Lessons in leadership from Steve Cahillane of Coca-Cola

Steve Cahillane from Coca-Cola chatting with my Leadership Atlanta class (photo by Elaine Hudson)

In the last, but certainly not the least, of my Leadership Atlanta CEO/President interviews (here’s one with Rosalind Brewer of Sam’s Club and one with Ed Bastian of Delta), we were able to spend an hour and a half with Steve Cahillane, President of Coca-Cola Americas. I’m an Atlanta boy and I still remember where I was back in 2004 when I got the call that we had won “the Coke account”. Talk about a game changer for a small agency like mine, and an incredible source of pride as I told my family and friends! We had finally made it ;)

Steve was just awesome. You can read his bio here, but let’s just get into what he shared:

~ Every job he has taken on he wasn’t sure he could do. He has that rare ability to throw himself into a role, unsure of how to be successful at it but having the confidence to know he’d figure it out. And one of the main ways to have that confidence is to…

~ Be secure in yourself enough to put people around you that are better than you.

~ When asked what his “it” factor of success has been, he said that he’s always been curious. There was another Steve, this one with the last name of Jobs, that had the same mantra.

~ Making mistakes is HUGELY IMPORTANT. I haven’t heard any of the other CEO’s say this exactly, and I loved it. He talked about failing fast, learning from those mistakes and the importance of continuing to take chances.

~ When asked about his biggest mistakes over the years, he said they’ve always been around people. Either in not giving someone enough support to let them be successful, or not challenging people or giving them a platform to be great. I found this to be incredibly introspective and as I’ve had a few days to reflect on it, I think this is also one of my biggest mistakes as a leader over the years.

~ “Always be constructively discontent.” A fantastic quote that he shared with us that Robert Woodruff once said. I. LOVE. THIS.

~ Humility is important for a leader. Many leaders feel like they can’t let on that they don’t know something. Steve always asks questions even if it shows he’s not as knowledgeable as maybe he should be. It’s part of his “always be curious” mentality.

~ When he talked about being an entrepreneur, he shared that he believes he failed (that’s debatable, he built a successful company and sold it, but he didn’t expand it the way he wanted to) because he wasn’t bold enough, because he wasn’t “all in”. I’ve talked about that on this blog many times as something I credit a lot of my success to – that I was “all in” not by choice but by circumstance and because of that, I was forced to make it work. It was great to hear another leader say this same thing.

Ok, upon reflection, I can say this was one of my favorite leadership interviews. Of course they were all incredible and I feel blessed to have been a part of each of them. Thanks Leadership Atlanta, and thanks, Steve.


  1. Sam Hosokawa on March 5, 2013 at 9:32 am

    I love these summaries…thanks for sharing. It sounds like this has been a transformative process to be a part of!

  2. Jeff Hilimire on March 5, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Thanks SH, appreciate that and yes, @leadershipatl has been absolutely life-changing for me. Hope you’re well!

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