It is, says Laura Brady, “a kind of American dream to make yourself bigger than where you came from”.
Brady, who is midway through a move into a new role in Shanghai as senior director of rewards for Budweiser Asia Pacific, started out in small-town North Carolina and Mississippi, before going on to work in Atlanta, Brisbane, Rome and New York. This progress — and that of her career — may be explained by a conviction that she is at her best when out of her comfort zone, both intellectually and culturally.
But, while her work in human resources has taken her around the world, there have been hurdles. After seven years in human capital consulting at EY and KPMG, Brady wanted to move to an in-house HR role.
“I’d dabbled in enough industries and companies to figure out that CPG [consumer packaged goods] was where I really wanted to be,” she says. “I loved the really fast-paced and tangible nature of their products. I also really liked that they constantly have to innovate.”
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Yet she struggled to make the transition from consulting into industry without an MBA.
“I just wasn’t landing the roles I wanted,” she says. So, after a short career break and travelling to Beijing with her partner for a semester of his business masters, in June 2015 she enrolled on the full-time, one-year MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, on the outskirts of Chicago.
It was here Brady first encountered the network of Kellogg HR alumni, which she describes as “small but tight and mighty”. One of them, Jaclyn Senner, was working in the Global People team at Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewing group and the owner of Budweiser. Senner was on campus recruiting students for the company’s MBA programme, a competitive one-year course run for business school graduates. Brady was immediately drawn: it was the right industry in a company that gave the HR function “a strategic seat at the table”.
When she joined the team at AB InBev in 2016 after her MBA, Brady focused on talent management and employee engagement — diversity and inclusion (D&I) was “more of a passion project”. But that soon changed as Brady and Senner, with the help of an intern, began building a global D&I strategy and business case. By October 2018, Brady had landed her “dream job” as AB inBev’s global head of D&I.
She describes developing the strategy as the “biggest intellectual challenge” of her career. “There was no one in the company that had done this before and it was incredibly difficult to navigate. It required deep reflection and careful planning, because we’re dealing with deeply ingrained biases and hundreds of years of history — this is all up against you. And people are personally invested in the topic because it impacts their careers and even their children’s careers.”
The team built the strategy “from the ground up”. As well as drawing on academic research for the business case, Brady says one of the factors that helped most was using the Kellogg network to see other companies’ approaches. “We did a roster of all our contacts, where they worked and we just started calling them and asking to speak to anyone in their company who worked on D&I,” she says.
2022 Moving to become senior director of rewards, Budweiser Asia Pacific
2018-22 Global head of diversity and inclusion, AB InBev
2016-18 Global manager of talent management, AB InBev
2015-16 One-year, full-time MBA, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
2015 (May-June) Talent management consultant, UN World Food Programme
2011-15 Manager of people and change, KPMG
2007-10 Senior consultant for performance and reward HR advisory, EY
The classes she took at business school, particularly on data analytics, were instrumental in designing AB InBev’s strategy. “What I really focused on [at Kellogg] was learning how to design an analytics strategy and approach, and then lead a team of data scientists, which is something I do almost every day.”
Two teams of data scientists — in Argentina and India — have been “instrumental” in designing D&I dashboards and developing an analytics-driven approach to determine where action is required. “That is a different approach to some organisations, which do not have a good underlying set of data,” she says. “It has helped us prioritise and focus”.
Policies must be put into practice, however. “That’s what is so challenging about this role,” says Brady. “You have to think through not just the superficial headline or communications campaign, but the details of the policy, the legalities of that and then the behavioural change that is going to drive it.”
It was particularly important to have an understanding of behavioural change management, developed at Kellogg and through her consulting work. AB InBev’s gender-neutral global parental standard — which includes giving primary caregivers 16 weeks off, fully paid, and secondary caregivers two weeks — benefited from the approach.
Understanding data and behavioural change helped the initiative “stick” and expand at the appropriate rate for the company and its culture to absorb, says Brady. The team was “diligent and disciplined” about mapping out what it meant for every stakeholder and how they should respond.
She is also proud of a new policy for those affected by domestic violence. This includes 10 days’ paid leave, other support such as adapting security measures (for example, changing work telephone numbers, email addresses and even location, if possible) and emergency financial help.
In this case, Brady’s knowledge of change management was crucial. “The biggest challenge was training our people . . . how to react when someone comes to you . . . But, at the same time, everyone wanted to help and it was just a matter of teaching them exactly how much you should help, where the line is drawn and when to hand it over.”
After much reflection, Brady is leaving the global D&I role to move to Shanghai, where she will again face that twin combination of intellectual and cultural challenges. Her new job will be leading the rewards team, responsible for remuneration, benefits and mobility — “an area of HR that I am least familiar with” — and spans a region including China, India, South Korea, Japan and south-east Asia.
It is a role, she says, with “just that extra level of challenge that really excited me”.