The Big Interview with Dannii Portsmouth

Dannii Portsmouth is VP HR, West Division Beverages US (PBNA) at PepsiCo, for our latest Big Interview she spoke with Jennifer Gaster to share some of the qualities she looks for when hiring and what advice she would give her younger self.

What are the leadership muscles that you have built over the last couple of years that you want to carry forward with you as your career progresses?

I think I could chat all day about the different things from the pandemic but I think the key things are; really broad thinking, we were thrown all sorts of things, we went from thinking we were going to be shut down for a week or two to still living with covid today.

We needed to make sure we understood the impact of this on people and the business. 

Right at the beginning when we started temperature checking, what will that look like, and how will we record that data? 

There was no decision that you couldn’t think through all the unintended consequences of. 

I remember thinking we had a bit of time to think it through but then changes were coming almost daily. 

Particularly in the UK, we were just having to roll with the punches. 

So it is that deep thinking muscle along with the agility to know that you are never going to be perfect and done is better than perfect. 

Particularly when you are in the middle of chaos. 

Blending that deep thinking with agility, let’s adjust and move forward. 

Communication came to the forefront during the pandemic as well, when you can’t offer certainty, you can offer clarity – that has been something also that has been strong, I am intentional about being clear even if I can’t offer certainty.

Then the other things were connecting with people and understanding what they are going through. 

Especially in British culture, we are good at saying ‘I’m fine’ a lot. 

But just checking in and making sure as well as being open about how you are as there is no point in expecting people to be open with you unless you are willing to do that same.

I felt that the pandemic bought out a level of authenticity across the PepsiCo business and the HR team that we hadn’t seen before. 

I think that certainly was part of my leadership style ahead of time but it came into its own from an organisational culture but also a social culture just saying I am having a hard time and admitting you can’t do it all. 

I think it was the first time I heard people say they were struggling and in that there was a real sense of camaraderie, a sense of community and how can I help. 

Those are the things that stick out to me about that time. 

You have mentioned before about ‘I see you’, could you bring that to life for us?

I have been very fortunate in my life and career to be surrounded by people who are very thoughtful and have been invested in me. 

Invested in helping me be the best I can be and I think it is a human duty to see the person in front of you and see what they need and fill up their cup, rather than applying a one size fits all approach or assuming you know. 

Like everyone else, I don’t get it right every time but I get out of bed intending to focus on the person in front of me and listen, listen to understand not listen to speak.

I was raised that way but again I have been fortunate enough to be around other professionals and leaders who have helped create a climate where you see that people strive in that and you see how refreshing and relieving it is for people when they can just be who they are.

If you want somebody to show you who they truly are you have to be willing to be who you are, warts and all. 

In what way is the day-to-day of your job different to what you expected it to be?

When I started my career in HR I fell into it, I didn’t know what it was.

I just had this first job that I loved. 

It does sound very grand but the reality is it is very diverse, you don’t know what each day is going to bring, it is not a simple a to b, there is a very windy path. 

The skills that I have learnt over time that I didn’t expect to be in HR are really deep analysis skills, so taking the time to find the root cause, starting with the end in mind. 

Many of the things I do involve stepping back and seeing what is going on and seeing what we need to understand as well as creativity.

I guess I hadn’t expected there would be so much creative license and I enjoy that. 

If I think about the pandemic and when we were sitting in that crisis room in the UK Pepsi office and said what we want our people to feel is safe, and cared about.

How do we make sure we get there and everything we do lines up to that? 

I think that is a different level of critical thinking that doesn’t necessarily line up with the job title. 

You also need to be ingrained in the business, you need to understand how it operates, the PNL, what the different roles are and how they interconnect. 

I spend a lot of time shadowing people and talking to them about their day-to-day to understand the bigger picture. There is a lot of talking in my role! 

To fully understand people and to bring that to life for other leaders and the business so that when we are making decisions, we are thoughtful of that human-centric approach. And getting rid of the small irritants that happen to us all, talking to somebody recently and imagining having to wiggle your wire every day to get your laptop to work! It would drive you crazy right? 

We have many associates in our front-line roles, they have the same bugbears and understand that when things seem small they are big and they are impacting you every day that they are big. 

That comes back to the person and understanding them. 

Within PepsiCo how do you embrace data to inform the HR decisions you are having to make?

To just step back on data, data is only as good as the input. 

You have to have really good input to get good analysis and good insight from it so I think that there is always that piece of checking that you are putting the right information into the system. 

PepsiCo is very thoughtful about its data approach we are using it in all areas of our business but I will focus on the HR piece. 

We do check-ins on manager quality we have something called the PepsiCo Way which is seven behaviours that bring to life how we expect people to show up. And we do check-ins on that we are measuring how people are rating their leaders – what does that tell us about their development and the trends across the leadership population and improve the employment experience for everybody.

We have a leadership framework that we call the Great 5 which is the five leadership behaviours, we use 360 very frequently and we use this to make assessments about leadership quality, employee engagement and stretch for future roles. 

So, we have great assessment tools and then we apply art to that science. 

That is the thing with the data, it is a point in time, even if you think about a survey, depending on what happened to you just before you completed it really impacts what you are feeling at that moment. 

We are thoughtful about several data sources and knowing the person to put that picture together. 

My educational background is in finance so I lean toward the numbers, but human beings aren’t that straightforward!

When interviewing what are the X factors that you are looking for in tomorrow’s leadership cohort?

The X Factor for me is things that you can’t train.

If you have someone with the right mindset and right curiosity, you can train them in any capability on the whole. 

I look for really strong self-awareness, being clear about what your strengths are and knowing what your limitations are and I am a firm believer that you play to your strengths.

People need to know their strengths, and truly know themselves. 

It is a level of passion and a can-do attitude. 

That doesn’t sound very scientific, but talking to people about when they’ve used their strengths and know what they need to strive for. 

The other thing is having a growth mindset, for me, I truly believe that now and in the future, you are going to be somebody who is going to be invested in others and teamwork. 

Very few jobs rely on one person to be a superstar. 

Teams need to be a superstar and need not compete with each other. But compete with the competition. People who can come in and excel and succeed but also help other people to do so are what I am looking for.

How has remote working had to pivot for you?

PepsiCo is a hugely relationship-driven organisation. 

I happen to be working in the beverages business but we also have a fleets business, we have corporate and we have different sectors. 

It is different around the world. 

Our programme is called Work that Works, it is about being in the office and community for events that are required if your job requires it.  

So, if you are in manufacturing or are out selling, you can’t do that via your laptop so those sorts of roles require that. 

What we are intentional about is pride in the community and so Work That Works brings people together, let’s say we had recently a huge event where we were celebrating our females who were in typically male roles. 

If you were here in California, you would see trucks going past with our women, we have been highlighting so we were bringing people together. 

Of course, we are not doing that every day. 

We have about 1,500 people working in either a remote or a hybrid way, it is easier when you are sitting next to someone or bumping into them in the coffee room.

 So we do try to help people build those connections, in our HR team we have been very thoughtful about how we come together and how we co-build and how we can learn from one another and we also do that across PBNA (Pepsi Beverage North America). 

We held a conference to connect and have fun. 

We did a lot of work around vulnerability and the team opened up to each other in a way that surpassed my wildest expectations. 

We had people sharing some very personal stories about why they are the way they are. 

We meet as a team remotely once a month it is palatable the difference is palatable since that session we had together. 

I see a team now that is in it for each other and wants each other to succeed and we have seen that across the organisation as well.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I think I would firstly say be yourself, it is ok to be who you are and own it, I think particularly if I think about myself earlier in my career, I always wanted to be the best version of myself that everybody else thought I should be and in that, I lost myself and it took me a little while to find that. 

So firstly, be yourself it is enough you are enough. 

The second piece is you can learn from everybody around you and I am still doing that today.

Being open to all learning, be open to every opportunity to pick up a new skill a new fact, whatever it is. 

The third piece is to trust yourself. 

Go with it, if it feels dodgy it probably is, if it gives you butterflies it is probably the right thing to lean into. 

You don’t have to be alone, reach out and ask for help, it is forthcoming. 

I was fortunate to read a book once, it is by Danielle North, it is called Pause, pause before life does it for you. 

I picked it up at the airport, I read it on a flight to Switzerland and back. 

It moved me so much that I wrote to her, it is a very British thing to do to write to somebody and say ‘you changed my life!’ but she wrote back! 

She said she always loved to hear from her readers and would I like to meet. 

And now fast-forward eight years, we are now friends. 

The reason I am telling this story is that she is just so powerful at questions and silence. 

What is so powerful is finding the right question and then letting it be answered. 

That space that we can give ourselves and other people to just pause, not be in a rush, let the answer be what it is and then explore that. 

There is some real magic in that.