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Leadership & Culture
How this Woman Shattered the Glass Ceiling by Becoming the CEO of PepsiCo North America and Ultimately the CMO of the NFL
May 11, 2021

It’s one thing to be the CMO of a Fortune 500 company but another thing to be the CMO of the NFL which is probably the world’s most important professional sports league. I really enjoyed my latest interview with Dawn Hudson who was most recently the CMO of the NFL and one of Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women. Today, she serves on the Board of leading organizations like IPG, Rodan and Fields, Modern Times Group and NVIDIA. But I’m leaving out a whole lot. Dawn was previously the CEO of PepsiCo North America and Vice Chair of the Parthenon Group. Thought I was done? She also served on the Board of the LPGA Tour, Lowe’s, Allergan, Amplify Snacks and PF Chang’s.

It’s safe to say that Dawn has achieved, in one lifetime, what most could only dream of doing over multiple lifetimes.

We now live in an era where we are finally starting to make progress on removing the glass ceiling. Dawn managed to achieve all of these things when the world was far less progressive and accepting of women in senior leadership positions. 

What I took away from my interview with Dawn was that she has always had an insatiable curiosity and desire to learn new things. But she was also intentional and very well aware of how her career choices would impact the brand and reputation that she would be known for. 

I finished my interview with Dawn in awe and incredible admiration. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:

The Early Days of PepsiCo

  • When joining PepsiCo, she was hired by two very innovative leaders – Roger Enrico who was the CEO at the time and Steve Reinemund who later took over as CEO. Under Roger Enrico, most people would have described PepsiCo as an extreme male culture or “fraternity” culture. There was a lot of drinking at the time. So much that they used to have a regular evening event called “the Sambuca patrol”. It was at a time when people would stay in the office until 9pm at night (the later, the better). But she was already used to an environment of being a minority. She attended Dartmouth College when only 10% of the population on campus were women. She grew up in an environment where she was her father’s sports buddy. At home, they talked football, played golf, learned to replace a tire, and was taught how to shoot a gun. This played a role in helping her gain comfort working with a male-dominated leadership culture.
  • As a funny side note, when she was 7 months pregnant, she would attend the Sambuca Patrols sober which turned out to be a very different experience.
  • She felt that one of the reasons she succeeded in her role at PepsiCo was because she came from an Agency background which was more service oriented. The idea of leading through others was a really important concept. That even if you came up with the best idea, you have to help the client embrace it and figure out how to make it successful. You can’t just apply a “command and control” strategy. 

A Tough Decision that Changed Everything

  • One of the toughest decisions she had to make was to not pursue the CEO role at Dunkin’ Donuts. After she left PepsiCo (2008), she still had intentions to run a large company. After going through the interview process for almost a year, she started to spend more time with her daughters. She started to appreciate the little things in life that you don’t get when you’re working all the time. This long interview process got her to re-examine her priorities and helped change her perspective on what she would do next. But looking back, turning the opportunity down led her to a more entrepreneurial life. She now looks at opportunities that are both balanced in the type of work you’re doing and also the lifestyle that’s attached to it. You don’t want to just run the treadmill (i.e. run a $2bb business and move onto a $4bb business which then leads to $8bb). That treadmill never ends. 
  • Oftentimes throughout the interview, Dawn cites how fortunate she was. While luck was an important part of her overall process, I believe that a big part of her success was the fact that she agreed to embrace so many of them.

Her Pepsi vs. Coke Story

  • Sometimes innovation doesn’t have to be completely new. Sometimes it’s taking something that has worked before and refreshing it. For example, she decided to bring back the Pepsi challenge because they knew that on a blind basis, more people preferred Pepsi vs. Coke. PepsiCo had a resurgence with Baby Boomers through Roger Enrico. But it kept marketing to the Baby Boomers. She decided to shift their marketing back to the younger generation (On a side note, Dawn signed on both Beyonce and Britney Spears to be brand ambassadors for Pepsi).
  • Dawn was responsible for moving the NFL sponsorship away from Coca Cola. When she was originally tasked with dealing with the NFL, the executives at PepsiCo simply expected her to go in and act as a spoiler to help drive up the sponsorship prices for the other bidder. She didn’t know that and so went in putting her best foot forward. To everyone’s surprise, they won the bid to become the new sponsor of the NFL.
  • What really captured the NFL’s attention was the idea of associating Pepsi with entertainment and that sports is moving more towards entertainment. Through the partnership, they made a big deal out of the start of the season, made the half-time programming much bigger and did more music marketing. Today, we associate the Pepsi half-time show as one of the most important live performances in the world. Dawn played a huge role in making this possible.

How she became CMO of the NFL

  • Dawn was a few weeks away from selling Parthenon to EY. Then Roger Goodell (commissioner of the NFL) called Dawn on a Friday night and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing these days, but I’d like to have someone senior on my staff who is a woman and someone who loves the sport. I have no idea what you’re doing but if you’re not interested, can you please help me find someone?”
  • She was hesitant to go work for EY. It was a great company but they had a very early retirement program so she didn’t have a long run with the company. 
  • She hesitated to join the NFL because she would have to give up her flexible lifestyle. Fortunately her kids were old enough and out of the house. She called Roger the next morning and said that she was interested. 
  • The decision to go to the NFL re-energized her brand. Her brand got a little sleepy during the time when she just took Board roles and packaged goods roles. That helped her get onto things like NVIDIA, Modern Times Group, and others. Had she not been at the NFL, she wouldn’t have gotten those opportunities. 
  • Her role at the NFL certainly started with a lot of drama. Before starting, she took a trip to Africa with her mom where she didn’t have any cell reception. During the two and a half weeks that she was away, Ray Rice’s domestic abuse scandal blew up. On her way home, she stopped in Belgium and that’s when her phone blew up. Everyone expected her to not take the role with the NFL. But she believed that when a brand is under stress, there’s a real opportunity to do something special with it. 

Career Principles

  • On building your career, she recommends that you think about the experiences that a particular role will give you. Think about the skills will help you acquire and how people will view you. Think about your brand and how you can consistently build that brand. Remember that successful brands have a very clear point of view. It’s simple and they stick to it. 
  • To build a path towards the C-Suite, you should look at what previous roles other C-Suite executives have come from.  If you’re in a company that only promotes CFOs and heads of marketing to the CEO role and you’re not in that bucket, then you might need to go to a company where they’ve promoted people with your background. For example, in order to get more senior roles, she felt that it was important to have exposure to acquisitions which was a critical growth driver at PepsiCo. She intentionally sought a role in M&A which got her involved in the acquisition of Izze.
  • She loves her lifestyle right now because she gets to work with multiple companies and it is far more intellectually stimulating while also having a better lifestyle. She feels that she can operate better because she’s cross-fertilizing across multiple industries. 

Getting onto Boards

  • Boards used to be an Old Boy’s Club. White men would get onto a Board and then other Board members would introduce you to other Board opportunities. It was easier for men. But for women, they would be asked for public Board experience which most didn’t have. This made it difficult. 
  • While she felt welcome as a Board Member at Lowe’s, there were still moments that didn’t feel great. She was on the Board of the LPGA and people always had a lot of golf questions for her. After each Board meeting, the men would go play a golf game and she never got invited in the 14 years that she was a Board Member. She thinks that it was an assumption that they made that she had to fly home because she had two daughters to take care of. But it was the wrong assumption. 
  • In order to get onto a Public Board, her advice is to first get leadership experience from an industry Board or non-profit organization’s Board. Try to also get onto the Board of a Private Equity portfolio company that can leverage your expertise.
  • When she went onto the Board of Lowe’s, she didn’t have any public Board experiences. She had the LPGA Board experience and some experience with Associations. She went to the CEO at PepsiCo at the time who encouraged her to take the role so that she could learn more about the inner workings of another company that she could bring back to PepsiCo. PepsiCo had a philosophy that their leaders should serve outside on one (not multiple) Boards. 
  • After getting onto the Lowe’s Board, she worked with executive recruiters to help identify new Board opportunities which is what led to her Board role at Allergan and eventually NVIDIA.
  • The opportunity with Lowe’s gave her experience and credibility to go after other Board opportunities. She often uses Executive Recruiters to help her identify new Board opportunities. 

On Building your own Brand

  • She used to coach a lot of NFL players on their own personal branding since most players only play in the league for less than three years and have to plan for their future beyond football. 
  • She would always tell players to be really careful with what they put onto social media. Think about what characteristics that you’re most proud of and what you’d want others to say about you. Then think about how you’re going to use your social media to not just share a post on every catch you’ve made. That’s not going to build your brand. Talk about the other things that you care about. She referenced Richard Sherman (5-time Pro bowler and Super Bowl Champ) who always did a great job publishing content on causes he supports and a focus on equality. Think about who you want to be and use your social media to work towards that. 

There’s a lot more from this interview so make sure to listen to the full interview. Follow on Spotify to listen to more.