Don’t try to be perfect!! In the past, I’ve tried to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect professional — but of course, it’s impossible to do it all.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Werneck the Global Chief People Officer for The Kraft Heinz Company. She is responsible for overseeing the global human resources function. Melissa joined Heinz in 2013 to implement the new performance methodology and the integrated management system. Prior to joining Heinz, Melissa served as Performance Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer at America Latina Logistica (ALL). 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! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Throughout my career, I’ve been interested in transformation. It’s the reason I chose to be a chemical engineer because I wanted to see 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 the 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 to function for Kraft Heinz has been an incredible opportunity. I get to 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 began leading your company?
At Kraft Heinz, our passion is to be the best food company, growing a better world. This really hit home a few years ago when I visited our agriculture team in California, the epicenter of tomato production and therefore where the iconic Heinz Ketchup starts. That day 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 used 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 this company puts into our products.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My first day at Kraft Heinz was also my first day using English at work! As you can imagine, this made an intense day even crazier. Of course, I had studied English and had practiced a lot, but it’s totally different working in English every day. My brain is hard-wired in Portuguese, so there are still lots of expressions I use that are not quite correct in English. I wouldn’t have succeeded if I wasn’t humble and willing to make mistakes. It also helps to laugh!
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
Good question! Being part of the Kraft Heinz leadership team means being involved in everything going on in the company. It’s an exciting position because of the sheer variety of issues we handle. I also love the collaboration that we have as a leadership team and the possibility of being one of the advisors to CEO Miguel Patricio.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I think people expect that because of our executive positions, we have all the answers. But of course, that’s impossible. I will never be the expert on all the different issues that need to be addressed, and I certainly don’t have the answers. What is crucial for me — and for other executives — is to ask the right questions.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
Being a chief people officer for a Fortune 500 company is about leading a function that is the heartbeat of the company. We are involved in every major issue in the company because none of it can be done without the right people. It’s an incredibly fulfilling position to be in!
What are the downsides of being an executive?
Sometimes the old adage of life being lonely at the top is very true. There are issues that you cannot talk to your team about. If you have anxieties, you can’t show this to the team. Several years ago, I was on an executive leadership program and the professor said something remarkable that has stuck with me: when you become an executive, you lose some rights. You lose the right to have ups and downs. You lose the right to be upset and to show the world that you’re upset. What the professor said resonated with me. It’s true that executives need to be a rock, even though we’re normal people. You can have problems at work, problems at home, but you need to show stability. People come to us to vent, but often we have no one to vent to. It really helps when you have a good partnership with peers on the leadership team. This leadership team is essential for brainstorming and thinking creatively.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
To me, the biggest myth is the idea that becoming a CEO or executive means you know more than everyone else. Moving into this type of position means you have to expect and rely on other people knowing more about specific issues. They are the experts and as an executive, you no longer can be an expert. You have to focus on asking the right questions and juggling lots of competing priorities. In some careers, you are truly the expert, and you need to drill deeply into that subject. As an executive, it’s different. You need to know how things interact and how decisions impact each other.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Sometimes women ask themselves the question — am I capable? — more than men do. Men can often be more comfortable with the gap between current reality and their potential, whereas women are sometimes less comfortable with this gap. In my experience, sometimes they need to be convinced that based on their track record, they are ready. Secondly, despite all the advances in gender equity that we see in the world, there is often an expectation that women will take care of family and children. This is especially the case in more traditional countries. If a father and mother have two meetings that occur at the same time, which one is more important? Often the expectation is that it is the mother who should stay at home. Women have a very complicated mix of professional and family responsibilities.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Honestly, there hasn’t been a huge difference. Being able to grow with the job makes it easier. I worked in human resources for several years and so I knew what the chief human resources officer position would be like. However, I still struggle with the “listener” side of my job for two reasons — one: I like to talk; second: sometimes I wonder who I can talk to about my own issues. I can’t affect people when I want to vent.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
It requires a lot of maturities. Like the executive leadership professor said, you lose some rights as an executive. Some people want the title and benefits of being an executive, but not the responsibility that comes with it. It’s crucial to have absolute clarity on delivering the objectives of the company. It’s also important to bring people together, to show them you care, and to grow them in their careers.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Don’t try to be perfect!! In the past, I’ve tried to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect professional — but of course, it’s impossible to do it all. I suffered a lot because I wanted to be everywhere and to do everything, but eventually, I realized that it’s ok to break plates — just choose small ones! In other words, I decide what events in my life are nonnegotiable, like my husband and children’s birthdays, and I just make sure that my schedule works around it. It was really important for me to decide what is non-negotiable, because in a very large company like ours if I don’t stand for this as head of the global people function, who will? For young female leaders, it’s really hard to build that balance. I’m still working on it!
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 mentor to me. 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 Ph.D. and achieved the highest position for a professor in one of Brazil’s leading universities.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
End hunger. For a food company like Kraft Heinz, I’m so proud that this is our mission. It’s at the very heart of who we are and what we represent. There is so much food waste and so many children who are starving, and ending hunger is the key to solving many other problems. For example, in many poor areas of my home country of Brazil, school meals are sometimes the only ones available, so providing food to schools is also a way to improve education.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I admire Michelle Obama so much, for her beliefs and her story, but also because of the way she has managed her career and family life. She’s a very good example of a female leader.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.