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Updated Feb 28, 2024

Career Forward: These Former Pepsi and Nike Execs Want You to Look Out for No. 1

Rachel Brodsky, Staff Writer

Career Forward book cover

Grace Puma and Christiana Smith Shi, co-authors of Career Forward: Strategies From Women Who’ve Made It, have a suggestion for young women: ask not what they can do for their company — ask what they can do for themselves. It might be surprising advice from two former Fortune 500 execs: Puma was COO of PepsiCo and Smith Shi was the president of Nike’s consumer direct division. They spoke with b. about the importance of prioritizing a career over any one job, demanding an appropriate salary, and living a “360-degree life.”

b.: How did you both meet, and how did the idea for Career Forward come about?

Smith Shi: I give Grace all the credit for getting the ball rolling with the book. We both joined the same board on the same day, and that doesn’t happen that often — two women joining the same board at the same time. We had similar styles in terms of how we tried to help push the thinking and how we tried to contribute. And I loved her Chicago accent because my mom’s family is from there. We just really clicked. Neither of us joins a board thinking you’ll find one of your lifetime friends, but I tell women now: prepare to be surprised because that could happen. We took it one meeting at a time. After one meeting, it was a gorgeous day. We were in San Francisco. We decided to go have drinks on the bay at a bar on Fisherman’s Wharf. I think it pushed us over the edge of our friendship …

Puma: While we were sitting there, sharing our journeys, we realized that we shared a passion — to share the experiences, learnings, and the benefit of things that can help our children who are millennials and in their 30s, and at those points of their career, navigate their journey. A little bit after that, we had a side conversation: “Hey, why don’t we write a book?” One of the powerful things about the book is, Christiana brings so much to the table, yet we achieved the same success on very different paths. You can get where you want to go through your own journey, but there were some core truths that we felt would benefit not just our kids, but broader leaders out there.

b.: How long did the book take to complete?

Smith Shi: A good two years. We actually started while we were still in the thick of the pandemic. Grace texted me out of the blue: “We should write a book.” I had on my retirement bucket list [that] I wanted to write a book, but I thought it’d be a memoir or something like that. This really pivoted the thinking: It’s a pandemic, everybody’s locked down; we have something to say, why don’t we give it a try?

b.: There are a lot of career-successes out there for women, by women. Did you feel there was something missing from that conversation?

Smith Shi: We respect the other books and read them and know some of the authors. For us, it was important to note a couple of things. The first was that you need to take a long-term view of your career, that if you look at things as “how do I optimize this job, and then the next job, and then the job after that?”, you may not end up in any place that you really wanted to go. We had seen a lot of friends getting into midlife where that was the case. We also wanted to take an optimistic view. We’re trying to talk to people as if we were having coffee with them. We both really enjoyed building careers. We acknowledge that there were hard times, and we wanted to share tools that helped us make choices that worked for us. Overall, we thought it was worth the ride, and we wanted to make sure we shared that. There’s a lot of “don’t let those suckers get you down” kind of stuff that you read in career books. We had a different mindset.

Puma: I also think it’s based in empowerment. You’re the one that’s architecting your career. You have choices. You can approach it strategically. You can set a journey. When you take that approach, it’s much more empowering. We’re eyes wide open — there are challenges and there are twists in the road, and we speak to that in the book. But how you approach it and thinking strategically can be very rewarding for folks. We consider this a performance-based mentality. We believe that good performance is the ticket to admission, and we want people to embrace that, and then say, “Gee, that’s great. How do I think bigger? How do I have aspirations? How do I achieve those aspirations?”

b.: Can you expand on the idea of thinking of yourself as a “growth stock”?

Puma: I think it’s been a very powerful tool in our careers. When you think about a growth stock company, it comes from investment in the right things. It comes from being able to have consistent top performance or contribution back to your shareholders. It comes from innovation, and it comes from taking some degree of risk. So, when we say people should incorporate that into their careers, we mean: be committed to continually learning, look around corners, and think about what the next set of values [are]. You can make yourself more marketable and capable. When you do that, you’re in a constant state of learning, and you’re in a constant state of wanting to achieve and keep achieving. That’s very powerful. For me, that was working in different industries. That didn’t just happen. Strategically, I learned valuable things in terms of, how do you maneuver different cultures? How do you learn different practices? How do you work in very different businesses, from consumer products to technology to an airline? Whatever it is for you, it’s important to think, “How do I grow?”

Smith Shi: Two other characteristics of growth stocks, in addition to what Grace mentioned: One, people want to invest in them. Two, they have a lot of options for how they continue to grow, and they’ve created those options. If you’re performing, if people see you delivering in your current role, if people see you interested in trying new things, they will invest their time in you. That’s how you get mentors, because they want to put their time where they’re going to get a good return.

For me, I was with the same firm for 24 years. When I got calls from recruiters, even though I had zero interest in leaving the firm I was with, I took the calls. I listened to the kind of roles and opportunities that they were talking about. I always tried to connect them to a friend. Then I let [the recruiter] know what I was doing and what I was interested in. Over time, that gave me a lot of options once I left my consulting firm, because all those recruiters knew who I was and what I was thinking about. They started bringing job opportunities to me.

Puma: It’s good for your company, and it’s good for you when you have a growth stock mentality. Not only are you empowered, but you also don’t fear layoffs or restructurings because you know your capabilities [are] high and that you’ve invested in yourself. You know you’ll land on your feet.

b.: How does Career Forward advise women to strategize around inevitable office politics? People who don’t necessarily deliver, but they appear to get more recognition because they’ve formed relationships with the “right” people?

Smith Shi: Working hard is not the point, right? Working effectively, working with impact, delivering results — that’s the point. As an example, I was part-time in a professional services environment for almost 10 years. I worked four days a week. I worked much more efficiently so that I could get done what I needed to get done in four days. I realized a lot of us could get done what we need to get done in four days. The rest of it is about what we think the optics are, right? The point is, do what you need to do to deliver impact and to have a good result. If you can do it faster and better than someone else, do it.

You can then decide where to invest the rest of your time. The other thing is, you mentioned the guys who are slicker, who are better at the politics, etc. We call those kinds of people — and there are women and men like this — we call them “shiny pennies.” We talk about it in the book. What do you do when you’re working with shiny pennies? Because the eye always goes to the sparkle, right? I’ve had that situation; I’m sure we all have. Our perspective is, for starters, don’t get in your head about it. It really does matter over time if you deliver results. Second, learn from the shiny penny, because there’s a message in there.

There are certain things that elevate your impact in a room with other people. When I was working with a shiny penny, we were doing a project together, and he was getting a lot of the limelight, but I was doing a lot of the work. What I realized was, I needed to up my game in terms of how I was contributing to the discussions in the room. That was good for my career for me to learn that. Better early than later. Eventually, he flamed out because he didn’t deliver. When it comes down to it, you either put numbers on the board or you don’t. Some of it is a little bit of a waiting game — but learning while you wait.

Puma: Look, it’s real. It exists in every environment. I think what we’re trying to say in the book is, think of it as a strategy and how you’re gonna choose to process it. These things can be frustrating and demoralizing … Don’t let it take away from your ability to continue to perform and grow. Don’t let it tap your aspirations. I always say, sooner or later smoke clears in the room. And those that have spent their time and energy being able to grow their capabilities while performing will eventually come to the top.

b.: You start out by talking about how you’d like to impart ideas to younger generations. How do you reconcile the long-term career strategy that worked for you two with the current mentality you see on TikTok?

Smith Shi: One of the core beliefs Grace and I have is about loyalty. The No. 1 loyalty you should have is to yourself and to your potential. I think that fits very well with the mindset that you’re talking about. We’re not saying, “Don’t be supportive of your company.” We’re not saying, “Don’t do the right things for your employer.” We are saying that you are in charge of your career, and you’re going to have to do the right thing [for yourself] sometimes, even if it’s hard. It does seem more frequent nowadays that layoffs happen. It does seem more nowadays that the contract between employer and employee has split. But if you go back to that notion of growth stock, and the fundamental idea of thinking of yourself that way, you keep creating options, and you will never be without a safety net.

That’s the confidence-giver that Grace has talked about. Because you built a network of supporters outside your company, because you built a track record that is externally visible, because you’ve had progression in your role or success of product lines you’re working on, or whatever it is, when you’re doing those things, you will have people you can turn to and other options you can try to activate when the unthinkable happens. And it is more likely to happen nowadays than in the past.

Puma: Look, we’ve seen it — people get laid off, and they’re devastated. They didn’t see it coming. They’re almost too invested. That’s the only thing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s traumatic. But that follows a pattern where you’ve cut off thinking about your career strategically, and it became all about your job. By doing that, you gave your power away, and now you feel like a victim of what’s happened. When you have a victim mentality, it’s always self-defeating. Things will happen, companies will lay [people] off, and I don’t think it’s any worse than it has been throughout my whole career.

You’re in charge of your choices when it’s happening [and] when it’s not happening. Where do you choose to work? How do you contribute? How do you grow yourself? How do you make sure you’re fairly compensated in those environments? Those are the things I think that are at the heart of how to maneuver these situations. Then if they do happen, hopefully you’ve been strategic and thoughtful and will have planned ahead.

This article first appeared in the b. Newsletter. Subscribe now!

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