Tidings Chimphondah recently made her first-ever trip to the United States from her home in Zimbabwe, where she is the managing director of Progroup Holdings, a key player in the country’s agro-processing and down-packing industry. She traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of the U.S. State Department/Fortune Most Powerful Women Mentorship Program, which pairs emerging female business leaders from around the world with executives in the U.S., before heading to Coca-Cola in Atlanta to shadow some of the company’s senior women leaders.
Tidings — a certified accountant currently pursuing her MBA from Manchester Business School — had an action-packed agenda during her two weeks at Coke. She sat in on several internal meetings and sessions with key customers, toured the archives and the World of Coke, met with senior leaders across the business, and attended the annual Coca-Cola Scholars banquet. She also joined Clark on a trip to New York for an Advertising Hall of Fame awards ceremony.
“It has been a surreal experience,” Tidings said. “I don’t think my life will be the same.”
Clark says the experience was equally rewarding for her and her fellow mentors. Read her blog post on Fortune.
We spoke with Tidings the day before she returned home to Zimbabwe. Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
How were you nominated for the program, and what was your reaction when you heard you’d been selected?
A group of women I work with forwarded my name to the Zimbabwe Embassy and, eventually, the U.S. State Department. In February, I found out I would be paired with five female mentors at Coca-Cola. I panicked at first… how could someone from a small, entrepreneurial company like mine learn from a global enterprise like Coca-Cola? I thought Coke would be too big to understand the challenges I face, yet everyone told me this is where I needed to go. Once I arrived in Atlanta, it became clear they were right. Within a few minutes of arriving at my apartment, Wendy came to see me. Having that kind of welcome put me in a comfortable place. From that point on, I never doubted what I’d gain during my time here.
This is your first trip to the United States. What has been your initial impression?
“Wow, this is huge!” The U.S. is a really big place compared to where I’m from. I’m a confident businesswoman, but it was all a bit overwhelming at first. In Washington, I’d look around and wonder, “What have I gotten myself into?”
What has been the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make?
On my first day here, I had an inspiring conversation over lunch with (Coca-Cola Chief Financial Officer) Kathy Waller. I explained to her how exhausted I had been in Washington because I stayed up late each night working after a full day at the State Department. She said to me, “You need to learn to create a healthy work/life balance.” I had made myself indispensable because I had not empowered my employees. Kathy helped me realize that I need to let members of my team do their jobs and learn to delegate. I decided I could not handle many issues thousands of miles away. That conversation was such an important start to my time here because it helped me focus on this experience, and on living in the moment.
Can you share a few lessons learned during your experience at Coke?
On my first day, I immediately saw that small companies and large companies all want and expect the same qualities from their leaders. Employee matters are employee matters, and great leadership is great leadership. As leaders, we’re expected to be empathetic, and to lead by example. I don’t like confrontation, or to rock the boat, but I learned from meetings I attended that neutral is the worst outcome possible. You need to know where you stand with people.
I learned a lot about the importance of engaging both customers and stakeholders. In order to grow my brand, I need to treat my customers as partners. I need to work with supermarkets and distributors, and empower them with the same knowledge my employees have.
I also walked away with an appreciation for structure and governance, all while remaining dynamic. As a startup, we rarely plan. We’re focused on survival. But we need to learn to do things in a more structured way. I have the tendency to micromanage my people because I don’t talk to them enough. I’m always so busy that I’m inaccessible. I like to get my hands dirty, but I know I need to take a step back from the business. I have to stop being an operator and start being a leader. I need to get to a place where I can translate my instincts into effective communication. That’s what this experience has taught me.
What’s next for you?
I have two daughters, 9 and 5. One reason I decided to do this was to be able to impart to them what I’ve learned. In Zimbabwe, most of our customers are women business owners, many of whom raise chickens. They don’t know how to run their businesses. When I return home, I plan to get together with a few of my friends to help these women take their businesses to the next level. We’ll sit down with them and explain how they can do things better. Because, after all, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 14 or 15 years. I’ve been learning how to adapt and do things better, and to grow something from nothing. Not once, but many times. I’ve made mistakes along the way and learned from them. I plan to impart some of the knowledge these women at Coca-Cola have shared with me.