Neville Isdell
Former Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell spoke on campus recently about his career and leadership. PHOTO: Allison Shirreffs

Neville Isdell describes himself as “positively discontented.”

Visiting Goizueta Business School as a featured speaker in the 2012 Dean’s Speaker Series, Isdell, the former Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola company quoted his predecessor and former boss, Roberto Goizueta: “The world belongs to the discontented… Not accepting that things can’t be done.”

Called out of retirement in 2004 to run the company, Isdell ramped up Coca-Cola’s sustainability efforts, practicing a philosophy he calls “connected capitalism.”

Such a philosophy starts, he explained, with “a breadth of understanding of other people (and) other cultures.”

Born in Ireland, Isdell has lived in 11 countries on five different continents. His 43-year tenure at Coke took him to such disparate places as Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the Philippines, South Africa and Australia. Each destination taught him something new about perspective — about not defaulting to a Western view of the world when considering issues and options. By incorporating different cultures and styles, he explained, he’d discovered different and more useful solutions than if he’d considered the problem from solely his perspective.

While he’s hopeful government, business and civil society can work together to solve the world’s biggest problems, he qualified the current state of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as “a mixed bag.” Too often, company’s CSR initiatives represent the sentiments of a company’s leadership. If the leader changes, so do the initiatives.

“That’s not sustainable,” Isdell said.

What is sustainable, he explained, is “strategic coherence” or examining a company’s societal footprint and recognizing the impact of doing business and then enacting practices that mitigate negative impacts. For Coke, that meant adopting sustainability practices around water and sugar.

“For businesses to survive long term, the business has to be much more aware of its relationship to society,” Isdell said. “Doing the right thing means thinking beyond yourself and beyond what affects you personally.”

Although retired, the 68-year old Isdell is still active. He’s written, along with co-author David Beasley, a memoir, “Inside Coca-Cola: A CEO’s Life Story of Building the World’s Most Popular Brand,” and serves on the boards of several companies and organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund.

– Allison Shirreffs