“You might be President of PepsiCo. But when you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother. You’re all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don’t bring it into the house. You know I’ve never seen that crown.”
This snippet may ring familiar to many in the corporate world— it certainly resonated with me as someone raised to assume the role of dutiful daughter, and an Asian woman climbing the ladder myself when I first heard it. Indeed, this was Indra Nooyi’s mother’s response to why at 10pm, Indra with important life-changing news of her career; was first, made to get a carton of milk instead of her husband.
It might seem odd that this personal story starts us off on this review of Indra, but of course, these experiences shared by Indra is what made her the people-centered leader she is celebrated for and, further had moved her in the direction of using her platform to champion women in leadership. Today, Indra Nooyi is a recognizable name, then, at 50 years old in 2006 becoming the first woman of color named Fortune 500 CEO. Importantly, Indra’s 12 year tenure saw total shareholder returns of 149% beating the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, a return of more than $79 billion in cash to shareholders and an increase in revenue by 80% to $64 billion in 2018.
To call her leadership exceptional is an understatement and this is why, Indra makes next on the list of #BillionDollarMoves we should all be learning from.
This article is part of the #BillionDollarMoves CEO series, which unpacks the mental models, and key leadership strategies of today’s movers & shakers as they navigated crisis, failure and built success.
1. Don’t be afraid to lead with a firm hand while building forward —there will always be naysayers
For a couple of years, it was not clear whether Indra Nooyi would survive as PepsiCo’s CEO. At the opposing end of activist investor Nelson Peltz who was fighting hard to split the company, PepsiCo was seen as a bloated corporate with brands that were losing market share. Peltz turned the dial up on Indra, aggressively campaigning for some time that keeping both product lines of fast moving snacks and carbonated drinks together was weighing down on overall shareholder value and impacting investors. Indra however believed that there was opportunity to leverage retail clout and cross-promote.
There was also intensifying resistance against Indra’s move to create healthier options for consumers while building a sustainable framework for the business. Yet, Indra stood her ground and stayed true to where she assessed the world was going: based on research and facts, not just gut feeling. All these pointed to concerns about the environment: plastic, water use and carbon footprint, as well as healthier eating. During her chapter with PepsiCo, Nooyi’s mandate was “Performance with Purpose”, which seems prescient today, but was not in vogue back when she began. She concerned herself about what kind of products were put in the marketplace. While there are still companies today that say this is only about consumer choice, she wanted to make the better choice an easier choice.
From switching out regular Pepsi at eye level in the retail store, with Diet Pepsi, Pepsi Max, Pepsi Zero Sugar to smaller portions, Indra’s leadership nudged consumers to the healthier choice. As she asserts, instead of maximizing profits in the short term at all costs, “I want to deliver great returns but I want to make sure that I’m not creating problems downstream for the company because of the business model that I’ve developed to deliver those returns or the cost I’m passing onto society. That requires a unique ability to think carefully about what’s changing in society. How do you want to be viewed as a good company commercially and ethically? The ultimate goal is to be a positive force in society.”
2. The importance of zooming in and out
Indra was known for her unique ability to zoom in and out: to have the big-picture vision, even as she acknowledged the minutiae of every detail. It helped that she began her career as an analyst requiring granularity even as she eventually had to zoom out and think more strategically. An interesting example of this in practice was how Indra approached design thinking and innovation. As CEO, Indra would visit a market every week to see what the brand looked like on the shelves. She asked herself—not as a CEO but as a mom—“What products really speak to me?”
With the shelves becoming more and more cluttered, she knew they had to rethink their innovation process and design experiences. Realizing Pepsico did not have the capability in-house, she brought in Marco Porcini from 3M to lead this effort. Part of what was discovered was designing to fit the different habits of consumers, including the MountainDew Kickstart which now comes in a slim can and doesn’t look or taste like the old Mountain Dew. It’s bringing new users into the franchise: women who say, “Hey, this is an 80 calorie product with juice in a package I can walk around with.” It has generated more than $200 million in two years, which is a hard thing to do in the industry!
3. Work is messy and fragile, families are messy and fragile, accept that trade-offs will happen
It’s telling that the top two questions posed to Indra as she stepped down as CEO was (1) why a woman didn’t replace her, and (2) how she managed to get to the top while still staying married and raising two kids. The first of course continues to be complex and is revealing of our time, since it would be rare that men would be posed with such a question as they past on the reins. She has spent a large part of her life building capacities for women at work but as we know, there’s still a long way to go. “We have to build women up in large numbers to get to a pool that we can draw from—the pipeline is not just leaky, it’s broken. We have to talk and do more to make women stay in paid work—and actually thrive, grow and feel great.”
In response to the second question, she often reflects on her own time, “I was a prisoner to the office a lot of the time. I loved being in the office but I also loved being at home. And a lot of the time, the lines between work and personal life were blurry. I think in today’s world, we need to stop looking at it as a work-life balance. It’s more about work-life management. How do we meld it all? Whether through flexible work hours, flexible workspaces or figuring out how to be there in critical times for your family, I think we need to now focus on balancing the entirety of our lives.”
Her greatest realization is that a leader will need to trade-off perfection for practicality, “When you’re juggling work, family, other pressures that you’re facing, your own hopes, dreams, and aspirations, it’s a lot to cope with. There isn’t a manual for life. Life unfolds, and you have to really figure out different pathways at every point in time and the trade-offs you have to make virtually every day”
Here are three actionable questions you can ask yourself to think like Indra:
1. On building a forward-looking organization—when you drown out the noise and look to the facts and data, what does the future of your consumer and business look like? What needs to change to move in that direction?
2. A favorite model of Indra’s is “Assume positive intent.” Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. For example, when someone gives you feedback, assume positive intent. Assume they’re genuinely trying to help. Think their words over, and be willing to challenge your assumptions. I promise, it will make you better associates and better people.” Indra maintains that “If you don’t develop mechanisms…with everybody around you, it cannot work.” This can help you zoom out and see the bigger picture.
3. On work-life integration: how can you stop worrying about what you cannot change? What expectations do you have of yourself that you can let go, to be more practical? Notably, Indra has been candid in saying that “I don’t think I’ve been the best Mom.”
It’s clear that Indra Nooyi will remain one of the most notable Fortune 500 CEOs I’ll be watching; even as she steps away from her CEO role to take on important board directorships from Amazon to Temasek. To follow her lead, we must embrace change even if many don’t see it yet, stay steadfast, and bet on the bigger vision. How else has Indra Nooyi inspired you?
This article is part of the #BillionDollarMoves CEO series, which unpacks the mental models, and key leadership strategies of today’s movers & shakers as they navigated crisis, failure and built success. Sign up so you won’t miss the next CEO profile: https://sarah-chen.ck.page/ceoseries
About the Author:
Sarah Chen is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Beyond The Billion (launched as The Billion Dollar Fund for Women), a global consortium of venture funds pledged to invest and actively deploying over $1 billion into female-founded companies. In under two years, $638 million has been deployed by the consortium’s partner funds into close to 800 female founders, with 11 recognized as unicorns. While pioneering a corporate VC unit at a publicly-traded Asian conglomerate, Sarah was struck by the complete imbalance of investment dollars into homogeneous teams and the severe lack of women in positions of leadership, despite no shortage of highly qualified women. Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and Forbes 30 Under 30 VC, she is a recognized speaker, media commentator and adviser on VC, innovation, and women in leadership, having been featured on Forbes, Der Spiegel, the Wall Street Journal, at the United Nations et al.