Crisp and confident, Melanie Jones runs through a list of essential leadership qualities. Words like “authentic”, “inspired” and “relatable” stack up like rush hour jets at JFK - expectant and charged. For Jones, an effusive and engaging Market Unit VP of Sales Operations for Coca-Cola Refreshments (CCR) for South Florida, leadership is a favorite topic and it colors every aspect of her workday.

She has 16,000 customers in her market unit, ranging from local, independent convenience store owners to large, high capacity hyper-markets with multiple layers of decision makers. Bar none, Melanie says her role is to “serve and empower” the success of her 300 team members – the merchandisers, account managers, and district and area sales managers out on the front lines with those customers every day.

“I’m not just leading large groups of people,” she explains, “But I’m engaged in moving the business forward through people. I want my team to know I appreciate hard work. I appreciate passion for our brands and this company. And if you come to work with that, I’m always willing to go the extra mile for you.”

Jones recently got the chance to dig deeper into her management skills through Coca-Cola’s Women in Leadership (WiL) program. The initiative gives select associates a chance to work on their professional development and career planning during intensive, one-week training sessions held every year in Atlanta.

Leadership Skills and Then Some

Even before she came to Atlanta for WiL, Jones’ leadership skills were hard to miss. This is a person who learns to drive an 18-wheeler semi truck to better understand her team.

Melanie Jones

In 2007 when she first joined Coke as a distribution manager in Indianapolis, Jones had 15 years’ experience in operations for big companies like Target and McLane, a major distributor for grocery and convenience stores. But her job with Coca-Cola added a new responsibility – direct oversight of drivers. For someone whose personal and work style is rooted in being authentic, the next step was obvious. Jones would get her CDL (Commercial Driver’s License).

Imagine learning how to parallel park and three-point turn with a 32 foot trailer behind you.

“I know it sounds like a lot, but if I’m going to lead a group of people I want a good understanding of what exactly they do so I began the process,” she says. “The funny thing is I’m terribly uncoordinated. I couldn’t drive a stick so the supervisors on my team had to teach me to drive a stick. I practiced on the grounds of the Indy 500 race track, which was across the street from out facility in Indianapolis."

Jones got far enough into her training to where she started driving and making actual bulk deliveries, accompanied by a licensed driver.

“I did several and then, thank God, I was promoted before I actually had to take the test and get my license!” she jokes, “Because that could’ve been disastrous, for the company and for me.”

That kind of commitment is one of the reasons Jones was selected to participate in WiL.

Global Perspective on Women at Coca-Cola

She called the seminar an awe-inspiring opportunity to “hear the voices of women behind the momentum of our organization.” She was struck, in particular, by how global her group was. It included an account manager for a Canadian FSOP customer, a finance manager for Egypt and a woman who does commercialization for Greece, among others.

Then there was China's Market Execution Director, from the Jilin Operation Unit of the Bottling Investments Group (BIG), Pauline Liu. She kept up effortlessly, despite juggling Mandarin and English.

“I asked her, so are you hearing what we’re saying and translating it into Mandarin and then translating it back to English to write? And she said, ‘No, I’m doing everything in English.’ She was totally matter of fact about it. I thought, wow. I speak French. I took French from fourth grade until I was a senior in college, but the best I think I could do, is probably not offend somebody. I can’t imagine doing this week – thinking, writing, speaking in French. It really made me realize just how smart, strong and talented women that work for this company are.”

There were approximately 40 women at the session. The group worked on a range of business and management challenges, while also taking time to discuss and weigh the effectiveness of different leadership styles. Targeted mentoring also gave Jones the opportunity to refine her vision of herself as a leader and coach, and she came away with specific exercises she’s since shared with members of her team back in Montgomery.

The Challenge of Work-Life Integration

As powerful as these practical exercises were, Jones said the women at the session also touched on more nuanced, but equally important topics, including work-life balance, or “work-life integration” as she puts it. Jones is married and has three young children.

Melanie's children

Jones' three children at a Coca-Cola event.

“I think a lot of times for women and work-life balance, we think that means I have to spend as much time on my job as I spend with my family. And I think that’s not necessarily true. To me, it feels like a better concept if we say work-life integration. Which means if I need to be present with my children to do homework at night, I have the freedom to do that, but that also might mean I’m doing a report after they’re in bed, and that’s okay too. Being part of the Women in Leadership seminar validated this as a challenge a lot of women have.”

Jones says she’s grateful for the opportunity to have attended WiL and she continues to use what she learned to help coach her own team. She says it’s the least she can do.

“I’m just paying it forward,” she emphasizes. “Really, the most fulfilling thing I do is watch our people grow and succeed, for Coca-Cola and for themselves. That’s what it’s all about.”