It’s been a winding road from anthropology undergraduate studies to leading a sales and marketing team for one of the world’s most recognized brands. Yet it’s a journey that Lourdes (“Lou”) Ebra Grill has savoured every step of the way. Grill, Vice President for Strategic Partnership Marketing at The Coca-Cola Company, has invested the past 20 years building a career that weaves together her expertise in anthropology, marketing and finance.

Educational roots

While pursuing an undergraduate degree in anthropology at Duke University, Grill also had an opportunity to take a graduate marketing course through the Fuqua School of Business, and it was there that a second passion was ignited: Grill pursued her MBA in Marketing and Finance from the University of Georgia.

Career path

After graduation, Grill’s journey led to Federal Express where she spent eight years, ultimately climbing to the position of Financial Advisor. Opportunities were better for her in the finance field at the time, but Grill calls marketing her “first love”. She had a dream of working in marketing for Coca-Cola in their Atlanta headquarters. So when the opportunity to join the company in a finance role came, she seized it. Over the next 10 years, Grill enjoyed a series of ever-increasing responsibilities in a variety of roles: financial, legal, marketing and sales. In 2008 she moved into the role of Director of Business Affairs, which Grill calls a combination of “finance and legal in support of brands” that reconnected her back to marketing.

In 2012, Grill became the Vice President of Strategic Partnership Marketing. In her current role, she leads a team of sales and marketing professionals who have strategic partnerships with organizations in realms such as cinema, lodging, theme park and airline business. The move was a perfect next step on her journey. Her current role, says Grill, is “where I saw a place at Coke that would let me combine my love of marketing, team leadership, customer relationships, and have this foundation of financial acumen that I worked on all of these years of my career.”

Pursuing executive education as a leader

Now her journey of leadership growth continues. Coca-Cola has a long history of providing professional development both internally through training programmes and job rotation assignments, as well as encouraging executives to seek education outside of the company walls. Last December, Grill attended Notre Dame’s Executive Integral Leadership programme through the University’s Mendoza College of Business. She chose the programme because of its emphasis on providing education for the “whole” leader—with topics that range from creating vision, leading authentically, developing business acumen and promoting a healthy mind, body and spirit. “If I am going to deliver value to Coca‑Cola and our customers,” says Grill, “then I have to bring my whole self to this role.” She believes that is precisely what the EIL executive-education programme delivered.

Grill found the week-long programme rewarding and counts herself as a “resounding advocate” of the wide variety of teaching methods used, listing a detailed 360-degree feedback process and private feedback session with an executive coach as highlights. In-depth discussion with fellow participants was another plus. As part of the course pre-work, participants were asked to bring a business challenge with them for discussion. These conversations gave Grill “a yardstick for how I was looking at my own leadership and my own business challenge. It was very powerful.” The course facilitators gave participants “a framework that allowed us to safely challenge each other on underlying issues or fundamentals of our business challenges.”

Grill came away from her off-site executive-education experience with a renewed focus on how to tackle the challenges of her current role. She also credits the programme with helping her articulate her leadership vision—with her team, peers and customers. And what’s the payoff for Coca-Cola as an organization? Grill sees definite benefits for her employer. “Coca-Cola has a clear mission and vision. It’s critical that we [as leaders] have an ability to bring our team along on that vision and have clarity of purpose.” Even more important, says Grill, is to do so with authenticity, “because that’s what resonates with teams and with the people you interact with.” Moreover, the Executive Integrated Leader programme prepared Grill for the next step on her journey. “Spending time [away from work] helped me think about how I can uniquely help bring the vision to fruition for Coke in roles of increasing responsibility and accountability. In that way, [the EIL programme] has prepared me to lead at a more strategic level.”

Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer covering leadership in the workplace. She writes the award-winning blog The People Equation.