and consulting interests include leadership, currently holds the chair at the W. P. Carey School.