Profile: Jan Woods, chief personnel officer, PepsiCo UK & Ireland

In a recent Hays HR/Personnel Today survey, almost half the respondents admitted to having simply fallen into a career in HR. But PepsiCo’s Jan Woods is an HR professional who took a rather more determined route.

Jan Woods has never regretted her decision, taken while still at school, to work in HR. A sixth-form stint at Marks & Spencer gave the chief personnel officer for PepsiCo UK & Ireland a taste for what she calls “a little bit of tears and tissues and some employee engagement stuff”.

Following a theology degree (Woods’ other passion is world religions, inspired by a peripatetic childhood), she started her career in the HR department of computing giant IBM. Woods spent three years as a graduate trainee at IBM, managing expats coming into and leaving the UK.

“It was a time when IBM had a huge focus on building talent across multiple markets, investing heavily in their early leaders – people in their late 20s and early 30s,” she says. It was an ideal first job for someone with a keen interest in other cultures.

Career highs

Woods left IBM for PepsiCo in 1993, and has since then spent almost a decade abroad, in South Africa, Hungary and Thailand. She sees her move to South Africa in 1995 as a pivotal moment in her career. Nelson Mandela had recently been elected South Africa’s first black president, and PepsiCo was investing in the country’s black empowerment strategy.

“It was largely about sourcing typically underprivileged talent from the townships, then accelerating development through building functional or leadership skills, and building our next generation of leaders,” remembers Woods.

“It was my first international assignment away from the UK, and my first big leadership role, having to shape not only the talent strategy but also the culture that we were trying to create for the longer term.”

Working abroad also provided Woods with the proudest moment of her career – PepsiCo’s response to the destruction caused by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. By this stage, Woods was based in Bangkok as HR vice-president for the Asia Pacific region. She is particularly pleased with how the company dealt not only with affected employees, but also local communities. She believes the work it did then has had a profound effect on how PepsiCo operates today.

“Our corporate social responsibility underwent a significant change. The reasons behind that were tragic, but it was a cornerstone for us doing things differently,” she says. 

The company sponsored an orphanage, and its charitable arm, the PepsiCo Foundation, is now co-funding the building of another. Woods has strong emotional ties to the country where she gave birth to two of her three daughters, and returns to Thailand each Christmas to visit the orphanage.

Woods has been in her current role, running the UK’s arm’s 85-strong HR team, since December 2007. The previous incumbent was none other than Jackie Orme, now chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

“Strategically, our purpose is to drive the talent, culture and learning strategy for 5,500 staff in the UK,” Woods says. Her remit also covers reward, and she is responsible for the business partner team.

Woods says PepsiCo’s main challenge today is “what everyone is wrestling with – how to innovate and grow faster than our competition.” In terms of people challenges, it’s the perennial “having the right people in the right place at the right time, doing the right job.”

Demographic changes

Woods is keeping a close eye on demographic changes affecting the company. She’s well aware of the delicate balance needed to keep baby boomers while attracting what she calls the next generation of leaders, whether that be women or Generation Y. Despite the hype surrounding their impact on the workforce, she’s been impressed with the latter.

“The Generation Y staff we’ve hired are performing exceptionally well. What we’ve experienced, particularly with our marketers, has been outstanding creativity. They’ve brought something innovative and creative. For me it’s worth spending the time figuring out how we attract and engage them.”

Like everyone else, however, Generation Y has seen its dreams dented by the recession. Woods describes two visits to business schools, six months apart.

“On the first visit, students wanted to know what we were going to do for them, and how I was going to pay off their 60-grand fees”. Next time, they just wanted to know if PepsiCo was hiring. “All the questions at the top of the Maslow hierarchy had gone – they were asking about stability, continuity and financial concerns,” she says.

HR’s impact

Woods heads up a proactive HR team. Over the past three years, it has made a significant impact in two key areas: talent management and cultural evolution.

A significant number of PepsiCo’s baby-boomer staff are due to retire within the next decade. The team’s reaction has been to go out to business schools to attract MBA talent, which it then draws into the company through internships and formal hiring programmes. Woods is pleased with the results, both in terms of creativity and diversity. “It’s been a fantastic addition to our female management leadership groups as well as our ethnic representation.”

Woods is an optimist, judging by her belief that the recession has provided “a fantastic opportunity to step back and figure out what’s going to count over the next two or three years”.

In terms of cultural evolution, she says this has led PepsiCo to focus on its communication strategy, engaging employees on business plans and making sure staff are left in no doubt about what the company’s about – and what it isn’t about.

From an HR point of view, Woods says that this initiative “has allowed us to focus on whether we’ve got the right people in the right jobs, whether we’re willing to unlock roles, who we can accelerate through, and whether we are identifying our brightest and our best.”

She has used the recession as a lever for cultural change, but says this has prompted her to pay particular attention to organisational design, and to make sure she knows her numbers. She calls this “the hard wiring as well as the soft wiring of employee engagement.”

Ambitions for HR

Woods is passionate about the changing face of the HR function. “At PepsiCo we’re at an interesting tipping point when it comes to completing our transition from ‘we’re here to serve the organisation’ to ‘we can be a trusted strategic adviser with a natural seat at the board table’.”

The team is liaising with the Work Foundation to figure how it can make the transition, and looking at how it can strategically shape the next 10 years, rather than “shuffling forward”, as Woods puts it.

Unlike many HR professionals, Woods doesn’t have a problem with how the function is viewed from outside. “I’m comfortable with the tea and sympathy image, as long as it sits alongside a respected strategic business partner.”

She adds: “I guess my framing of ‘tea and sympathy’ is ‘winning hearts and minds’. If we can do that for the entire organisation then I think tea and sympathy will continue to have a place.”

Strategic function

Woods’ main concern over the perceived last of strategic value of the HR function is “its propensity to come to the game late only to consider, after the fact, what the strategic HR considerations need to be”.

She believes that the function’s biggest contribution is to be close to the business, and to recognise the business levers simultaneously with the more obviously commercial functions. HR’s short- and medium-term challenges, she emphasises, are about winning in the recession and being ready for the upturn.

She believes a good HR director needs “the ability to look round corners, always thinking about what’s coming next”, and says that HR directors today cannot afford to be reactive or complacent. “Strategy and inclusion are, for me, the two leadership skills that will really count, separating and differentiating the very best HR directors.”

Woods believes that organisations with a winning mindset will weather the recession, and that it is up to HR to develop this mindset, and ensure it is embedded throughout the organisation.

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