AACSB Blog

Interview with Industry: How Coca-Cola and General Motors Align Education and Experience


Posted July 01, 2014 by Michael Arena and Ceree Eberly - Chief Talent Officer, Senior Vice President, Chief People Officer - General Motors and Coca-Cola

Facilitated by: Sarah Ham, Senior Manager, Marketing Communications

How has your passion for education—and your career experiences—influenced your decision to be part of AACSB's Business Practices Council?

Eberly: My role as Chief People Officer of Coca-Cola gives me an incredible opportunity to see the important role of education in developing great future employees and leaders across 207 countries. We also see the challenges—across many emerging and developing markets—to find talent with the right education and experience to be successful, with global unemployment a recurring theme and trend we see across many countries that impacts economies, people and their families. Being on the Business Practices Council helps me with my passion of connecting education with business, so we can work together to provide experiences and jobs for those getting these great educations. It's exciting and full of opportunities. At the end of the day, if we can help people become employed to sustain their families, to build communities and sustain economies around the world, everyone wins by working together.

Arena: I've always been an advocate of academe—I just love teaching, conducting research and seeing how it's applied to the everyday. I consider myself a 'pracademic'—practically applying what academics offer. When I was invited to join the Business Practices Council, it was the perfect opportunity to indulge the pracademic in me and really have an impact on closing the gap between business and academe.

What do you hope or envision that the Business Practices Council can achieve that will support business school innovation and engagement?

Eberly: My hopes are that this Council can provide thought leadership and practical ideas for business school innovation and engagement, linked with what is happening in the world today—and for the future. Business school innovation can be a key selling point of differentiation for those students, as they are learning and looking at their future careers. Global businesses must survive by continually creating value and innovating for their consumers, their customers, and stakeholders. How can education and business be more closely linked to continue to be relevant in both the education and business worlds, looking at it through the eyes of consumers and customers, as well as key stakeholders? It is a powerful opportunity.

Arena: Academia and business institutions have done a much better job of listening to each other, but unless you are truly engaged, you can't understand or clearly articulate the vision. I recently had the chance to go on a Peer Review Team visit at a school that was going through their Continuous Improvement Review cycle, and that experience gave me a deeper understanding of what the professors are going through, and how that is translated to the students in the classroom. It also provided some insight into the broader issue, which is the existence of an enormous expectation gap between business school graduates and businesses. This wasn't necessarily on the 'content' side of things, but rather on the emotional level – what students would personally experience once they entered the workforce, and how they would handle those challenges. No one ever truly understands how an organization works (especially large businesses) without being a part of it; which is why the need for co-ops, internships, and other avenues for students to have that personal experience are so critical. Students need to learn how to navigate through an organization, how they can find their own place within that organization, and gain the emotional fortitude required to succeed. Members of the Business Practices Council bring great value to the conversation and can help academe make those connections before a student walks into their first day on the job.

Are there any challenges facing global business today that could be better approached through a partnership with academe?

Eberly: There are so many, it's difficult to know where to start. If we could solve youth unemployment, or the employability challenge in many global markets, it would be a huge win. Many businesses are having to look at their core business models and rethink what business they are in—think about large retailers as one who are being challenged by e-commerce. Technology is fundamentality changing how businesses operate—from the employees they hire and how they work, to consumers and customers being connected in a different way to a company's products, brands, and services. Partnership with academe could really provide a different and innovative perspective to looking at problems and challenges through a completely different lens. I could give you 20 projects today to get started on—there is so much to do!

Arena: The best way to describe it would be that we are applying 19th century management philosophies to 21st century problems. The world has changed so drastically, and the complexity we are all facing is enormous—the old philosophies just don't work anymore. Our new environment calls on us to be adaptive, responsive, and fluid – especially in larger organizations. And perhaps the most significant challenge is that of identifying opportunities for global growth, while continuing to successfully operate in the 'now'. A daunting task, this is often met with a degree of paralysis—how do we focus on the issues of today, while strategically planning for tomorrow?

What are the three most important things institutions must do now in order to remain relevant to industry—both now, and well into the future?

Eberly: My comments are from a business lens so they are focused specifically on global business perspectives.

• Make sure the graduates coming out have relevant skills, degrees, and experiences that business and industry needs. If they are not employable, we have all lost the purpose of why we educated them.

• Stay close to the pulse of what is happening (today and in the future) in global business—know what the hot skills are, what jobs companies are looking for, and where students should be focusing their learning and exposure.

• The soft skills really matter. We must teach students how to think (lateral thinking, systems thinking, and connecting the dots) as well as to 'do'. In today's world (and tomorrow's) employees have to be nimble—they have to have good thinking and ideas, but also be able to execute the ideas and get things done. Students must learn to work in virtual and global teams, and work with people different from themselves—many times across cultures, languages and countries. Collaboration and innovative thinking are essential. Values and integrity matter—doing what is right, not what is easy, defines excellent leaders of the future.

Arena: The first thing that comes to mind is building and maintaining partnerships and collaboratives that are a constant state of growth and development. Our partners in academe should not wait until they have a finished 'theory' before reaching out to business—engage business professionals early in the process to ensure the research is applicable to the challenges they face. Academe has done a tremendous job of establishing incubators that tackle these real-world problems, and the value they create is immeasurable. I've spent a good deal of time at the MIT Media Lab, which is known for going beyond the boundaries of specific disciplines to encourage an unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly unrelated research areas. There is no question that businesses can benefit greatly from the multi-disciplinary approach of business schools—and therein lies the key to remaining relevant. There is also an opportunity to become less myopic when it comes to research journals—to conduct the kind of research that's valuable not only in the context of academe, but conduct (and publish) the research that was designed to solve for a business problem.

What is the one piece of advice you would give graduate students as they pursue business education?

Eberly: Get some practical experience (work, internships) that gives you good learning and insights about global business. Try new things. Make some mistakes. Figure out your passion. Understand what businesses are challenged by, and figure out how you can help. Talk to lots of people about the world of business and get insights about what the business landscape is about—it can help you figure out how to direct your energy and passion into not only your career, but your future calling. And the more we can employ people who have passion and purpose to what they want to do, it makes for a great and engaged workforce. Sometimes the only way you can learn what you don't want to do is by having the experience. And that life is short and you have only one life—live it to the fullest and don't live with regret. Live your dreams! (That was more than one piece of advice—Sorry!)

Arena: Don't accept conventional advice from more 'senior' people. You will meet a lot of obstacles, and a lot of people will try and tell you your ideas won't work. But feedback is just that. Feedback. Listen to it, filter out the noise, and move forward.


Michael ArenaMichael Arena is the Chief Talent and Development Officer for General Motors Corporation. He is responsible for enterprise talent management, strategic workforce analytics, talent acquisition, executive development and global learning. Since joining General Motors, he has employed an evidence-based approach to driving performance, leveraging advanced analytics and network analysis to predict talent needs across the pipeline. Arena also launched the General Motors InnovationXchange Lab, which provides a global platform to connect individuals and ideas across the business to amplify impact. These interactions are designed to produce new solutions and innovations that enable adaptive responses to external pressures and demands. Prior to joining GM, he spent two years as a visiting scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, where he studied the intersection of human behavior, innovation and social connectivity. He was also the Director of the MS in Organization Development program at Queens University in Charlotte. Arena also served as the Senior Vice President of Leadership Development at Bank of America, where he was responsible for leadership development programs & processes across the Global Consumer & Small Business Banking Group. He also co-designed and launched the Center for Future Banking in partnership with MIT. He is currently the board chair of the Plexus Institute and as a business practice council member of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

Ceree Eberly was appointed to the role of Chief People Officer and Senior Vice President for The Coca-Cola Company in 2009. She joined the Company in 1990 and has since served in a variety of leadership roles. In 1998, Ceree became the Human Resources Director, Central America & Caribbean Division in San José, Costa Rica, where she oversaw both Company and bottling operations' human resources strategies. In 2003, she was appointed Vice President, Corporate Business Unit, where she led the support of the worldwide McDonald's business in technical operations, quality assurance, social responsibility, communications, global juice portfolio, IT and human resources. Ceree filled this role until 2007, when she became the Group Human Resources Director for Europe. As Chief People Officer, Ceree leads an organization responsible for developing and transforming approximately 150,000 Coca-Cola employees across more than 200 countries into a competitive advantage, and transforming the quality of the Company's workplace into a global differentiator. The organization's primary goal is to attract, engage and retain the best people by making Coca-Cola "a great place to work." Ceree currently serves on the Board of Trustees for Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and is the organization's Chair. She is a member of HR50, a group of the most senior Human Resources leaders from around the world, a member of Women Corporate Directors, a global organization advancing best practices in global corporate governance, a member of the Corporate Leadership Council, and serves on the AACSB International Business Practices Council, which is a global, nonprofit organization devoted to the advancement of management education. Ceree is active participant of the Global Shapers, an organization of highly motivated, young individuals who have a great potential for future leadership roles in society, while also being mentor to employees throughout the Coca-Cola system. Ceree previously served as an Advisor to the Board of Directors for the Ronald McDonald House Charities, a member of the Board of Directors for Habitat for Humanity, an Advisor to Skyland Trail, and is a past mentor in the Georgia Executive Women's Leadership program. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Tennessee, graduating with high honors.


This article was originally featured in the July 2014 issue of eNEWSLINE.

Share: