At first glance, the business models of the United States Army and The Coca-Cola Company do not share much resemblance. But look closer, and you’ll see the two organizations are tackling the same challenge: attracting top young talent able to thrive in an environment that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – or “VUCA,” as the military calls it. Not coincidentally, it’s a term that has gained traction in the private sector lately.  

Patrick J. Murphy, Undersecretary of the U.S. Army, visited Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters to share best practices on attracting and retaining top talent.

Murphy leads the management and operation of the Army, which would rank as a Fortune 10 company if it were a public enterprise. A big part of his job is finding creative ways to reach, recruit and retain young people for military careers. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola is navigating similar terrain: building a workplace that empowers young and new employees but is clear-eyed about the possibility that they may try other opportunities. 

After the meeting, we sat down with Murphy and Stacey Valy Panayiotou, vice president of global talent and development at The Coca-Cola Company, to discuss leadership, agility and partnerships between the public and private sectors. Here are highlights from our conversation.  

You’ve spoken in the past about the importance of public-private partnerships. Now, you’re on a national brainstorming tour with large companies. If you had to boil it down to an elevator pitch, what is the overall goal of your meetings with companies like Coca-Cola?

Murphy: Well, Coca-Cola is an iconic brand and company in America. They’re in the talent-management business, and doing a phenomenal job. We are in the talent management business, as well. We bring into the Army about 100,000 Americans every single year. And every year, approximately 100,000 of our soldiers leave and they go to great places like Coke. It’s good to be here with leaders like Stacey to see what they’re doing to be innovative with their recruitment strategy. I’m interested in how you grow a company through your people while also being results-oriented.

This relationship between our organizations runs all the way back to World War II, when Mr. Woodruff promised General Eisenhower that every U.S. soldier would have a bottle of Coke for a nickel, whether they were at home or abroad. And you’ve seen both organizations for over a century do very well. We make a positive difference wherever our soldiers are. And our soldiers celebrate certain occasions with a Coke and smile. It‘s nice to see us continue to have that kind of relationship. 

'There are organizations out there that see great value in not just hiring veterans... but also to inspire their workforce through the veterans’ stories.'

Stacey, you’ve talked about how Coca-Cola is changing its approach to performance management. Employees will get more frequent check-ins with their managers, for example, as part of a new emphasis on performance enablement. Easy to say, not so easy to do, especially on a global scale. But your team was able to roll out this change faster than expected. What’s the key learning there? How do you get things done more efficiently in a big organization?

Valy Panayiotou: Many organizations like ours are wrestling with this concept of agility. It’s a word that’s easy to say but it’s not easy to do. And what I’ve learned is, it’s about not trying to eat the whole elephant at once. It’s about bite to bite to bite. Go and try to find those quick wins and fish where the fish are because there are going to be pockets of energy and pockets of appetite. Go prove the concept and then bring back the facts and data. At that point, it’s not about selling something to senior leaders; it’s about choice and then weighing out the options. So for me, the big learning was: don’t try to tackle the global organization at once. If you have a hypothesis, go test it. Be willing to be wrong, fail fast, pivot and run.

Mr. Murphy, you said in today’s meeting that 'ideas are great, but the follow-up is critical.' What are the primary challenges to building effective public-private partnerships? What are the obstacles that would hinder that follow-up and relationship-building?

Murphy: Well, there is a new fiscal reality in the governments all over the world, and that is there’s less money to go around. For the Army, our budget was cut 39 percent in the last five years. That means there’s $100 billion less in our bottom line. So we have to do more with less, and we have to be able to partner with organizations like Coca-Cola and others to figure out ways in which we can potentially partner and tell our story. It will be crucial to go out there and highlight the fact that many of our soldiers still live a purpose-driven life at organizations like Coca-Cola and UPS when they leave our formations.

Murphy, a third-generation military veteran, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and later served in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps as a criminal prosecutor and as an assistant professor in the Department of Law at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Following 9/11, he served two overseas deployments in Bosnia and Iraq, where he earned a Bronze Star for his service. From 2007-2011, Murphy served as the first Iraq War Veteran elected to the U.S. Congress, representing the Eighth Congressional District of Pennsylvania. 

Hannah Nemer

We’re starting to hear more about some of the nuances in recruiting and talking to the next generation of the workforce – Generation Z or, roughly, 17- to 24-year-olds. It sounds like the Army and Coca-Cola are working through those same challenges.

Valy Panayiotou: My takeaway from the sessions today is that even though we work in very different contexts, the challenges we face are more similar because we’re in the war for the same talent. It’s critically important to meet talent where it is. We need to think about changing the mindset around someone that might come in and do a “tour of duty” at a company like ours before they then take that experience and do something else with it. We need to be much more open to the possibility that the definition of a career is very, very different for this new generation, and that it can still mean a multiple of objectives for the individual and for society.

That’s fascinating because in the Army or the military more broadly, it’s usually been about doing either a short term of service, or a long one stretching into retirement. My understanding is that there usually haven’t been a hybrid options in between. Is that something that can be addressed?

Murphy: There’s actually a lot in between. I joined the Army when I was 19. I was a college student and I was dating a girl and I remember her father said to me, “Patrick, why would you want to join the Army? You’re on the dean’s list, and you’re a sophomore in college. I said to him that I wanted to serve. And so I got my Army commission, but instead of going around on active duty, I went to law school and then went back in. I wouldn’t have been a professor at West Point at the age 27 if it wasn’t for the Army, or a U.S. Congressman at 33 years old or now, the undersecretary of the Army. So to me, I’m a soldier for life. All of our soldiers are soldiers for life which means we’re leaders of character for a lifetime of service.

I’m still serving and when I leave this job at some point, I’ll continue to serve my fellow veterans and my country.

'If you have a hypothesis, go test it. Be willing to be wrong, fail fast, pivot and run.'

You were executive producer for MSNBC’s 'Taking the Hill,' a national security policy show that specialized in breaking down the civil- military divide that’s occurred with an all-volunteer force. How are we doing on that score? Is the divide narrowing or widening?

Murphy: Well, demographics are destiny, and the demographics aren’t necessarily in our favor right now. Because we are right now in the longest wars in American history in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve asked about one percent of our country to serve in these wars; about 2.7 million Americans.

You compare that to World War II, when 16 million Americans served, or Vietnam, where 9.2 million served. We now have an all-volunteer force – which I’m a proponent of, by the way, because when I was in Baghdad I wanted the people on my left and right to want to be there. But when 79 percent of your recruits coming in are from military families, but there are fewer military families, what does that mean for the future, and for the viability of an all-volunteer force? That’s the question we’re wrestling with.

Representatives from Coca-Cola and the U.S. Army met on Aug. 12 at the company's Atlanta headquarters to share best practices on talent recruitment and retention.

Hannah Nemer

You’ve spoken with a number of other companies during this listening and learning tour. What are some of the key findings?

Murphy: There are organizations out there that see great value in not just hiring veterans – which is very important and we appreciate that – but also to inspire their workforce through the veterans’ stories. That they have heroes that work among them, and telling the stories about how veterans are living purpose-driven lives inside the organization. I think that’s an easy win for Coke and UPS, for example, and they do a good job with it. There is a great culture in Atlanta, with Vetlanta and other programs, where this city wants to be the most veteran-friendly city in America.

It’s important to point out that this isn’t being done for charity. Companies that hire veterans are getting people who are physically fit, which will decrease healthcare costs for the companies. Veterans are obviously high performers in complex organizations. And they have character. They live by a code, and they will continue to do so.

Today’s session was largely about how The Coca-Cola Company’s experience could help the Army think through some of these complex challenges. But what has Coca-Cola learned from the Army?

Valy Panayiotou: At the core, you’re talking about leadership, and that’s where the Army brings so much value. Leadership models are shifting so fast. If you were following it on social media, you couldn’t keep up. Walk through an airport bookstore and you’d miss every flight, just browsing through new leadership books.

But the main topic of the day is inspirational, authentic, courageous leadership. This is what we’re talking about in 2016. That type of leadership is what will allow us to be agile in a complex world. There are things that are enduring.

The question I have is, if you think about this next generation of talent is, they’re going to want to do many different things during their careers. That’s the way they think. And that’s not a bad thing. How do we as The Coca-Cola Company ensure they see the vastness of the opportunity ahead of them? I think being able to paint the picture of possibilities for people about what that could look like, will be very important. I think our long relationship with the Army can help us think through that.