Career-Shaping Decisions with Carmela Cugini

LS International

The what, why and when in a career can sometimes be as important as the who. Stepping out of the known and taking risk is part of what will make our careers accelerate or stall. We have a very special guest in this edition of the Podcast, Carmela Cugini. After a successful 18 year tenure at Pepsico, she decided to join, a start up at that stage, where she’s grown to currently be the head of merchandising for private brands. We invited her to better understand how some key decisions can drive success or failure in a career.

Topics Discussed:

• 3 key actions that shaped Ms. Cugini’s career
• How to grow quicker and faster than your peers
• Why change companies when happy with current employer
• Advice for people that are in their “Comfort zone”

Daniel: In a career, the what’s, why’s and when’s can sometimes be as important as the who. Stepping out of the known and taking risk is part of what will maybe our careers accelerate or stone. I have a very special guest today Carmella Cugini. After a successful 18 year tenure at PepsiCo, she decided to join, a startup at that stage, where she’s grown to currently be the head of merchandising for private brands to understand more about when and why to take certain risks in our career.

Hi, Carmela, thanks for joining us today!

Carmela: Hello Daniel, so nice to be here. Thanks for asking me to join!

Daniel: Yeah, it’s a pleasure to have you here. Thanks for joining us. First of all, I wanted to ask you a very specific question. We’ve seen that you’ve been successful in your business career. What do you think are the three key decisions that actually shaped your career?

Carmela: Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say the first decision I made – there were really three critical ones – the first one was hiring an executive coach to really help me understand myself. So, one thing I learned a lot about as I grew as a leader was emotional intelligence. And so, I participated in a series of assessments and worked with a coach that really helped me develop all of those skills and those really helps set me apart as I grew in my career.

The next one, I would say, is going to New York City for a finance strategy job. So, as you know I was with Pepsi for quite some time and I worked out in the field. I focused on sales, operations, key account… And I was – I decided I needed to take that lead to grow further and that meant moving to our headquarters, which was in New York, and I lived in Pittsburgh at the time. And taking on a very different role from my comfort level – which was revenue management strategy – that was a scary thing, it was a stretch assignment, it was the first time they actually put a field person in a job like that. So, I knew it came with a little bit of risk that I could have been exposed if I didn’t do well. But it was one of the best decisions of my career, totally took my career in a different direction and it really helped me grow as a person as well.

And then, lastly, I would say, jumping to retail from consumer-packaged goods into a startup organization like jet; that was a massive change for me as you can tell. That changed my world, it changed my perspective, it changed my trajectory, it changed everything about my career and has really allowed me to see new things that I never thought would be in my horizon when I started my career.

Daniel: It’s a great one also. Yeah, changing industries is always favorable but I think the other two getting an executive coach is more out of the box than the other two.

Carmela: Yeah, definitely. It was something that I knew I needed to have. Someone I could talk to openly and authentically and candidly, without feeling like I was being evaluated all the time, but I could grow. So, it was a safe place for me to go grow with regards to business. It definitely made a difference.

Daniel: Yeah, absolutely. And we’ve reflected on the decisions that shaped your career. Why did people in the same cohort as you – for example, when you were in lower levels of Pepsi – why did some of them not go as quick or reached your level? What do you think are the key maybe pitfalls in career decisions that maybe don’t make people grow or accelerate as much?

Carmela: Yeah, well a very good mentoring code to the dear friend today said to me early in my career: “Carmella you should focus on learning instead of being promoted”. And that is the key difference to what has helped me. I will tell you, throughout my career, Daniel, I wasn’t always the one ahead. In fact, if you look at some of my cohorts they were moving more quickly and it frustrated me. But what ended up happening is when I got to mid-level career, I now had a foundation because I had taken some lateral positions to really learn, I accelerated beyond where they were and where they could go because they had peaked out in the… because they had only been promoted upwards.

So, my learning in my foundation was so broad that it really helped me go much further in my career. It was the best advice I had ever received. I often compare it to running a marathon and not a race. So, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul and really understand where it is that you truly want to go and what are the learning experiences that you need to at least together  in order to get there. And sometimes that means you’re going to go sideways, and it doesn’t mean you’re always going to get promoted when you take a job move, and you have to be OK with that. That is probably the number one thing.

A couple of other things that really help me get to where I am is building a high-performance team. So, whenever I get into a new role I take a look at my team and I have to make fast decisions until I have the right team in place. So, I may invest time to really get to know people, understand their capability. But if I found that there was someone that was not very high performing, one of the pitfalls I had made early was to let that individual or those individuals linger. It’s the worst thing you can do for them and for yourself. I had to learn to give the feedback and how to really help individuals find where their best fit was, so that they could move on to where they would be more appreciated in better suited for growth. And that will allow me an ability to bring somebody on that would be high performing on to my team. Doing that in a way that was quick, but not too quick. I was critical to building a high performing team and you have to have that in order to be able to deliver results quickly.

The other thing I learned – and candidly I learned this one from my father. He didn’t have a college education, he came from Italy and he was a builder. But he had a lot of success in his life, and the reason he did is because he knew how to treat people. So, he taught me the concept of the emotional bank account. And so, what he said to me is: “Carmela when you are dealing with people, you have to invest in people and you have to do to them… you would want to treat them the way you want to be treated”. And much like a bank account you have to put in deposit and if you start to take withdrawals and only ask from people and not give, you are going to go into bankruptcy. So, I always had that notion of I’d never want to go into bankruptcy with people, I always want to have a credit balance with them so that I’m in a good position. And, it helps. Actually it helped shape my brand as well, that people know me for being a leader like that.

Daniel: Yeah, OK. That’s great advice.

Carmela: That was an advice given to me. That’s what I can share

Daniel: Yeah, no also I think that’s a great advice for everyone who’s is listening to be honest. I know that you had a fast career in PepsiCo, for example, and decided to make a move into In this case or in general of your career why did you decide to make a move when you were happy somewhere?

Carmela: Yeah, and I was happy. Pepsi was a great organization. They did so much for my personal and professional growth. And I was at a point in my career where I had worked all my career to become a VP and into that group to move along. And I saw it, the finish line was right there, that was my next role. But a good friend of mine who I trusted, who had done very well, had come to me about the opportunity and you can never time things. You have to be very open minded and listen. And so she talked to me quite a number of times about the opportunity and I finally agreed to at least meet with the chief operating officer. And she agreed, she said “hey if you meet with this individual and you still don’t want to do it I’ll leave you alone”. I said “OK, deal”. So, I met with them at the time and then I met with Mark Lori and Scott Hilton. The reason I made the change was really a twofold.

First of all I knew e-commerce is going to be a big thing and I knew I didn’t know a lot about it. But I knew I would need to learn and become very good in that area for the future. So that was something I knew as a fact. The second thing I knew is retail is the side of the business I never touched and it was something I was very interested in. But I never knew how to quite make that leap of faith. And then, lastly, it came down to the leadership. When I met Nate, Scott and Mark I was so impressed with the clarity of vision, their amazing intelligence, yet coupled with humility. I was very taken back at how humble and thoughtful they all were and I always… my belief is people quit people; they don’t quit companies. And when I saw them not that I had a bad situation, because I was happy at Pepsi, but when I saw those three things come together I thought “wow, I have to go do this, I cannot pass this opportunity up”. And so, what I tried to do to make it a softer landing is, you know, I always believe you never burn a bridge and I never have. I left Pepsi on very good terms. So, when I left, they fortunately said “hey, if things don’t work out, you can come back”. So, I know I have to eat a little humble pie that happen, but I’m still very close to all those individuals. But it was the best decision of my career. I learned more than I ever thought I could learn about how to run a business, how to be in a startup, how the venture capital world works, how retail works. And then when Walmart bought us, it brought us to the largest retailer in the world. And that was another whole set of learning. So, things happen for a reason, I do believe that.

Daniel: Yeah, and reflecting back, what advice would you give to someone that’s earlier in their career -senior manager, director, senior director –  so they were earlier in their career and their in their comfort zone, and don’t feel the need to move maybe just going… yeah they’re in their comfort zone, so they’re not open to move because they’re comfortable; but maybe that will have an impact on the long-term career. What advice would you give?

Carmela: Yeah, great question. I would first of all, make sure that or advise people to be very open minded, and make sure you a) understand where you really want to be; take some time to really think about the future and where you’d like your future to be. I think, Stephen Covey talks about it by saying “begin with the end in mind”. So, I can tell you that my ending line today looks different than it did before. That every time I reached a particular goal, you reset the goal, right? So, start really thinking big and start thinking about where do I want to be, what do I want my personal brand to be, what do I want my work brand to be. And make sure those two are in harmony, because if they’re not you’re not going to be authentic and that will not allow your best self to come through. So, take off the blinders, set some goals and if you can’t really understand it completely, go look at some others that have done it and then talk to them. Learn from them asking questions “how did you get here, what did you learn, what do you like about what you doing, what don’t you like about what you’re doing”. Because sometimes people may not exactly know where they want to be. Then once you look at that, raise your hands at work and say “listen this is where I want to go, I want to learn along the way. Can I take some stretch assignments to start building a foundation to help me get there?”. Partner with somebody at work whether that mentor or whether that HR whether that’s, of course, your manager. And start getting involved in stepping out of the box.

The other thing is I always say sit at the table. So many new leaders, including myself, I was afraid to speak up a lot of the times at meetings. Even when I had the VP title I was afraid to do it.

Daniel: That’s hard to believe.

Carmela: Yes! Exactly! Don’t feel like you’re going to look unintelligent, just be curious. Ask. Don’t overdo but ask appropriate questions, take notes and then follow up to learn more. So, take an approach of learning and being curious, build that out for yourself. Good things will come of that without a question. And don’t be afraid to fail. People that fail, as long as you’re learning from it, that’s the best part. Just learn from your failures so you don’t repeat those. And then, I would say last but not least, don’t cheat yourself. So I always tell people always do what’s right not what looks good. And there is a poem that I always keep on my desk on my computer in my office and it’s called “Man in the glass”. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it.

Daniel: I haven’t!

Carmela: Do you mind me sharing it with you?

Daniel: Yeah, I would love it!

Carmela: OK so here’s how it goes. It says “When you get what you want and you struggle for self and the world makes you king for a day, just go to the mirror and look at yourself and see what the man has to say. For it isn’t your father or your mother or wise whose judgment upon you must pass, the fellow whose verdict counts most in your life is the one staring back from the glass. He’s the fellow to please, never mind all the rest, for he’s with you clear to the end and you’ve passed the most difficult dangerous tasks if the man in the glass is your friend. You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years and get passed on the back as your path, but your final reward will be heartache and tears if you’ve cheated the man in the glass”. So, I keep that with me at all times and it’s always a reminder.

Daniel: That’s excellent! I think that it is good also, as you said, to remind ourselves of who we are. In the bed I think that maybe we have more tendency to do that in the bad times, maybe to punish ourselves but also in the good times to actually look back and actually this big tree today bring me to where I want to be really.

Carmela: Yes, that’s exactly right. You have to remember that because you’ve built your career not just from your things that didn’t go so well, but from all of the success. And that’s what makes you better everyday. I agree.

Daniel: That was great, that was great. And Carmella, what can I say, thanks so much for joining us today I think I’ve learned a lot and I think that our listeners will learn as well.

Carmela: Thank you so much, Daniel, it was a pleasure as always to talk to you thanks again.

Daniel: Thanks, Carmela, and thanks to all our listeners and see you in the next edition of the podcast