When it comes to her career, Lisa Filliman Walsh ’91 is often a step ahead. She looks out further and ventures into dangerous waters. Her career bears the marks of a battle as she entered a male-dominated sales world as the underdog and soared up the ranks at PepsiCo, forming new alliances, developing new approaches, and shaping new strategies.

People will emulate those they see above them, so a leader must be very deliberate in both actions and words.

As a leader, she relied on a strong professional female network early in her career and ended up as its national board chair when she became a senior executive. Her key to success is simple: Know your business cold and invest in your people. She has championed diversity, equity, and inclusion as core values to building the best team, and this has delivered business results and employee loyalty, which are now the hallmarks of her career.

What role did the College play in your career?

Lafayette gave me an incredible foundation by instilling curiosity, discipline, and the value of learning.  Like many young people in a collegiate environment, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or what field I wanted to be in. I used my Lafayette experience to narrow down both what I liked and what I didn’t until I found an area that lit a fire in me. As a psychology major, I studied organizational psychology under the guidance of Professor Andrew Vinchur, who enabled my interest in market research to blossom. I worked with him on my independent study project during my senior year as I researched the influence fashion brands had on a person’s unearned status, which highlighted perception and bias in society.  I was also an art history minor, and Diane Ahl [Arthur J. ’55 and Barbara S. Rothkopf Professor Emerita of Art History] helped me to see the commonality of the human spirit and ignited my passion for travel. Who knew years later I would be in global roles, traveling the world and seeing some of the amazing works of art I studied? That seed of exploration was born during my time at Lafayette. The small classes and one-on-one mentorships helped me connect dots and broaden my perspective on life, well beyond what a paycheck might deliver. That’s always my advice to young people. Don’t chase money or prestige. Instead, find out what you love and be passionate about what you do. All the other things you seek will follow in suit. At Lafayette I had the time and space to learn what I loved.

What did you do when you left the Hill?

I was interested in market research—both the insights and analytics. I was lucky enough to work in that industry right out of school for a few years at two of the top market research companies in the US. That background became a differentiator in my career. Business is run by numbers. Any business. You can’t be effective as a leader if you don’t know how numbers drive results. It’s difficult to have sustainable growth if you don’t make data-driven decisions so those first few roles out of college really shaped my financial acumen and analytical skill set.

How did you move into sales?

I transitioned from market research into a large consumer packaged goods (CPG) company to leverage my analytical skills and apply them in a different way to advance my career. My first job there was selling household cleaning products. Talking about toilet bowl cleaner doesn’t make you the life of the party, but it did introduce me to the manufacturing industry and gave me exposure to senior management early in my career. I was able to experience first hand how executives thought, how they made decisions, and how they treated their people. It made me excited to make the jump over to a company with billion-dollar brands that was more recognized, fun and had a reputation for creating phenomenal leaders.

You spent almost 19 years at PepsiCo and steadily climbed the ladder.

Yes, I bled blue! Who doesn’t love talking about eating and drinking?  

Confession time. Were you a Pepsi drinker?

Let’s just say all consumers should have the ability to choose brands that they love, so for 19 years we drank only Pepsi products and ate only Frito-Lay snacks. When I left the company, my kids ceremoniously restocked the refrigerator and pantry with other favorite beverages and snacks they couldn’t have before.

Why a career at PepsiCo?

They have a strong history of developing not only talented executives, but true leaders. They have big brands with global reach. They are one of the most respected and admired companies on the planet.  I knew the opportunities could be broad and innovative at a Fortune 50 company, and that certainly played out. One big lesson I learned was to get comfortable with being uncomfortable if you want to grow and advance both personally and professionally.

Can you give an example of being uncomfortable?

I had a few roles where I was tapped on the shoulder and asked to take on a position that was well outside of my comfort zone, doing jobs I didn’t think I was qualified for. But often others can see in you what you can’t see in yourself, and you must take a leap of faith into the unknown. In one role I was asked to manage independent franchise bottlers in hopes to influence their plans to better align with corporate strategy. The franchisees are a passionate group who often have a very strong point of view of how they want things done. All the bottlers I managed at that time were male and old enough to be my father or grandfather. They weren’t thrilled to listen to a young female telling them how to use analytics to run their businesses when they had been doing it from the gut for generations. I had to adapt in order to be successful, but there were many days where I questioned myself and my ability to be effective.

But you didn’t give up.

It would have been easy to give up, but I have a strong will to succeed, so I flexed my style and approach. Rather than trying to shift everyone’s mindsets at a team meeting, I opted for one-on-one sessions where we could put our guards down, establish rapport, and build trust as individuals. Knowledge builds understanding and understanding builds trust.  Now there was collaboration and respectful debate because we knew each other as people first. Over my two years in that role, I built long-term sustainable growth plans and great relationships. I challenged them and helped make them better. And they, me. Years later they still thank me.

What support did you draw on then?

Being the only woman in the room, it’s easy to feel inferior, and it can often be challenging to break into the “boys club.” I won’t sugarcoat things. I often lacked confidence and felt excluded. That’s when I discovered the Network of Executive Women (NEW). It was started by women and some very progressive men in consumer goods and retail. Their vision was a workplace without limits where all women could have a fair and equitable chance to grow, advance, and succeed at the highest levels. Now I had access to not only women in senior leadership roles to learn from, but also a peer network of women who had the same insecurities and experiences I had. NEW taught me gender-specific leadership skills and provided the tools to exert my own confidence in a variety of situations. NEW now has over 13,000 members with 22 chapters across North America.  I have stayed involved with NEW for almost 20 years and have been blessed to give back through board service.  I actually just rolled off as the chairwoman of the board last month and will now oversee governance.

What makes an effective leader?

Business is personal. Working with the franchise bottlers taught me that business is about relationships, trust, and respect. It’s important to see people as individuals, act with authenticity, and show your vulnerability. You also have to listen … a lot. That is the only way to know what people need and want from their leader. And make no mistake, leaders are there to serve their teams by removing barriers, knocking down obstacles, and empowering their people. 

What made you leave PepsiCo?

After so many incredible experiences and so many enriching roles, I wanted to be the person to make the call. For good or bad I wanted to see if I had the stretch to run a company as a CEO.  One of the PepsiCo experiences that fueled my desire to lead a company was another “tap on the shoulder” role.  At the time, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asked PepsiCo to consider a partnership to sell food and beverages online as a new business venture. Somehow I was asked to lead this work even though I had no e-commerce background, and I wasn’t even on social media!  But the team wanted to leverage my curiosity, strategic thinking, and analytical skill set—the thought processes I developed thanks to my Lafayette education. This is one of those times when your heart says no, but your head says yes. I agreed to do it. Over four years, I was able to travel the globe, conduct research, build a team, and debate strategy with PepsiCo’s C-Suite. I learned about organizational structure, supply chain management, marketing, finance, and product development. I ran PepsiCo’s first Amazon customer team which laid the groundwork for me to take a role later in my career at PepsiCo managing global customer teams.  After those experiences, I proved to myself that I could be effective in a variety of areas. I could do more. I could lead. I wanted to take the leap into the CEO seat. So I left behind a company, an industry, and steady compensation to carve a different path.

Any regrets?

Never. I became the CEO of a private equity-owned snack company called Truco that markets and sells retail brands like On The Border chips and dips.  On the first day as CEO at Truco, I was already making big decisions for a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I loved the dynamic of creating a culture, supporting diversity, shaping strategy, and driving innovation. It was an incredible experience and led me to what I’m doing now, which is working on the private equity side, advising company CEOs and executive teams to help accelerate growth in their businesses.

What’s key in creating culture?

It starts at the top. People will emulate those they see above them, so the leader must be very deliberate in both actions and words. How people are treated matters. You’ve heard the saying, “Culture eats strategy for lunch”? It’s so true. I value respect, empowerment, recognition, and encouragement. People are a company’s most valuable asset. So, leaders should seek to shape the best team they can and enable each member to exceed his or her potential. It’s a proven fact that diverse teams outperform all others. It’s easy to hire people that look, think, or act just like you, but leaders must fight that. Diversity in experience, culture, thought, and personality enables ongoing learning amongst the team. That in turn often leads to the most breakthrough thinking, which results in growth and competitive advantage.

What’s key in your success?

Nobody can do it alone.  My personal tribe—my husband, kids, family, friends, and mentors—have been my greatest asset. You need a tribe of people you trust implicitly to surround you so they can challenge you, support you, and advise you. These are the people who provide perspective and listen, and they can serve different purposes. Your personal tribe knows all parts of you and most likely have for many years. They know what you like, how you react, and what excites you. Your professional network can often relate to your challenges in a way your personal tribe can’t because they’ve lived it as well. Both groups are my foundation to success.

Any other keys?

Your professional career is a big part of your life, but not your whole life. Family, friends, faith, community, and personal interests are all important to living a full life without regrets. Sure, there are times when your professional life has to be the priority, but only you can choose the times when your personal life should be at the top of the list.  My definition of “balance” is fluid, not static, and it changes daily.  Block out the guilt, ignore the ones who infer judgment of your choices, and live without regrets. That is when you’ll find your greatest success. 

Five Reasons Diverse Teams Matter

Walsh shares why businesses benefit

Walsh knows the keys to creating culture start at the top. She says, “People will emulate those they see above them, so a leader must be very deliberate in both actions and words. How people are treated also matters. Leaders should seek to shape the best team they can. It’s easy to hire people that look, think, or act just like you, but leaders must fight that. Diversity in gender, race, and ethnicity are critical, but diversity in experience, culture, thought, and personality also enables ongoing learning amongst the team. That in turn leads to breakthroughs in thinking and serves as a major competitive advantage.”

  1. It’s a fact illustrated over and over by Deloitte Insights and McKinsey: Diverse teams outperform those that aren’t. So if growth is in your business’s future, diverse teams are an imperative.
  2. Women account for more than 50% of the workforce, yet less than 7% of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs.
  3. Diversity fuels new thinking, leading to workplace flexibility and transformation for employees.
  4. Innovative thinking and breakthrough ideas are more likely to come from diverse teams.
  5. Companies must reflect the constituents they serve. Women drive over 70% of all consumer purchasing, yet they are vastly underrepresented on boards and in the C-Suite.