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Agility is the Key to Survive a Crisis

A learning mindset can help companies navigate disruptions. How does the world’s best-known company, The Coca-Cola Company, stay focused on emerging stronger? We are in conversation with Jonathan Ojany, VP and Global Head, Center Operations and Strategy at the Company.


The Coca-Cola Company has many of the world’s most recognisable brands that are sold in almost every country in the world. The company’s workforce reflects its truly global nature. A number of talented Africans have risen to the top of the organisation, most notably Zimbabwean Nathan Kalumbu, head of Eurasia Africa group, Liberian Alex Cummings, who was Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer.


Jonathan Ojany is the latest African looking to follow in the pioneering footsteps of these African leaders, successfully climbing the ladders towards the higher echelons of The Coca-Cola Company. A Kenyan with extensive experience running global strategy, he joined The Coca-Cola Company in 2014 to run Strategy, Planning and Digital for half the continent based out of Kenya and later Nigeria. In 2019 he moved to Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta to be Chief of Staff to the company’s Global President and Chief Operating Officer. Earlier this month, he assumed the position of VP and Global Head, Center Operations and Strategies at Coke.


The transition from Coke Africa to its headquarters, Ojany recalls, was fluid. He explains that the company has become adept at nurturing global talent. “Being a global company allows Coca-Cola to cross pollinate talent. The company’s success can be attributed in a large part to its ability to gather great and diverse ideas from a broad, global talent pool.”


Prior to Covid-19, Coke was experiencing healthy performance across its vast portfolio of countries and brands. The company’s strategy to drive top quartile performance was working but the pandemic created a new reality where, like all other companies in the world, Coke was suddenly called upon to adapt to a series of disruptions that stood all normal life on its head.


Adapting on the Run

Building on its 135-year heritage, the company looked through its history of managing crises, including prior pandemics, to find inspiration for navigating the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic was truly a “black swan” and presented the management team with numerous challenges: maintaining the safety of all its people, ensuring operational continuity including uninterrupted supply, production, distribution, sales, and supporting local communities. “We had to be agile, learning across markets on how the pandemic would play out, and staying ahead of the knock-on effects of various restrictions and resulting economic and operational challenges that impacted the movement of people, goods, and delivery of services.”

“We had to reassess vulnerabilities along the entire global value chain, identify bottlenecks and finding innovative solutions” he adds. “We had a people-first mindset, focusing on the safety of our people and supporting our communities.” It was problem-solving at a pace and on a scale that was unprecedented. For Jonathan Ojany, given his background as a strategy and management consultant, the rapid fire fighting was a challenge he relished. In its way, the pandemic has concentrated focus on the skill sets industry leaders need to respond to the needs of the moment.


With so much disruption taking place, are the skills that one looks for different to what they would have been, five or ten years ago? “You always look for skills to help you win today while building for the future. The evolution of those skills is based on what you believe the future will look like and what you will need to invest in to enhance your competitive advantage to not only remain relevant but also win in that future” he says.

The specific skills needed today, he says, have evolved from those that defined the workplace five years ago. Digital, data and technology now define every aspect of our personal lives as well as the business world, from supply chain to production, distribution and logistics, sales, and marketing. Access to data and technology has made the consumer more connected and therefore more sophisticated, democratising knowledge irrespective of whether they are in emerging or developed markets. They are clear on what they want with affordability being the variable to getting what they want. Consequently, to ensure relevance, companies can no longer tell the consumer what they “think” they want but instead must meet the consumer where they shop (online or offline) with the products they want, when they want them.


In addition to technology skills, he says, the “softer” skills are also undergoing a fundamental change. Agility, flexibility, and empowerment are no longer buzz words but prerequisites for success. “You need leaders who are inspirational and who place trust in their teams, empowering them to make decisions. The people who will succeed are technologically more savvy, more self-aware, selfstarting, authentic, and comfortable with ambiguity. That’s the pivot from several years ago. With the world changing constantly and rapidly, leaders must be agile, pushing for progress not perfection,” he sums up.

Throughout our conversation, the need for empathy and emotional intelligence crops up often. “When we look at the future of work, talent, flexibility, and trust will trump over the traditional static, hierarchical working models. You have to balance it all out. It’s not necessarily just what the company needs but also what the employees need, what and can do.”



Total Beverage Strategy

Has the health pandemic put a greater pressure for companies like Coke to accelerate their pivot to more health and nutrition-related drinks? Ojany says in recent years Coke adopted a “total beverage company” mindset, taking a very consumer-centric approach to what is now the “beverages for life strategy. So how do you manage this pivot and these innovations? Coke, he says, continues its 135 year old tradition of innovating to ensure that “we can profitably continue to offer consumers the products and brands that they want, including more choices with lower sugar, more functional benefits and superior flavour profiles.”

In addition to the product itself, the challenge to ensure that the products wanted by consumers are available within easy reach is a continuous logistical challenge. “Around the world, admittedly at varying levels, the pandemic has accelerated e-commerce. Winning brands will be those that seamlessly straddle the online (e-commerce) and offline (brick and mortar) world,” he says.


What are the growth opportunities for the company on the continent? “Africa remains a priority for The Coca-Cola Company,” he replies. One of the continent’s largest beverage acquisitions in recent memory was that of the Nigerian local drinks company Chi. The Chi transaction, he says, “was exciting primarily to fulfil Coke’s mission of being a ‘total beverage company’ expanding its dairy, juice and tea footprint in Nigeria but also building capabilities and expertise to scale across the continent.”

He feels that the most important element in harnessing the Africa opportunity in general - not constrained to Coke - centres around leadership and capacity building: “How do we as a continent build our own capabilities? How do we identify and nurture African talent? How do we prioritise and focus on the few big bets to be able to really move the needle? We’ve got examples of great leadership across the continent, but the challenge is to make them more prevalent, consistent, focused and, therefore, impactful.”


A growth mindset

As Coke expands, either organically or through acquisitions, is there a particular culture or mindset that it tries to inculcate? “We focus on a growth mindset,” he explains, “ensuring behaviours that encourage curiosity, inclusivity, empowerment and agility. Our recent transition into what we call a ‘networked organisation’ will positively impact how we lead, how we work and how we learn, accelerating our path to emerging stronger from the pandemic and returning to prepandemic sustainable top-tier growth. It allows us to share learnings, leveraging economies of scale while ensuring local relevance, speed and responsiveness.” Consistency is key. And consistency is something Ojany understands. As he explains, paraphrasing and tailoring a famous quote from the artist Andy Warhol, the company prides itself on making sure that “a Coke is a Coke. The one drunk by royalty has the same quality and provides the same unparalleled satisfaction and refreshment as the one drunk in the sweltering heat of the Sahara or blistering cold of Siberia.”


Looking ahead, he reflects on the African opportunity: “The future is here, just unevenly distributed. The question is - how do we invest in capabilities to ensure it gets distributed in our favour?”


“Africa remains a priority for The Coca-Cola Company, a growth engine in its global portfolio”

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