Coca-Cola is grooming 26 executives from 17 countries through an immersive learning experience modeled after the legacy of one of the most respected leaders in the company's nearly 127-year history.

The six-week program carries the namesake of Donald R. Keough, who served as president and chief operating officer of The Coca-Cola Company from 1981 to 1993, and who will retire later this month from the company’s board of directors. A perpetually curious leader who humbly balanced the roles of teacher and student during his tenure, he stewarded the company through the “cola wars” of the 1980s and led the continued expansion of Coke’s international operations.

Keough also is revered for his ability to connect and cultivate relationships with everyone who came in contact with Coca-Cola. Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent called him the “consummate Coca-Cola leader.”

“Don knows our business like few have ever dreamed of knowing it, and he has a passion for the specialness of Coca-Cola that’s unmatched,” Kent said. “In other words, he has all the ‘head’ knowledge and all the ‘heart’ knowledge.”

Developed in partnership with Duke University’s Corporate Education program, the Donald R. Keough System Leadership Academy aims to strike this same balance. Participants will visit a diverse set of markets to develop an end-to-end understanding of the Coca-Cola system, which consists of The Coca-Cola Company and more than 250 bottling partners worldwide.

The curriculum will challenge the leaders – who represent all corners of the system, from manufacturing and finance to advertising and sales – with complex business cases designed to inspire critical thinking and unconventional approaches to solving problems and seizing opportunities. They will interact with senior executives at both the global and local level to learn about leadership, legacy and the importance of collaboration – while embracing Keough’s inclusive management style and insatiable thirst for knowledge.

‘Constant Stimulus and Constant Input’

Keough expected candor from his team, surrounding himself with people who were not afraid to challenge him. In fact, he was known to routinely share lunch or a Coke with employees he didn’t know just to hear directly from them about their work and their perspectives. He traveled to more than 140 countries during his years at the helm to keep his finger on the pulse of the business. 

“Every time I went anywhere, I came back to Atlanta knowing more than I knew when I left,” Keough told the class last week during a special kickoff event at Coke's global headquarters.

Donald Keough

"The leaders of our business have to be teachers," said Keough, who served as Coke's president and COO from 1981-1993. "But in order to be teachers, you have to be students... and you have to be students all of your life."

Keough’s Coca-Cola history dates to 1950 when he joined Butter-Nut Coffee, which was first acquired by Duncan Foods, then by The Coca-Cola Company in 1960. He served as head of The Coca-Cola Foods Division from 1971 to 1973, as chairman of the board of Coca-Cola Enterprises from 1986 to 1993, and as chairman of Columbia Pictures Inc. from 1982 to 1989. After retiring as president, chief operating officer and a director of the company in April 1993, he was again elected as a director in 2004.

Keough, 86, used a vivid analogy to encourage the inaugural class to remain curious and to “learn more every day” during their six-week journey.  

“The brain is like a sponge,” he said. “When you have a sponge in your hand, if you let it get dry, you can peel it off, bit by bit, into millions of little pieces. And that's the way the brain is, too… in order for you to be able to have output, you have to have constant stimulus and constant input.”

After spending a few days in Atlanta, the team traveled to Chicago to learn about bottler and customer partnerships. From there, it’s on to Mexico City for a crash course on brand love and shopper marketing. The program concludes with stops in Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, India, where participants will be immersed in the culture of a developing market and study systems integration.

“Only when you are immersed in a program like this can you fully understand and begin to absorb the heritage, responsibility and opportunity within our system," Jason Marshall, vice president of finance for Coca-Cola Enterprises in the United Kingdom, said about week one. "This once-in-a-lifetime experience has fueled my curiosity… with breadth of experience comes diversity of thought.”

Samia Bouchareb, general manager, Morocco, added, "This experience is creating a unique link between our past and our future. Over the last 127 years, generations have built our company around the values of love for the brand, relationships, passion and excellence in execution. We are now responsible with creating the business foundation for the next 127 years."