Headshot of Chris Kuechenmeister, SVP, PepsiCo.
Chris Kuechenmeister, Senior Vice President of Communications at PepsiCo, shares the impact of mentorship on his leadership skills and approach. — PepsiCo

Why having a mentor is important, according to PepsiCo SVP Kuechenmeister:

  • Mentorship provides you with an outside perspective. It allows you to gain insights into your challenges and situations that complement what you’re already bringing to the table.
  • It allows for a level of compassion that doesn’t always exist in traditional work relationships built around to-do lists of the day and the stress of the work environment.
  • Mentorship creates an avenue for critical feedback or validation that sits outside the standard feedback we get in our jobs.

Chris Kuechenmeister, Senior Vice President of Communications at PepsiCo, leads the communication function for the brand’s North American beverage business. He’s been with PepsiCo for 15 years in a series of leadership roles in the communications department.

He is widely credited for his role in elevating the Frito-Lay brand and helping to place the brand at the center of pop culture through the use of social media and through original and creative tie-ins with cultural touchpoints such as the Super Bowl.

Perhaps that creativity also has played a role not only in Kuechenmeister’s choice of a mentor but in his ability to apply wisdom from that mentorship into a career that has helped brands like Doritos and Cheetos become smile-worthy household names.

Kuechenmeister tells CO— how and why his mentorship prepared him — more than he ever could have imagined — to lead one of the nation’s most powerful corporate communications departments for one of the world’s most familiar brands.

CO—: Who is your mentor, and why?

CK —: It’s Randy Melville, who retired in 2018 as Senior Vice President of Sales at Frito-Lay North America. He was a PepsiCo executive for 25 years and now serves on the board of multiple companies. One is the Melville Family Foundation, whose mission is to improve the lives of Black and Brown children in the southern sector of Dallas [by fostering] economic stability, food security, and academic excellence.

CO—: What is your mentor like?

CK —: When I first met Randy, I was junior level at Frito-Lay. Initially, my exposure to him was very little. I wound up sitting on the Frito-Lay executive committee where he was already a member. That’s where I started to have greater exposure to his thinking and his mindset. I watched and admired his leadership style. I’d sit in on meetings and participate in functions where I got to know him better and learn from what he did. He’s one of the most inspiring, thoughtful, and engaging leaders I’ve ever seen.

CO—: What have you learned from your mentor that’s been key, valuable, or even game changing to your career?

CK —: What I learned from him was not necessarily the nuts and bolts about how to do my job. He was in sales, and I was in communications. He taught me about leadership. He taught me about the humanity, empathy, and vulnerability that’s important in great leadership. When people feel valued, they are inspired to do their best work.

CO—: Which of your mentor’s qualities impact you most today?

CK —: The importance of listening as a critical skill set. It’s about listening to understand and to learn and how that listening turns into support and action that is valued. It’s okay not to have the answer every single time but listening is the starting step for your best work as a leader.

Also, showing up as your true self is one of the greatest strengths you can have. People can relate to you and see you’re not putting on a front.

He also taught me a lot about what it means to build diversity and inclusion into your teams, your work, and your life. All of these things have sat within me and grown inside of me and helped me to be a better leader and person.

[Read: Top DEI Execs from Carter’s, Thumbtack, and Fossil on Diversity Strategies That Drive Real Results]

CO —: How did your relationship with your mentor evolve?

CK —: My relationship with Randy deepened in a profound way starting in 2016. This was a time when a spotlight on racial inequality and injustice in the United States heightened awareness about a series of high-profile tragic events. It was horrific and heartbreaking, and as our company tried to create a supportive environment for our employees, I wanted to play a role. However, after some self-reflection, I realized I was not as well prepared as I could be. There was much for me to learn about people different from myself, creating a supportive and inclusive environment for people of different backgrounds, and strengthening a team to reflect the communities we served as a company. I approached Randy about this, and he was extremely gracious and open to sharing his perspective and experiences with me.

He taught me about leadership. He taught me about the humanity, empathy, and vulnerability that’s important in great leadership. When people feel valued, they are inspired to do their best work.

Chris Kuechenmeister, Senior Vice President of Communications, PepsiCo

CO —: Do you continue to see him?

CK —: Yes, this all led to an ongoing dialogue that has lasted for years where I continue to be a student about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also about leadership and creating high-performance teams. It started as a relationship at work and evolved into a friendship that touches all parts of my life. I’ve learned from him not just about work relationships, but how to be a good husband, a good dad, and how to give back to the community. I never expected that. He demonstrated to me the impact that one person can make on many lives.

Randy has always been a person [who] can inspire people into action, and he certainly did that for me.

[Read: Execs From Hershey’s to Microsoft Reveal Their Mentors’ Best Advice]

CO —: Show us your mentor’s imprint in action.

CK —: Years before COVID, thanks to Randy’s influence, we started building inclusive teams. When COVID arrived, the role of the communications team increased dramatically at PepsiCo’s beverage business because the federal government considered us to be an essential business. We had to quickly evolve to meet the needs of consumers and retailers. We were literally reconfiguring our team in real time based on the needs of the day. Because of the trust we’d built in the team long before COVID, we were able to flex in directions that we might not have been able to otherwise.

CO —: Is there a recent project at PepsiCo that reflects your mentor’s imprint?

CK —: Randy’s imprint drives the culture of my team. We had a very successful campaign tied into Women’s History Month. Here, we focused it on celebrating women in frontline careers in PepsiCo’s beverage business. We did that by identifying women to honor across the U.S. and Canada and putting their pictures on the sides of delivery trucks to celebrate their impact and draw attention to the frontline careers at PepsiCo for women. We were able to do this because of our trust and collaboration with our team.

CO —: Please complete this sentence: Had I not met my mentor, I likely would never have…

CK —: Had I not met Randy, I would never have reached the level of vulnerability and empathy I’ve had as a leader.

CO —: What are the three most important lessons you’ve learned from your mentor?

CK —:

  • Listen [in order to] to sharpen your skills.
  • Be authentic and vulnerable.
  • Build diverse and inclusive teams.

CO —: Why is having a mentor important?

CK —:

  • It provides you with an outside perspective.
  • It allows for a level of compassion that doesn’t exist in traditional work relationships.
  • It is an avenue for critical feedback or validation that sits outside the realm of standard feedback.

CO —: Are you a mentor?

CK —: I am a mentor to many on my team and outside my function, and even outside my company.

CO —: How can you become a great mentor?

CK —: Approach mentoring as a mutually beneficial opportunity.

  • When done correctly, everyone gains from the relationship.
  • You’ll get out of it what you put into it.

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