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The Real Thing

Coca-Cola employee and several accomplices managed to pirate a number of confidential documents and a sample of a new product …

Coca-Cola employee and several accomplices managed to pirate a number of confidential documents and a sample of a new product from the company’s Atlanta headquarters and tried to sell them to rival PepsiCo for $1.5 million. The scam was dropped in its tracks when the folks at Pepsi told Coke of the attempted heist. Coke called in the FBI, which launched a surveillance and sting operation. An FBI agent posed as a go-between for PepsiCo and nabbed the individuals who attempted to hawk the goods. Coke CEO Neville Isdell even penned a memo to Cokesters praising the erstwhile rival for tipping them off.

But there’s more to the story than cooperation between competitive adversaries. As industrial espionage goes, the incident hardly rivals Smiley’s People, but unreported in the news accounts is the fact that the decision to tell Coke was not an executive one. When I mentioned this incident to PepsiCo CEO Steve Reinemund, he said he was out of the country at the time. When he got the thank you call from Isdell, he wasn’t even aware of what happened. PepsiCo’s crucial part in the affair was handled by an executive secretary and her opposite number with the company’s general counsel. When she received the letter offering detailed and confidential information, she understood what was going down and took immediate action. The phone call to Atlanta took place that afternoon. Even other senior executives weren’t aware of the incident until later.

When it came to knowing the right thing to do, the folks at PepsiCo needed no instruction, no committee meetings and no executive agonizing. They just did what they knew to be the right thing and told the boss later. It speaks volumes for the Purchase, N.Y., based company and its leadership that a profound ethical sense is so deeply imbued in its culture.

It also suggests how profoundly leadership in business has changed.After enduring headlines accusing CEOs of avarice and self-dealing, it is somewhat affirming to learn that there are leaders who lead by example, and do so in ways that often go unremarked.

In this issue, we call attention to the first in a series of new generation leaders, people who see the landscape differently and have set a new course. In our cover story on AIG‘s Martin Sullivan, we explore a perennial challenge. How do you lead an enterprise that’s already successful but needs to change and adapt nonetheless? How do you carve out your own leadership persona when the shadow cast by your predecessor is forbidding?

And finally, is past success your friend or your enemy?

About J.P. Donlon

J.P. Donlon
J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.