Pre-pandemic, our houses were not organized to have space for everybody to work from home. In my house, myself, my husband and our two children — a senior in high school and a seventh grader — had to find space so we didn’t disturb each other. I thought scheduling a meeting room at the office was a challenge — negotiating a home office environment was a much bigger challenge!
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place. As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Werneck, the Global Chief People Officer for The Kraft Heinz Company.
Melissa Werneck is the Global Chief People Officer for The Kraft Heinz Company. She is responsible for overseeing the global human resources function across more than 50 countries, ensuring that almost 40,000 employees are developed, committed and engaged to deliver high business performance and positive impact.
Melissa joined The Kraft Heinz Company in 2013 to implement a new performance-driven culture and the integrated management system. Prior to joining, Melissa held several commercial, supply chain and HR related roles last serving as Performance Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer at America Latina Logistica (ALL), the largest railroad-based logistics provider in Brazil. Melissa received a degree in chemical engineering from Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil and an MBA from Federal University of Rio De Janeiro.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Throughout my career, I’ve been interested in transformation. It’s the reason I chose to be a chemical engineer — I wanted to see a raw material becoming a product that people love. During my studies, I had the opportunity to work as an intern on R&D, and then moved into a full-time position in a factory, working on process improvement. After a while, I wanted to return to university, so I entered an MBA program focusing on supply chain. This led to an incredibly exciting position at ALL, a logistics provider in South America. During my fourteen years at ALL, I worked in several different areas, including marketing, logistics and HR. I realized that, for someone like me who was so interested in transformation, human resources was the best place to be. Every organization is only as good as its employees, and if you want to really transform something, it has to start with HR. Leading the people function for Kraft Heinz has been an incredible opportunity. I apply my analytical and data skills to help transform a business that I am passionate about. Ultimately, what excites me the most is transforming someone’s life — which is why human resources is such a great place to be!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
At Kraft Heinz, our purpose is to make life delicious. This really hits home when I visit or interact with our agriculture team in California, the epicenter of tomato production and, therefore, where the iconic Heinz Ketchup starts. When I first visited early on in my time at Kraft Heinz, I dove into the science of tomatoes and saw the fields where ketchup and all our tomato sauces are born. It was incredible to see the process they use to get the perfect tomato seed for the most loved ketchup in the world. This day was my ah-ha moment, because it was such a tangible demonstration of the quality and love our company puts into its products.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had many mentors who have given me a lot of feedback. They have been very honest and gave precise input. That’s how you grow — you should never avoid giving and receiving tough feedback!
There are two people in particular who I’d like to highlight:
1.) My second manager was always seeking world class performance, was never satisfied, and at the same time was extremely perceptive. He once told me, “Everybody is telling you that you are doing a good job, but I think you are capable of doing it much better. You can choose to listen to them or to challenge yourself more.” He told me to take the lead and to fight complacency, to put myself out of the comfort zone. I was 25 at the time, and his words made a huge impact. I need to confess that, in the beginning, I was mad at him, but I soon realized that he wanted to transform me into a world class professional. It was a tough period, but I thank him every day. He’s still a close friend and a personal mentor.
2.) My mother has had a huge inspirational impact on my life. She was the first one in her family to go to college, and she had to fight hard for it. No one understood why she was choosing the most difficult path, expectations were low. But her story is so amazing because of this very modest beginning. She made it on her own and opened the doors to everyone in our family. Now she has a PHD and achieved the highest position for a professor in one of Brazil’s leading universities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
Top of mind for me is how to manage the reality of everyone being at home!
The first challenge was to find space. Pre-pandemic, our houses were not organized to have space for everybody to work from home. In my house, myself, my husband and our two children — a senior in high school and a seventh grader — had to find space so we didn’t disturb each other. I thought scheduling a meeting room at the office was a challenge — negotiating a home office environment was a much bigger challenge!
The second challenge was intense multitasking. In addition to my work, I also had to make sure my children were studying and were fed. Not to mention the technology challenges — if the kids’ internet connection drops or slows down for any reason, we have to stop everything to make sure they are back fast. There are so many distractions — one day our dinner ended up burnt in the stove. It has not been easy, but I think the silver lining is that I became closer to my team and closer to Kraft Heinz employees overall. It’s because we all recognize we have the same issues. Just because I’m an executive doesn’t mean I don’t have the same issues as a junior person in the company. People realize that we are all in this together, regardless of where we are. I think that’s good and I hope we don’t forget that.
Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
A challenge that immediately comes to mind — regardless of gender, age, etc. — is video and screen fatigue. We experiment with backgrounds and other options, but it’s hard when you’re interacting on video with no break — day after day, week after week, month after month. This fatigue is a very big challenge.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We focus on making conversations more natural. For example, we often start our video conversations on other topics rather than the immediate one. We’ve also purposefully incorporated transition time into our meetings, so that instead of a one-hour meeting, it’s 50 minutes and instead of 30 minutes, it’s 25. I also encourage people to walk around and take a meeting from a different place, even outside if weather permits.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
I try to see the positive of a very negative situation. I have a senior in high school who will soon be off to college. Of course, he misses his school and friends, but we’ve also been able to spend a year together at home, doing things as a family we never used to do together. For example, we bought a lot of board games and we would play one every day after dinner during the Holidays. We had never spent the Holidays at home before. It’s important to change the environment even if it’s in the same house. Ultimately, I try to continue to be optimistic that we will be out of this soon even though we know the challenges ahead of us.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It’s important to call every day. Pre-pandemic, I used to exchange text messages with family members but didn’t call as often. Now, even though my immediate family is stuck together at home, other members of my extended family live by themselves. It’s so important to talk everyday with people who are more isolated. It’s the same with team members who live by themselves. Yes, there are many who are trying to multitask with family living at home but being alone is harder. Overall, it’s really important to pay extra attention, and to spend time beyond just a typical conversation.
Thank you for these wonderful insights!