Leadership: Indra Nooyi On Running A Fortune 500 Company (And Retirement Binge Watching)
In 1994, when Indra Nooyi joined PepsiCo, not one of the 500 largest American companies (Fortune 500) had a woman CEO. When she was appointed chief executive in 2006, she was among 11 women in that position. Now there are 41 women CEOs in the Fortune 500, yet only 13 in the Fortune Global 500.
Nooyi, born in Madras, continues to be among a handful of Indian American or immigrant women that made it to the top of the corporate ladder.
In her 12 years as CEO, she was credited with having pivoted the company towards healthier snacking habits, fought a bruising yet victorious battle against an activist investor and came away with a mixed report card.
In a just out autobiography, My Life In Full, Nooyi describes a leadership style that is non-conformist yet non-confrontational.
In an interview with BloombergQuint's Menaka Doshi, she said, "I decided I'm just going to be true to myself. I'm going to remain who I am. There's going to be no change, but I'm going to work at my job such that I was working for the future success of PepsiCo. Not for the future success of Indra Nooyi, but for the future success of PepsiCo. And, if that resulted in credit to Indra Nooyi, that's fine. But, my singular job was to future-proof this company and make sure that the legacy I left behind was a good one. Great successor, well-run company, positioned right for the future. That's all I was interested in doing."
Watch the clip on leadership here.
The final duality or contrast I wanted to talk about, and again this was not overt, you were happy to fit in. There was no overt feminism to your career approach. You write...
“I wasn’t upset when I was excluded from the customs of male power; I was just happy to be included at all.”
Indra Nooyi: I have so many priorities, like I said, husband family, parents, everybody to worry about. The last thing on my mind was going for golf outings. I don't play golf, so why should I go for golf outings? I don't drink so what's the point of going to a bar and hanging out? I don't eat meat so going out to restaurants and watching other people eat while I pick at the sides - not my cup of tea. And, I have kids at home, I want to spend time with them.
So, I said you guys go do your weekend stuff evening stuff. If you're doing 10, I might get involved in one for a short time and then I'm going home. And to be honest, I was comfortable with that. The reason I was comfortable is because the bosses I worked for, I had so much confidence in them and they had so much confidence in me, that I was confident that they would not take a decision or agree to do something without my input. So, I didn't have to go to that social outing or a weekend fishing to be part of the inner circle. So, my point is, hey, do whatever you want, at the end of the day, you still have to come to me to make this a reality so go enjoy yourselves. I'm going to stay with my kids.
How would you describe your leadership style? Especially in the PepsiCo years. You worked with Roger Enrico he did big things, big changes as you pointed out in the book. Steve who you said was more frugal in his approach, more attention to detail. What was your style?
Indra Nooyi: I'll talk about (it) professionally and personally because they are two different things.
As people have told me, I have this ability to zoom out and zoom in - that was really what I was good at. I could take any issue and look at it at 30, 40 or 50,000 feet, and strategically reposition whatever I had to, but then I’ll quickly zoom in and say how do we implement it? What are the nitty gritty details to implement it? Then I’d zoom out again. So, I was like a telephoto lens, zooming in and zooming out.
I would read everything put in front of me, not because I mistrusted my people, it's out of respect for them -- that they prepared it, I should read it. And I would deeply understand a topic before I'd step back and say okay what does this mean. So, I was an informed leader. I was not just a leader warming a chair. I was a leader who wanted to know what I was doing. So that's the first thing on the professional side.
On my management style itself, I set stretch goals for people but I helped them jump to those stretch goals. So, I’d coach them, mentor them, I chided them when things didn't go well but I told them what they did wrong in the back but then in public I always taught them how to cross difficult hurdles. The amount of time I spent on mentoring and coaching is just staggering. To me, the best example is when people leave PepsiCo and they've gone to be CEOs of other companies, many people have told me this. When they're faced with a difficult problem they'd always sit back and say, what would Indra have done in this situation? How would she have thought about this? I was talking to a CEO of a company in the U.S. -- one of my board members is on his board -- and he said every board meeting when they were in a difficult spot this board member said, let's step back, let me channel Indra, let me see how she would approach this topic. Now that was a pleasant surprise to me. I've taught people how to think. I've taught people the zooming in and zooming out. I've taught people to say that no problem cannot be rethought and reconceptualised to get to a solution.
I gave people the tools to be an effective leader and so they went on to bigger and better things. And that's why in my tenure, I produced most CEOs, most CHROs, CFOs and CMOs for the rest of corporate America than anybody else.
Where did you draw this style from? It's very non-textbook. At one point you almost took a job with GE. This was the Jack Welch era - Neutron Jack. Your style was very different.
Indra Nooyi: I don't know Menaka, I think in many ways, I just evolved it. I wonder whether I read a book or whether I saw somebody else in action.
I didn't look at my people as tools of the trade. I looked at them at as assets -- big difference. I felt that when they came into work, they didn't leave themselves at the door and come in to be a tool of the trade. I viewed them as people with families, communities, problems, joys, all that they bring to the workplace. I had to treat each person holistically. I had to get the best out of them by relating to them, head, heart and hands. So, I realised that to build loyalty, to get the best out of people, I needed to engage them in a completely different way than anybody had been engaged.
In a way I wanted to engage them the way I was engaged by my CEOs that I worked for, by my mentors that I worked for. But interestingly, they did it for me and I'm not sure they did it for many others. I thought I was the product of that great mentoring, that great support structure by my bosses, I wanted to be the same for all the people that worked with me at the top two or three levels of the company. So, wherever I had the opportunity, I did that.
You brought a feminine side to this leadership? I use 'feminine' loosely because I don't know how else to describe it. I'm not trying to box you or box women leaders into any kind of stereotype, but I found it interesting.
For instance, the biggest transformation you made at Pepsi was the Performance with Purpose goal - that was your "opus" you write. There were three imperatives - Nourish, Replenish and Cherish. You write in the book about how ‘cherish’ raised a lot of eyebrows.
There was also the other thing that you wrote about which caught my attention - that you wrote to the parents of many of your senior team members at PepsiCo, thanking them for the gift of their child. This is not something common to leaders, this is not textbook stuff. In fact, I don't know how many male leaders would consider that as a sign of strength or superiority or think that it's antithetical to what leadership stands for.
The third bit, you write there were points when you were dejected with people's response to your ideas and you would go into the bathroom attached to your office and cry it out. Again, I don't know how many leaders would admit to that in a book.
So I’d love to hear what went through your mind when you used ‘cherish’ for instance, or more importantly how you fought the pushback to some of this?
Indra Nooyi: So, Nourish and Replenish - easy to take those two words. On the people side, I truly wanted to have each person looked at as an individual and their contributions to the company. I didn't want them to be looked at as employees or associates and that's why I carefully picked the word Cherish.
It's interesting, the very men who might have wondered what am I doing writing to the parents are the very men who loved it when their mothers or fathers got a letter and showed emotion. They would come to the office totally emotional and say, I cannot believe the reaction I got from my mother or my father. My parents are just over the moon. They said, since you were 18, we've never had a report card on you. Now we have this we can show the whole world how wonderful our son or daughter is.
The very men who sort of wondered what I was doing in writing to parents are the very people who love it when they get a positive note about their kids from their work place.
The very men are now writing to the parents of their own employees saying thank you for the gift of your child.
I think it's just that we have all as corporate leaders decided that we should be objective, we should be emotionless, we should treat the workplace like a bunch of robots working in the workplace - work them to the bone, send them out, oil them now and then, replace parts but treat everybody like a robot. I'm saying, no, I have people with a head, with a heart and with hands. All three are going to work together and I'm going to oil all three. I'm going to worry about overworking any one part. I'm going to make sure that all three are in good working order. That means a whole different ways of engaging with people.
You were the first immigrant CEO of PepsiCo, the first non-white male CEO of PepsiCo, the first Asian woman CEO of PepsiCo and yet you didn't feel the pressure to conform?
You did this in your own style, in your own way, girly or not girly, crying or not crying, human or not human. There must have been pushback?
Were there points where you doubted yourself and said, no, maybe I should be different? Maybe I should be more white, male CEO.
How did you come to the point where you didn't really care as much about the pushback and said, no, I'm going to persist with my agenda. Where did that strength come from?
Indra Nooyi: If somebody told me I had to conform I don't know what to do differently. Am I going to change the way I look? No, I look in the mirror I know exactly who I am. Am I going to dress differently? I was already dressing differently, was I going to dress even more differently? No, because I am who I am, clothes fit on me a certain way. I live life a certain way. I have a husband of Indian origin, we are happy in our skin. So, I look at us and go, we are a product of our upbringing. We are a product of our culture, our civilisation. That's who we are.
I'm now working to reposition a company to make it even better than the way it was handed to me. It was in very good shape when it came to me. My job was to make it even better. That's a lot of work by itself. Do I want to add more layers of complexity and say, now I'm going to remake myself. I'm going to create a new persona for Indra Nooyi. I'm going to start drinking, smoking, eating meat. Forget it, it's not worth it. And, if you now start talking funny because you're trying to create a persona for yourself, that's more effort.
So, I decided I'm just going to be true to myself. I'm going to remain who I am. There's going to be no change, but I'm going to work at my job such that I was working for the future success of PepsiCo. Not for the future success of Indra Nooyi, but for the future success of PepsiCo. And, if that resulted in credit to Indra Nooyi, that's fine. But my singular job was to future proof this company, and make sure that the legacy I left behind was a good one. Great successor, well-run company, positioned right for the future. That's all I was interested in doing.
I thought I would be judged after I left, not just when I was there.
There's another candid confession in the book that surprised me - which is your battle with attire. Why did you write about it? It seemed to bother you enough to write about and yet you didn't seem to think of it as 'hey, this was a point of weakness, maybe I should not discuss it so openly'. You’re candid about it.
Indra Nooyi: It's mentorship in action. I think that's the way I look at it.
I was wearing clothes that were long skirts that came up to the ankle. I look at some of the videos and photographs of me from those days. Oh god, it was quite interesting. Nobody gave me dressing tips, I just did what I was comfortable with. But then why did Gordon come to me? Why did Gordon take the effort to do whatever he did, to take me to Saks and suggest that I get a new wardrobe and dress the part? There's something that he saw in me that he thought he could help with. The fact that he took the pain to do that, I was touched. And then I realised that it gave me newfound confidence.
It's interesting, when you dress the part it gives you newfound confidence.
I wasn't changing things about me. I just got a little bit more stylish clothes and I wore some pearls and put on nice scarves, but it was my brand of dressing that he created for me. He didn't make me dress like somebody else, he evolved a new style of dressing for me. I was known for my scarves, my pearls, I was known for that. He dressed me that way.
I'll be honest with you - I'm talking about listening to other people's input. How do you build confidence yourself by using input from well-meaning people? I could have rejected it, but I chose to take it. And, at the end of the day, as you evolve in a job or a new life, different people are going to give you advice. Take it selectively, use it to your advantage and make sure that it makes you a better person or gives you more advantages going forward, it doesn't take you back.
If he had come and said, why don’t you get a tattoo and spike your hair? That's a different ballgame. I would said forget it, I'm not doing it. He could have said wear leather jackets and be a little cooler, he didn't do that. He evolved my personality in the same conservative frame that I had, he just upgraded it a bit. And I thought that gave me more tailwinds which I could have used at that time because I was dealing with a lot of issues globally.
So, selectively you have to decide what advice to take and what not to take. I thought that was a very important moment in my life when somebody who I didn't know at all had the courage to come and talk to me. I don't know what caused me to talk to him, and the fact that I accompanied him to Saks in New York and actually went through the process, that's a lot of courage in him and in me.
There were mentors at every point - through your jobs with ABB, or Motorola, even PepsiCo. But among contemporaries, anyone that you looked up to or anybody whose management style or leadership style or strategic thinking was outstanding? You do talk about a conversation with Steve Jobs that provoked your thoughts on design, anybody else?
Indra Nooyi: I read and watch what CEOs do, I watch them on tape, I watch them in earnings releases, I watch them in investor meetings. So, it's not that I draw lessons from one person, I actually look at different people in different situations. Because, I think, it's not what they do day to day, it's what they do in extraordinary times that teaches you lessons. It teaches you new ways of approaching issues. So I watch all these tapes all the time, I read everything I can about my contemporaries. We also are on Business Roundtable or the Fed boards together - so we all interact and talk to each other. And, we had this little kitchen cabinet of five CEOs. We would all meet and talk about issues. So, it's not that we didn't have support structures. We all created our own support structures to talk to each other and be our own kitchen cabinet. I think that at the end of the day, different people will call you and say, hey you're facing an activist, let me give you some suggestions on how you might want to approach this person.
I remember Larry Fink, head of Blackrock, who has never ever endorsed a CEO strategy publicly when they were in the middle of an activist fight. When an activist entered PepsiCo stock, Larry Fink went on TV and said, I endorsed the strategy of Indra Nooyi and PepsiCo. He didn't have to do that, but he did it. Everybody was surprised, everybody in the industry was surprised because Larry Fink is such a big figure. My board and I was surprised. I called Larry Fink and said, wow, thanks, Larry. His point was, I fully endorse your strategy and direction, just keep going. Then he invited me to address his senior management meeting. I still remember, that day Larry had major tooth surgery, and in spite of that he came and moderated the discussion with me, with all that pain. Because he felt it was important that he gave me the explicit support so I could keep doing what I was doing.
Sometimes you luck out. I lucked out on these people who stepped out and put their reputation on the line to support me. This is where I think I just say thank-you to God for giving me these opportunities and these people in my life, because without them I'm not sure I could have been successful.
You don't write much about Nelson Peltz in the book. You make a reference to activist funds and it's not very flattering.
“Activist funds pursued companies with decent cash flow where they thought they could perturb the CEO enough to do their bidding.”
It was a long, ugly fight, but you've devoted barely a page and a half to it?
Indra Nooyi: Because in my 25 year career at PepsiCo, if I took the time that the activist had any call on my time, it was less than a page and a half equivalent. But, I just talked about the journey of being with an activist. Although, I have to tell you, I like Nelson Peltz. He's a friend of mine and we still remain friends, long after he's gone from my stock. He was a friend for many years before he came into my stock, he remains a friend after.
When activists come, you can't immediately say they're bad people. You have to listen to what they have to say because that's free consulting. But, just don't do what they're saying if you think it's not right for the company. That's the way I approached it.
Through my entire interaction with first Ralph Whitworth and then Nelson Peltz, I remained cordial, respectful, and made sure that they knew that I was listening to every one of their ideas, studying them carefully and if I didn't agree with it I told them that. Because, I said to them, I'm running the company for the duration of the company, not for the short term.
Nelson had a theory which was a perfectly plausible theory, but it was not a better theory than what the theory was that we were operating under. At the end of the day, I had to know whether what we're doing is the right thing or not, which was what I was focused on.
As you look back now, with the benefit of hindsight, any failures? The book doesn't talk about any.
Indra Nooyi: The one that I think about a lot is Pepsi Refresh. I think in 2007 or 2008, instead of advertising for millions of dollars in the Super Bowl, because we were in the middle of the financial crisis, I agreed with the Pepsi team when they came with a plan where they were going to take 20-30% of the Super Bowl advertising money and then the annual marketing budget and do a different sort of advertising for Pepsi.
They were going to call this ‘Refreshing Every Community’. So communities would suggest ideas for little projects -- $50,000, $25,000 or $10,000 or $5,000 grants to improve the community. The community would vote to decide who should be at the top of the list, and then the public would vote to see who should get the grants. I thought it was a fantastic marketing program, I approved it and we did it for a few months, almost a year. But then people said, your job is to advertise Pepsi, not to improve communities. I thought we were in the middle of the financial crisis and this was the best way to show that Pepsi cared. But, many people felt that putting money behind the brand, showing shots of people drinking the brand, showing the joy of Pepsi was the way to go.
At that time, for unconnected reasons, we lost two tenths of a point of share. People were up in arms about it. I said if it's really such an irksome thing for people, let me go back to the core of Pepsi. I killed Pepsi Refresh. I'll tell you something, for a long time, even today, I regret that I pulled Pepsi Refresh - because it was an unbelievable, community-oriented campaign.
That was the worst thing you did in 25 years?
Indra Nooyi: It was not the worst thing. But, the worst thing that happened to me in terms of a bad decision. There were many like that, many like that. Overtime you buy a company, don't integrate it well, you run into issues and you have to start over again. Or, you buy a company and you're going to take it up to $700 million in five years, but it only reaches $300 million. That's a failure in my books. There are a lot of those examples, but those happen behind the scenes and we make it up through other ways.
A product is launched with great fanfare. We think it's going to do great. In three months you pull it because the consumer says, I don't like it. The cost of failure in our business is low when you launch a product but there were many of those, many, many of those. Around the world there were many of those.
You learn from the failures. And then you go back and retool your process so that you can study the issue a little bit more before you launch something. But, you learn from failures.
You're still actively involved in corporate America. What do you think has changed in leadership, in management -- the way your generation has approached it and the way leaders today need to approach it?
Indra Nooyi: I think that CEOs are now beginning to realise that to have a great workforce they’ve got to have a very inclusive workforce. Diversity has to be on the front burner. And, they’ve now realised that bringing women in, bringing people of different backgrounds makes for better decisions, makes for a better corporate environment. They are beginning to think about the support systems to give young family builders and people of different ethnicities to be able to come to work and have families. So, that's a great point for progress.
Second is, everybody's talking about issues related to unconscious bias that exist in corporations. People are working to actively identify and remove them, not by shaming people, but more by providing examples of how life could be better were we not to have incidents of unconscious bias. I think, sensitivity levels have gone up. The economic argument is much more explicit. And, you're beginning to see meaningful corporate action.
Finally, I think women themselves have brought the lack of women representation in senior positions, they've brought it to the attention of everybody. A lot of people are talking about it, organisations like Catalyst, Melinda Gates, MacKenzie Scott... all of these people are beginning to talk about it.
So, you're getting powerful people talking about it, corporate leaders beginning to do something about it, and the whole economic argument wrapped around it. You put that all together, I would say that change is coming.
It's been slow in coming but now it's picking up speed.
I think that's why there are more women CEOs in the marketplace today, more people are being appointed to CEO positions. I think you'll see a lot more of that. We even have a female Vice President of the United States.
Those who read your book will know that you never did really retire because you say that you continue to work 18 hours a day. What does Indra Nooyi do now? What does she eat, drink watch, wear? Who are you today?
Indra Nooyi: I sit on corporate boards; I advise a lot of start-ups. I teach at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. I sit on the board of Memorial Sloan Kettering. I do a lot of stuff to give my time to people who would benefit from my time. I sit on the board of Amazon and Philips, so that gives me good corporate experience and continued experience. I love the portfolio of things I'm doing.
Besides that, I was co-chair of ReOpen Connecticut, so I learned all about the pandemic. I'm the co-chair of the Connecticut Economic Development Council, so I know all about state economic development. Whoever calls for help, I'm always there.
I mentored 20 South Asian high school kids from this area, I volunteered to do that. I called the India Cultural Centre and said I'd like to mentor 20 high school kids. I did that for eight weeks—it was the most rewarding experience of my life, I loved doing that.
I'm spending a little bit more time with my daughters who are all grown up and got their own jobs, but they're living around our house so we try to have meals together, we try to cook together.
I do binge watch shows. In the U.S., I've watched Mindy Kaling’s show, Never Have I Ever, I’ve watched Kim’s Convenience. I've watched all kinds of interesting TV shows here. I binge-watched them, I watched all the episodes. The Crown, Succession, Villains—all of them.
Indian shows, I watch Indian Idol. I've been watching this TV show called Anupama. It's driving me nuts, because I cannot believe women are being portrayed that way. It just makes me mad, but I'm still watching it because I'm addicted to it. So, I watched bizarre shows. I might watch a Hindi movie with English subtitles because somebody told me it's a great movie and so I watch it. I watch YouTube channels when I feel like it.
Look when you don't sleep much, there's a lot of time on our hands to read, watch TV, watch stuff on your iPad. I do all of this; I listen to music. It's a good life, I must say. It is life-fulfilling.
Watch the full interview with Indra Nooyi here.