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Beyond the Comfort Zone: An Executive’s Journey Down a Diverse Career Path

Verónica Soares Franco, CHRO and Executive Committee Member of the Pestana Hotel Group, discusses her eclectic career journey and how challenging herself at each stage facilitated her growth.

With over 25 years’ experience across executive management, strategy, marketing & communications, human resources and sustainability in industries ranging from fast-moving consumer goods to transportation—and, at present, hospitality—you’ve mastered the art of adapting to new sectors and roles. Please share how you tackle the challenges of each industry transition. What advice would you offer to peers interested in pursuing a similarly diverse career path?

I love complex challenges. I think that’s the first thing to know about me. I love to adapt to new environments, meet new people from various cultures and geographies, and develop different projects. So while it might be true that moving into new industries is challenging for most—me included—it honestly brings more enthusiasm than fear to me.

Having this open mindset is important, but developing the right strategies to accelerate your impact and mitigate the uncertainty related to a new job is also crucial.

From my experience, I find that actively listening to different people in the organization and understanding their purpose, their experiences, and their concerns is a source of great help in adapting to new roles and industries. Talking with people from various cohorts, seniorities, departments, and geographies has helped me better understand the business, the challenges, and what they expected from my role.

I also find it very insightful to learn from people working in other companies but in the same sector or function. For example, when I joined hospitality, I looked for people in my network who worked in this industry. I happened to connect with some friends working at Marriott, Radisson, Hyatt, and travel sites such as as well. They were all in different companies within the industry, so they each brought different experiences and perspectives to the table. It was truly helpful to hear their insights, what I should know about, how I could navigate the challenges I might face, and how I could add value from my own experience to my new role, which proved to be a great source of mentorship.

I also find it important to face new challenges with self-confidence and be mindful of your own capabilities, believing that, at the right time, you can start bringing fresh ideas and perspectives to your new organization. There have always been instances when my previous experience has proven helpful because many topics are quite consistent across industries. When I moved from BCG to my next role, which was managing a light rail system for the second largest city in Portugal, it was very different for me of course. As a consultant, I regularly interacted with highly educated professionals holding master’s degrees, MBAs, and PhDs—and with clients, I was used to dealing mainly with people in senior management roles. However, moving into the public transportation industry, I had to work with people across all levels of seniority and discuss ideas with people from many different backgrounds. That was a shift from what I was used to, which provided a great learning experience. These lessons have proven applicable to my current role in the hospitality industry, making my transition smoother. I was lucky to understand early on about the ground-level realities and challenges people face in organizations. Having that knowledge helps me develop more targeted and impactful initiatives for my teams from an operational standpoint, which are different from challenges faced in a purely corporate environment.

To summarize, first, seek passion in your job knowing that facing complex challenges is a natural part of it. Learning different things, working with a diversity of people, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone have led to my growth in my career journey.

Second, seek guidance and context from people within your organization. Doing so has also been incredibly useful for me.

Third, I would suggest benchmarking yourself, understanding how people in similar roles to yours are faring in other companies—within both your sector and your function. You’ll quickly notice that it will help you both navigate your work better and learn how to prioritize and focus on the right projects.

And finally, approaching new challenges with self-confidence and being mindful of your own capabilities will help you recognize your strengths and areas for improvement in your new job.

One last thing I would recommend to complement your strategy would be to read a lot—read the news, read about what’s currently happening in the industry—and attend relevant conferences. These are all great opportunities to learn from recognized leaders and to understand the biggest challenges the industry is facing, both in general and at the functional level too. This practice helps you focus and prioritize actions based on what is most important at the time.

At Pestana Hotel Group, a key strategy you lead is the decarbonization strategy for the company. How has your varied experience in different sectors and functions equipped you to manage this initiative? Additionally, what insights can you share with fellow alumni who are navigating leadership roles, as ESG is increasingly at the forefront of operational considerations?

I believe this project allows me to leverage all the competencies I’ve acquired through my different roles. In ESG, I’ve been able to leverage my project management and problem-solving skills that I acquired at BCG. In such a project, you need to find new ideas and bring new ways of thinking. It’s very interesting in that sense. And drawing from my experience in the hospitality industry, again, I find it easy working and dealing with many departments—from maintenance, finance, HR, and operations —with people from all seniority levels, as such an initiative needs to be top of mind for every employee within the company to ensure its success. This is a project that really touches every single person within an organization. Everyone needs to internalize the positive impact they can contribute toward the initiative. And for that, knowing how to communicate the right messages both internally and externally can be very relevant to the success of the project—skills I developed during my time at Procter & Gamble. An ESG project requires a combination of competencies to make it successful.

Through this project, we started measuring the company’s carbon footprint, which we now track annually in more than 100 hotels and other group businesses (such as real estate and golf courses). We also developed an action plan based on five key pillars under implementation considering our company’s priorities: energy, water, waste, sourcing and mobility. And within each of these five pillars, our action plan contains several targeted initiatives, reinforcing that we need everyone in the organization to take action. This may involve selecting the most appropriate products or services or reviewing our procurement policies and suppliers to reach our sourcing goals, choosing the right vehicles to optimize our fleet’s carbon footprint (such as electric or hybrid vehicles), improving the efficiency of water and energy consumption or minimizing waste production. How do we make tangible impact? How do we train and engage our people to make tangible impact too?

Our internal departments, namely human resources, operations, procurement, and maintenance, partner closely in developing such initiatives, showcasing that everyone needs to collaborate closely to achieve incremental growth and impactful results. It’s been a learning journey, with so many changes in the world in terms of ESG legislation, best practices, and new innovative processes coming out as well. Our goal is a reduction in carbon emissions of 37% until 2030, but we’re finding that we’re already quite well compared with our peers in the industry, which is motivating. It’s a challenge—and that’s something I enjoy because, once again, I’m getting out of my comfort zone to navigate it.

This is also an area that is fascinating to me, as it has a clear purpose, which is easy to communicate to people, thereby allowing them to feel much more engaged in this project. I remember, in 2018, we launched a project to reduce non-reusable plastic at the group level. Our reduction goal was 50% in two years. I travelled across our geographies (Pestana Hotel Group is present in 16 countries) and hosted many presentations about measures to undertake at each hotel. I realized people were participating in this project as if it were their own. And we were actually able to reduce 60% within just nine months!

People could relate their personal purpose with the purpose of the company, making it easier to scale forward. And I think that with the ESG project a similar occurrence is happening too. We see our people involved with everything that needs to be done to achieve our goal, which of course leads to better results and a collective sense of purpose through the company.

When it comes to ESG, in the end, it involves caring for the planet, your people, yourself, and for your family. It is a topic that touches all our lives closely.

In addition to your role at Pestana Hotel Group, you also balance a faculty position at a university. How does your experience as a professor enrich your executive role?

I initially started teaching to improve my communication skills. Despite my naturally shy personality at the time, I decided to once again put myself out of my comfort zone. My goal was to be able to present in front of a large audience without feeling too anxious. Of course, the first time I went into the classroom as a professor, I was stressed and nervous. But over time, I found myself able to calm down and become more confident. You could say it has become a hobby of mine by now, and I love how it ensures I am up to date on current topics in the business world, especially in terms of leadership, change management, consulting, and project management skills, which personally I always love gaining more knowledge about.

Another benefit is, through my interactions with students, I love learning from the younger generations: how they think, how they work. I can say it has helped me understand my own children better and the challenges they face too. Also, in executive education, I’ve been able to learn from students from an array of backgrounds, companies, and sectors through the ideas they share in the classroom, and what their realities are, which helps me keep informed about the different generations entering the workforce, becoming a better leader.

What are some learnings you gained from your time at BCG that have been beneficial in your career?

What keeps BCG in my heart is the way we worked together as a team. We collaborated as teams to deliver great results. There was always a focus on the collective effort and the drive to achieve a great outcome for the project, instead of individual results. I loved that culture and have carried it with me, always trying to implement it in the areas I lead today.

Since I spent so much time together with my team – whether at the client site or at BCG offices – and the same people for many weeks or months, I found myself developing friendships for life. I left BCG 14 years ago, and yet I still see many of the friends who I first met there – some of whom I’ve had the opportunity to work with again, or even in a social environment. The start of these life-long friendships is what I remember with great happiness.

Coming to skills I honed during my time at BCG, I developed invaluable problem-solving, communication, and relationship-building skills, which have enriched both my personal and professional life. I also learned how to involve the right people at the right time in my projects to maximize impact, beyond just the data or hands-on-deck needed – it is the conscious care put into each member of the team, their area of expertise, assessing how they could contribute most effectively, and therefore empowering them to help you navigate & push the project forward as well. These are crucial people management skills related to project management that I developed at BCG.

And lastly, but essential to my way of working even today, is the standard of excellence BCG imbibed in me. The attention to detail BCGers bring to their work is a reflection that BCGers really care about the work they put out into the world. It's caring about the words you use, the information you rely on, the people you work with, and being thoughtful about every aspect of a project. I believe these are core skills I have acquired from my time at BCG and still practice today.

What is a valuable piece of advice you have received that you’d like to share with current BCGers and alumni?

In our lives and careers, we all face challenging moments. In times of adversity, it’s crucial to tap into your resilience and maintain faith in your own capabilities. While progress may not always unfold at the pace you anticipate, stay committed to your journey and you will eventually reach extraordinary destinations. During those times, family, friends, and mentors have always been a great source of support, so be sure to spend time and take care of them too.

Also, I believe it is important to look at each experience—personal and professional—as an opportunity to grow. Even if not apparent at first, each experience, regardless of its size, brings the potential to help you grow, depending on the standard of excellence you put into it and the choices you make. It could be anything of interest to you—whether it’s teaching, being involved in a non-profit organization, your job, whatever it may be. If you search for experiences to fuel your development and get you out of your comfort zone, it will help you tackle challenging situations, deal with diverse types of people, and accelerate your growth.

There is no limit to how much we can develop ourselves, and there is always so much left to learn that we don’t even know yet. It starts with each of us. The leader of your life is yourself. You can have mentors, people telling you what to do, but it is important to first ensure you know your own motivations, what inspires you, what you enjoy doing in life in order to make decisions that will make you a happier person.

Personally, I believe I found my passion later in life. I love hospitality and don’t know if I might switch to any other industry—only time will tell. But the key message I have is that if you understand yourself and what brings you energy, it becomes much easier to cut through the clutter and find opportunities for growth, because you will be passionate about what you do and motivated to go the extra mile for yourself and for others.

Also, know why your work can add value to a new challenge and understand why you believe you have the right competencies, even if you might not have all the knowledge just yet (but do have the willingness to learn!). This is most critical to fulfilling and expanding your potential, so make sure your inner self is on your side.