A Coke exec's lessons from an unlikely visitor

April 16, 2014: 8:00 AM ET

One of Coca-Cola's top marketing executives found unexpected lessons about work and life from her Zimbabwean mentee.

Coca-Cola SVP Wendy Clark and her Fortune-U.S. State Department mentee from Zimbabwe,  Tidings Chimphondah

Coca-Cola SVP Wendy Clark and her Fortune-U.S. State Department mentee from Zimbabwe, Tidings Chimphondah

FORTUNE - Wendy Clark, SVP of Coca-Cola's Global Sparkling Brand Center, is a participant in this year's Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women's Mentoring program, which brings rising-star women from developing countries to the U.S. each year to shadow participants of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. Since the program launched in 2006, more than 250 women from 55 developing countries have participated as mentees -- and in many cases, enlightened their U.S.-based mentors as much as the mentors enlightened them. Such was the case when Clark hosted Tidings Chimphondah from Zimbabwe at Coke headquarters in Atlanta. Here's Clark's story about the lessons she learned.

I've participated in the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women's Mentoring program. Each year, more than 20 rising-star women leaders from around the world are paired with executive women from prestigious U.S. companies like Coca-Cola (KO), IBM (IBM), Walmart (WMT) and Fidelity in a mentoring program and learning opportunity.

The mentee who was assigned to me is Tidings Chimphondah, the managing director of an agricultural company called Progroup Holdings Limited in Zimbabwe. She's a chartered accountant, an MBA student, a married mother of two small children and the second-in-command at her firm, where she leads all daily operations and decision-making. In a word, Tidings is impressive.

"So I'm supposed to mentor Tidings, not the other way around?" I asked the program organizers after I saw her credentials and her many accomplishments on paper. As with most new experiences, the lessons were indeed two-way. Seeing my company, my country and my life anew through Tidings' eyes has been a gift. Here are just a few of the lessons that I'll carry forward.

1. Every so often, remember to slow down.
Without question, the biggest impact that Tidings felt from her time at Coke related to the pace of business and life here in the U.S. Whether it was our days packed with back-to-back meetings, our mad dashes through airports to catch planes or just driving fast on highways, the difference in pace between life in the U.S. and life in Zimbabwe was palpable to Tidings. I found her slowing me down. And over the two weeks, I sort of liked not walking quite so fast. One of the days that Tidings was with me, I had a trip cancel, and I didn't rebook the day with meetings. It felt indulgent to give myself time to return emails and calls and catch up on reading that usually took place after hours. On the other hand, it felt thoughtful and deliberate, calming and smart.

2. A terrible day is not that terrible after all.
A couple of days that Tidings was with me included tough and difficult moments. Things didn't go to plan. Meetings went askew. As I navigated these challenges with Tidings by my side, her response gave me new perspective. Tidings spoke of the economic environment in Zimbabwe, of the 80%+ unemployment rate, of supply-chain gaps and glitches, of business financing rates of 25%-60%, of the pressure she felt to meet the expectations of her team, her family, herself. I realized that my very worst day is better than 99% of the rest of the world's worst days. Too often we forget how fortunate and advantaged we are.

3. In business, be brave and be human.
Tidings witnessed very direct and decisive communications in a few no-nonsense meetings where clarity, as well as making the right decision, were paramount. "That was a hard meeting," she said to me. "You were clear, but you weren't cold. Too often back at home we don't bring people along." This reminded me that we must all work on this more. We must be unabashedly ambitious and brave for our brands and our companies, and this requires rigorous debate and navigating various points of view. But at the same time, we must remember that without the team's belief, our brave decisions will go nowhere.

There are at least 10 more lessons -- 10 more Good Tidings -- that I'll take away from the last two weeks. Perhaps my greatest takeaways are that no matter what, we can always keep learning and we need to jump at opportunities to pay our good fortunes forward.

Wendy Clark is Senior Vice President, Global Sparkling Brand Center at The Coca-Cola Company and, most notably, proud mentor and friend of Tidings Chimphondah.

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