With courage and authenticity on the menu, female leaders can shine - IMD Business School
Alumni Stories · Leadership

With courage and authenticity on the menu, female leaders can shine

Getting comfortable with taking risks and bringing your true self to your team is a vital developmental step for female leaders, says Carolina Berti, MBA 2007.
January 2022

“My advice to female executives is don’t lose the opportunity to explore your vision and instincts through pressuring yourself to always be perfect and right,” said Carolina Berti, Vice President category marketing innovation at Restaurant Brands International (RBI), owner of the American fast-food chain Burger King and Canadian coffee shop and restaurant Tim Hortons.

As a seasoned corporate leader with a global footprint, Berti is aware of the pitfalls that can lead to women in business being fearful of unleashing their strategic creativity for fear of having their ideas considered ill-judged.

“Courage to take risks instead of playing it safe is harder for women, as we do not feel permitted to make mistakes and feel we are being judged extra [harshly] than any of our male counterparts. However, throughout my career what I have learned is that female leaders are fully appreciated for their competencies when they are able to overcome their lack of confidence in themselves or aversion to risks – allowing themselves to fail,” she said.

Having started her career in Brazil, Berti completed her MBA in 2007, continuing to work for Dupont in a variety of roles across Switzerland and Spain. Berti then moved to RBI in Canada, where she has continued to steadily climb the ladder. Over those years, she said, she noticed her self-protective response to being in a male-dominated environment and decided to challenge it.

“I have definitely been guilty of that but more recently I have been training myself to exercise this other side of me that is more willing to take higher bets with the intention to unlock greater rewards for the business. I’ve learned the most in an environment where I was incentivized to try hard and take some risks,” she said.

Berti drives category marketing, innovation, sustainability, packaging, R&D and the promotional calendar and steers the company’s cross-functional teams across Tim Hortons’ 4,000 Canadian stores. The Canada business makes up 90% of the brand’s worldwide turnover with CAD$8 billion system-wide sales. It is a role that entails innovation and risk, and never has that been truer than over the past two pandemic-stricken years.

“The move to digital was accelerated by the pandemic and we’ve seen big growth in usage of our app, mobile ordering and delivery. Tim Hortons was not a brand people would have associated with delivery, as well as being able to order ahead so you can walk in and have your food and drinks ready. That was already a popular feature before COVID but it’s grown over the last two years and we’ve worked hard on improving the experience,” she said.

With pandemic lockdowns forcing restaurants to close – some permanently – the stakes have never been higher. The challenge for all restaurants has been the hard pivot towards dramatically changing client behaviors and accelerating on digital strategy. For Berti, placing guests’ (customer) needs front and center of all strategic decisions is key to ensuring all innovation is relevant. From Tim Hortons’ expanding menu, which continues to add more plant-based alternatives to the traditional fast-food fare, to the introduction of green building standards for all its restaurant renovation projects, the preferences of the brand’s guests drive the business’s evolution.

“What I love the most about my job is the ability to deliver on satisfaction and expectations by fully understanding changes in guest behavior, global food and beverage trends and delivering on meaningful and impactful innovation,” she said. “Being able to steer from a concept and strategy to a restaurant execution on a franchise-based business with more than 1,500 owners makes it a challenging and reward job on a daily basis.”

Berti is clearly passionate about her current role but it has not come without self-reflection and challenge. She is someone who has recognized her ambitions and followed them, reconstructing the necessary capabilities every step of the way.

“My not-so-positive career experiences were the ones where I accepted status quo for too long feeling grounded in my comfort zone. I once worked in a corporate environment that was risk averse and it was hard for me to have an outlet for my visionary skills and entrepreneurial traits. So I would encourage people to always look for new challenges, new problems to solve and take some risks.”

One final thought for women in business is to aim for authenticity, she said. “We are so committed to our jobs and giving our absolute 100% and one particular soft skill that you can leverage in your work is authenticity. We women could have an advantage when it comes to honest communication and showing your true self at work. Companies seek professionals that are visionary and inspirational to their teams and, without that extra internal pressure, you can deliver on those two things,” she said.