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Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 42: Leslie Keating Explains the Importance of Developing and Maintaining Authentic Relationships

October 16, 2019  |  By Matt Waller

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Leslie Keating served as Executive Vice President of Supply Chain Strategy and Transformation for Advance Auto Parts before retiring in 2018. Before taking this role, she served as Senior Vice President Supply Chain for Frito-Lay North America. During Leslie's 32-year career at PepsiCo, she was a mentor and sponsor of Diversity and Inclusion, earning her the Harvey C. Russell Inclusion Award for inclusion leadership. Leslie graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and holds an Executive MBA degree from Georgia State University.

Episode Transcript

00:08 Matt Waller: Hi I'm Matt Waller Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality and what those values mean in business education and your life today.


00:28 Matt Waller: Today, I talk professionalism and collegiality with Leslie Keating a former senior vice president of Supply Chain at Frito-Lay, where she oversaw the company's operations for Canada and the United States. Leslie breaks down her career success and how she learned to develop and maintain authentic relationships in her more than 32 years as a leader at PepsiCo.

00:53 Matt Waller: So, Leslie, you were head of supply chain for Frito-Lay, a fast-moving consumer package goods company. You were also in the top role in supply chain at Advance Auto parts, those two supply chains are so different. What insights have you picked up by looking at those two extremely different supply chains?

01:18 Leslie Keating: Yeah, it's a really great question, and I have to say, I had a very, very steep learning curve when I first went to Advance because the Frito-Lay warehouse, you turned over the warehouse every two days talking to the team looking at skews and well, this one turns once every four years, what are you talking about? And so, really understanding inventory and positioning and understanding the customer profile of what we were providing to, in each of the businesses and optimizing that was really, really interesting. If you think about it, because there're some foundational principles are the same, but to your point, there were very, very different models when you modeled what was optimization of both of those different supply chains, and I think that's what's fascinating about supply chain quite frankly, why I am so excited about it is that there's so much opportunity, no two are the same, there's so much opportunity, the principles are the same, but it's exciting to dig in and learn different things. And even for me after 32 years I learned something different and that was exciting.

02:35 Matt Waller: We know Leslie, I don't know how long I've known you maybe five years, six years, something like that, but one thing I've noticed about you every time I've been around you, you're very positive and you communicate clearly, you look me in the eyes, you... But I've seen you communicate with other people, you're very clear in your communication but you're also very positive. Have you always been like that or did you develop that?

03:06 Leslie Keating: Well, interesting you say that, 'cause I think one of your values, professionalism is something that's really, really important as a leader. I got a couple of really great pieces of advice along in my career and the first was, Be aware of the shadow you cast as a leader. And so early in your career, you start off and you're just Leslie right and time goes on, and there's a point, there's an inflection point where you realize that you have a significant leadership responsibility you're touching many, many people and how you land on them every day will be how they respond. And so, I firmly believe that the sign of a great leader, is not how you perform on the best day in the exciting days, but how you perform on the worst day you have worst day of your career How did you respond, how did you show up, how did you communicate with people, how did you land on people? Because there's nothing more important. The cues that come from leaders. And so I would really encourage students as early as they can in their career to create that inflection point, where they think about they're casting a shadow every time they speak every time they're in a room every time. And so how do you want people to view you at the end of the day? And so that's been my principle and maybe I don't know, maybe that is part of what you see or feel.

04:32 Matt Waller: Yes, absolutely.

04:34 Leslie Keating: In dialogue.

04:35 Matt Waller: Well, I think it's one thing to know that it's not easy for people to do that.

04:42 Leslie Keating: Correct.

04:43 Matt Waller: So I know a former boss I had at one point I knew he was losing his job and he knew it, but I sent an email out about something we were working on and he responded extremely encouraging and positively to me and I thought, "Wow I can't believe he was able to do that but I think you're right. How you perform on the worst day is kind of the baseline.

05:11 Leslie Keating: Yeah, you know when the role I had 22000 people billions of bags many, many transactions every day is not a great day things go wrong. And as a leader, it's not the fact that something went wrong because things are gonna go wrong even in the best supply chain, and the best organization it's How do you respond in that moment as a leader and how do you show up for your people, how do you support them hold them accountable, but support them and show up, and so that's been something that to your point, it's not easy and I think it requires you as a leader to work on it every day you have to be aware of it every day. And that's the difference.

05:54 Matt Waller: Leslie, I've noticed that you display collegiality. Do you think it's an important value for a leader to hold? And what do you think about it?

06:06 Leslie Keating: Yeah, I absolutely do. I actually think that it may be the most important of the four they're all very, very important but it may be the most important. In the role I had, the bottom line is, in an organization and I had the honor to lead a very big organization, but nothing happened because one individual created something. It doesn't happen that way in business in a supply chain, a supply chain is a connection of interdependencies and trade-offs.

06:34 Leslie Keating: For me because of where I rose to in the organization, I get questions a lot from people about, "Well, who was your mentor? You had to have some person high up in the organization that was your mentor." And I think people were surprised by my answer that my greatest mentors were my peer mentors, not some senior person in the organization, certainly I had sponsors as my career went along. But I believe your best mentors are your peers. And so how are you asking for feedback, listening to the feedback and doing something with it, I think is very, very important. So this concept of collegiality is so important because you don't get things done unless you have others.

07:21 Matt Waller: So to do that, to implement collegiality and to have peer mentors, you've gotta develop relationships with your peers.

07:29 Leslie Keating: Authentic relationships.

07:30 Matt Waller: Authentic relationships.

07:31 Leslie Keating: Yes.

07:31 Matt Waller: Tell me what you mean by authentic relationships?

07:35 Leslie Keating: This concept, as I said before about, do you really have the trust in each other? Do you really understand each other? Do you understand each other's strengths and opportunities? Are you able to be very candid, and transparent with each other? And I have developed authentic relationships with people that I worked with, and still even as I've left PepsiCo, those people are still the people that I go and have lunch with when I wanna bounce things off of them. When I retired, I actually put a list, that's on my iPad, that was the people that inspire. And before I left my retirement, I put all the names of people who I had worked with that inspired me everyday, that I wanted to make sure that I maintained connections with in my retirement life. And so they are the people that on a regular basis I have lunch with or cocktail with or because I just wanna stay connected to them.

08:37 Leslie Keating: They were that meaningful and I think that much of them in terms of who they are as a person, and a leader and I get a lot of energy from them, and though I'm not working in the organization, I still want that connection. And so I peruse my people that inspire list and figure out who I haven't seen for a while and schedule a lunch appointment.

08:56 Matt Waller: Back when you were, maybe vice president of commercialization and supply chain, back in 2004, you had other vice president, peers at Frito-Lay that you had to deal with.

09:10 Leslie Keating: Yes.

09:11 Matt Waller: And so you needed to develop relationships with them. Did you make sure that you were meeting with certain ones on a regular basis? What did you do?

09:22 Leslie Keating: Oh, absolutely. I think the work again back to the interconnection of running a business like Frito-Lay, we were with each other on a regular basis. Cross-functionally, we were making plans for new products, innovation, initiatives, different things. And so we were on a regular basis in meetings and connecting, and I think what was important, I always believe it's really important to understand people's intent and desire and make sure you really understood what was important to your peers. And you find times, you've been in a meeting, and the meeting wouldn't go quite as well as you thought it should have gone and then you've got to come out of that meeting sometimes and go to a private conversation and say, "Hey, my intent and my impact may not have matched. So help me understand what happened or why did you say this or why didn't this work or why didn't that work?" And I think those kinds of conversations, it's work outside of the meeting if you will, but quite honestly, it's the most important work. I mean, a meeting's one thing, it's the work outside the meeting that is really important.

10:28 Matt Waller: I've found that to be true. Sometimes the Peter principle kicks in and you wind up with a peer that probably shouldn't be there and they're not collegial and they have no desire to be collegial. How do you deal with that kind of a situation?

10:44 Leslie Keating: Well, I'm a very transparent person, and so I would be pretty direct with that person about the fact that we've got to work together. And then, sometimes in the worst case, you've got to find others to help that person. So you can't... It's very difficult ever to kind of just write somebody off in business, right? It'd be easy to do that, "Okay, well, they're not helpful. So I'm gonna move on." But unfortunately, you probably need something from them, or need to get something done, and so I'd always make the effort there, and if not, then talk to that person about, "Help me understand how can we get this done? What other way?" It may involve engaging other people, etcetera, but you've gotta make that effort.

11:38 Matt Waller: And when you're forming relationships like that 'cause you're working together, 'cause you're running Frito-Lay as vice president and so you obviously need each other for a number of different purposes. So, there's one type of interaction where you're interacting with people to get a specific job done, and then there's relationship development.

12:00 Leslie Keating: Right.

12:01 Matt Waller: And some people will put a little more emphasis on relationship development, and some will put less. In other words, some people go to work and they'll work with people and they're very collegial, but that's it. Other people really try to develop relationships, and some relationships form naturally because you have common interests. Did you ever go out of your way to develop those relationships outside of just working?

12:28 Leslie Keating: Yeah, no, absolutely, I think that's important at times. What's most important is that you have the right relationship to be able to get the objective done, whatever the mission is of the team. But the people who are on my people that inspire list were people that I had a relationship probably beyond just the day-to-day work. You get a lot of energy out of that. I mean, you're spending, for a person like myself in a leadership role and for you and others, you're spending the majority of your waking hours, it's really important that you enjoy it also, in my opinion. The hardest part of retiring wasn't moving away from the work, it was quite frankly, moving away from the people.

13:08 Matt Waller: You were responsible for $6 billion in costs. It sounds like that would be unsettling to some degree, that much responsibility. How did you deal with that?

13:21 Leslie Keating: Well, I think, your excellence value is kind of a bit of the foundation of that. And so the mantra of excellence actually was... It's interesting that is one of your values execute with excellence was our supply chain mission and mantra for a good period of time and...

13:43 Matt Waller: Execute with excellence?

13:44 Leslie Keating: Execute with excellence. Yes, and when you think about that, the challenge as a leader is well, what does that really mean, right? Well, first, you've gotta define what excellence is and that definition has got to start externally. Do you really understand what your customer or the business requires from an excellence perspective? And then you've gotta set the right benchmarks, you've gotta have clear measurement systems in a business like ours people had to know every shift, every day, every week, am I green, yellow, or red. Am I hitting the mark or not? And what the definition was? And then how do you celebrate and reward people? And so, it feels... To your point, it feels like, "Wow, that's a really big responsibility." But I had 22,000 capable people that shared the responsibility with me and an amazing team, and very, very capable team. And I think when people think about business, they think about innovation even as a value. I always think about people process and technology and people tend to move towards the technology part of innovation 'cause that's the cool fun interesting part but the reality is that people is the first word I use because if you don't have the right people, you don't execute with excellence, you don't create innovation, you don't... And so having the right talent and so I just felt an honor to lead that group of people and really what I did every day was made sure I had the right people in the right place.

15:21 Matt Waller: What advice would you have for an undergraduate student in the Walton College of Business?

15:29 Leslie Keating: The first thing I would say to them is, get engaged, get involved in something that is of interest to them, whether it's a supply chain program, whether it's a group whether it's... Whatever is there that's of interest, get engaged outside of your classes to become connected to students and professors and to bring it to life a bit more for you beyond the classroom. The second thing I would say is, use your resources. And I have a bit of an advantage because I have a son who's in the school, and so I know the wonderful set of resources that the school has use the career services use access to what are resources that you have for yourself and hold yourself to a really high standard about using those resources.

16:22 Leslie Keating: And because they are tremendous, and I think, think about and I have students sometimes who are worried about their GPA, and my perspective, personal perspective is I'll take a student with a 3.5 and great internships and leadership experience and demonstration in the community over a 4.0 who hasn't done the other things, any day, and so round yourself out in terms of what you're doing at the school, there's certainly the opportunities in a College like the Walton school, certainly opportunities for rounding yourself out and take advantage of that and don't miss a single opportunity.


17:11 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast, be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching the BeEPIC podcast, one word that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now be epic.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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