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How Coke bottled up Heyer’s flair

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

One executive after another has crashed at Coca-Cola because his personality ran against the company’s ingrained culture.

One example: Steve Heyer landed at Coke in 2001 as a possible successor to the CEO. His hard-driving, harsh style grabbed attention at a company where executives dodge the spotlight.

What’s more, he flaunted his position. Because Coke depends on its bottlers, its executives have a saying: “If your bottler drives a Cadillac, you drive a Buick. If your bottler drives a Buick, you drive a Ford. If your bottler drives a Ford, you walk.” Heyer drove a Mercedes.

He also bought a house on the same street as Coke’s patriarch, Robert Woodruff, who took the soft drink to U.S. soldiers during World War II and made it the biggest brand on earth.

Heyer did win plenty of fans at Coke for stabilizing operations and controlling costs, but his very strengths landed him in trouble. After he made such an amazing speech last year that Coke was swamped with requests for copies, Heyer was grounded and warned not to give interviews or make any more speeches. Critics complained that he “didn’t really have Coke in his veins.”

Heyer left Coca-Cola in June.

Lesson: Even if you’re doing a fine job, your style—in fact, even your personality—can set you at odds with key people. Watch for these signs:
  • You’re producing well, but influential people consistently find fault.
  • You feel the corporate value system runs way behind the times, or you wish the organization would return to its old ideals.
  • Your clothes seem out of sync.
  • You sense that you’re far too loud or too quiet.
  • You receive positive reviews but never feel welcome.
What you can do: Talk with a trusted colleague or two about the culture. After some thought, decide whether you will adapt to it, ignore it, mount an effort to change it or move on.

— Adapted from “The Real Story,” Betsy Morris, Fortune

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