• Blair Brady

Q&A WITH/Susan Lazaro of Coca-Cola North America || The Importance of a Strong Personal Brand

Blair Brady sat down with Susan Lazaro a senior lead with Coca-Cola North America and the President of Coca-Cola women's Linc Business Resource Group. Susan is also a certified mentor who has a passion for empowering future female leaders through mentorship and career development.

BB: Susan, you have a big job at Coca-Cola. Tell us about your role at the organization, as well as your role as the President of women's Linc.

SL: As I like to say, my day job is the Coca-Cola North America lead for visual merchandising supporting our commercial execution within retail and foodservice outlets. My team works with our franchise system bottlers, customer teams, and brands to create innovative and easy to execute solutions that convert shoppers into buyers. My other role in my absolute passion is President of Coca-Cola’s women’s business resource group (BRG) where I work with amazing women on behalf of our members to Lead, INspire, and Connect the women of Coca-Cola.

BB: What is does it mean to have a personal brand in business and why is it so important, especially for women?

SL: I believe that your personal brand embodies who you are when you’re in the room and speaks for you when you’re not. As part of our interview process, we have five leadership behaviors we ask candidates to reflect on and provide input on which ones, if asked of peers and past managers, they excel in are seen as a role model for. I cringe when the response is “Well, I think I excel at all of them.” That response immediately signals to me that you have no idea what you bring to the table. While I can agree that you engage different leadership behaviors at different times, there is something you should continually bring as your personal brand so when you’re on a project or leading a team, those around you know why you’re there and what they can expect from you. As women it’s important to have that voice as you’re looking for a seat at the table or when you have that seat.

Lazaro presenting to a group of women at Coca-Cola.

BB: When in your career did you start to understand that it was important to intentionally build your brand?

SL: In high school I really struggled in math, mainly algebra, and what I went through still stays with me today. A few years ago, I found a magnet which read “I’m too pretty to do math.” At the time I thought it was funny and displayed it in my cube and quoted it during a meeting when the topic of finances came up. My manager at the time didn’t think it was funny and provided me feedback to the tune of “is that the impression you want to leave?” To be honest, I never really thought about it that way. I was coming at it from a self-deprecating point of view on something that was highlighting weakness vs. strength. Needless to say, I retired the magnet and never referred to myself that way again.

BB: Have you ever had any instance in which you were challenged and needed to call upon the fiber of your integrity and your values to overcome that challenge?

SL: A few years ago, I was in a meeting that went careening off the track and I had no idea how to respond. While it was happening, I experienced tunnel vision and had a ringing in my ears because all I felt was rage and it took everything in me to continue to listen and not react. After a quick internal assessment, I knew I reacted this way because I felt like my integrity was being called into question and I had never had that happen before. I remember leaving the meeting thinking that if I stayed one second longer the next words out of my mouth would be ones I would regret.

I immediately went to my manager’s office and let her know what happened and that I just needed her to listen and did not need her to “fix” anything. I did a lot of soul searching over the next few months on how I wanted to continue the relationship with the people who were in the meeting. With one person, I scheduled a meeting for us to clear the air and we now have an amicable working relationship. The other person I couldn’t do that with and since I don’t have any projects where I have to interact with them, I adopted an out of sight, out of mind mantra.

BB: Give us an example of how you manage your personal brand today? Do you have a mantra or statement you operate by?

SL: At the end of 2016, I embarked on a journey to become a certified professional coach. A co-worker and friend who was a coach, provided coaching on how to handle a certain situation and while I was going through this I thought, “Could I do this?” I explored the program she went through, talked to an admissions counselor, and enrolled. I had no idea what the next year would bring but I was completely open to it.

There was a lot of homework and self-reflection we were asked to do along the way and that’s when I began to take figure out who I was, what I was settling for, what I wanted, and what I felt when I was rocking on all cylinders. I may still react in the moment, but I give myself space and time to reflect and understand why. I check in with my “board of directors” who keep me honest and provide feedback along the way. I’m at my best when I’m passionate about what I’m doing and can pay it forward for others, so I feel like there’s no excuse for me to be anything other than a beacon of positivity.

BB: If you had one piece of advice to give to young women seeking leadership in their industries and organizations, what would it be?

SL: Understand who you are at your core along with your non-negotiables and don’t apologize for them. I know it gets overused, but to be your authentic self takes so much less energy than being someone you’re not.

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