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Nine secrets of Indra Nooyi’s success, culled from 'My Life in Full'

We read 'My Life in Full' - by former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi - from cover to cover, and distilled nine of the most important lessons from her success story.

October 15, 2021 / 07:27 PM IST
Indra Nooyi at the 2008 World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos. When juggling responsibilities at work and home became challenging, Nooyi writes that she depended on a

Indra Nooyi at the 2008 World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos. When juggling responsibilities at work and home became challenging, Nooyi writes that she depended on a "sisterhood of friends" across India, Israel and the US. (Image: WEF via Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0)

In her new book My Life In Full (2021), published by Hachette India, former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi – who has also been awarded the Padma Bhushan, India's third-highest civilian award – writes in great detail about her personal and professional growth. We read the book from cover to cover, and distilled nine of the most important lessons from her success story. While her examples are from corporate America, the broader ideas can be applied by people across various continents and contexts.

1. Be a contributor

When Indra Nooyi moved from India to the United States for her education at Yale University, she “felt like a guest” in that country. She wanted to be viewed “as an upright person, a contributor, and not a liability”. She had difficulty settling into her new reality, but she was also aware of the privileges she had – proficiency in spoken English, $500, and the safety net of her family back in Chennai. Knowing that her migration was not linked to poverty or persecution made her grateful for the opportunities that she had. She wanted to adjust, excel, and belong. She wholeheartedly embraced the US but never forgot her Indian roots.

2. Incorporate feedback

The programme that Nooyi signed up for at Yale was a new master’s in public and private management. Her class had over 100 students with experience in politics, the military, and the non-profit sector. At first, Nooyi was shocked to see the difference between teacher-student interactions in India and the US. She kept herself open to candid feedback. She had to learn how to let people finish their sentences, to be mindful of her body language, and “to include everyone in group conversations.” She benefited a great deal from incorporating suggestions “to speak clearly and deliberately” and remain “pithy” with her interjections.

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3. Adopt a constructive tone

When Nooyi became vice-president at Motorola, she “could be very blunt” while trying to quickly make all the right decisions. She would say things like “Your strategy makes no sense” or “There’s no way you can deliver the return you have assumed in your financial model.” Her CEO, George Fisher, helped her see that it was not an effective approach even if she meant well. People were feeling put-off. He coached her to say things like “Help me understand how this comes together. As I see it, this technology platform requires a lot of investment and patience. Is it prudent to factor in a quick return?” Initially, Nooyi felt that this approach was too soft, but she grew to appreciate it after she tried it and got positive results.

4. Focus on details; read everything

As the president of PepsiCo, Nooyi began to set up a new enterprise system to handle the company’s growth because the legacy systems used by the IT department were proving to be cumbersome. When she got a 25-page document laying out all the costs, she realized that the $1.5 billion capital expenditure “was so technical”, even she could not comprehend it. She bought books to study enterprise systems, process mapping, data warehousing and master data management, cancelled her annual trip to India, went back to her team with questions and approved the spending only after she was satisfied. She learnt that leaders must read everything they are sent “as a mark of respect” to the people who report to them, and because it is their responsibility. They must understand the details behind what they sign and approve.

5. Cultivate friendships

Juggling her responsibilities at work and home became more challenging for Nooyi when she became the CEO of PepsiCo. Her husband never made her feel guilty for “not being home with the kids” but she could sense that he felt overlooked. Nooyi found it helpful to be validated by “a sisterhood of friends” who were not connected to her family life and her work life. She was able to vent and feel heard in her interactions with them. She did not feel any pressure to impress them or prove herself. “There are times when we don’t want to be told that we are wrong, and we don’t want to be told what to do differently,” she says. This sisterhood is scattered across India, Israel and the US. They do not have to meet in person.

6. Invest in the best

To manifest her performance-with-purpose philosophy, combining commercial success with social responsibility, Nooyi hired Mehmood Khan as her chief scientific officer. It was an unconventional choice. He was president of global R&D at Takeda Pharmaceuticals and had also led the diabetes, endocrine and nutritional trials unit at Mayo Clinic. Getting him helped PepsiCo cut the sweetness in Pepsi-Cola without affecting its taste, reduce the sodium in their snacks, make gluten-free Quaker Oats, incorporate higher levels of recycled plastic in soda bottles, and use water-saving equipment. This was possible because Khan hired “new people with knowledge and skills that PepsiCo had never sought before – molecular biology, physiology, pharmacology, computer modeling, environmental engineering.”

7. Innovate for specific customer cohorts

Nooyi likes to watch how shoppers interact with products at grocery stores. Once, she was in the parking lot of a store near a retirement village in Florida. She saw some shoppers being helped out of their cars, and others using motorized wheelchairs. She thought about how PepsiCo could factor in the “needs of boomers and the silver generation.” She sent a team to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, where they picked up insights on “labelling, typefaces, ergonomics, and aging Americans’ view of a grocery shelf.” Innovation could improve their lives, and increase the chances of their buying PepsiCo’s products.

8. Champion women at the workplace

Throughout her early career, Nooyi had no women bosses, colleagues or role models. Having faced bias and discrimination, she decided to make things better for other women as she rose up in the hierarchy and got more decision-making power. She says, “I made sure my corporate strategy team was as good as it could be, and it ended up 50 percent female.” When men in the company told her that they could not find suitable women candidates, she asked them to cast the net wider and look for the right people. She held women-only town halls for employees, and also fired men who were reported for sexual harassment. Reflecting on her own experiences as a mother, she also pushed for on-campus childcare services.

9. Guard your precious time

Nooyi is a meticulous planner, and this quality has helped her get the most out of her day as a business leader, wife, mother and daughter. However, in her farewell letter to 270,000 employees while stepping down as PepsiCo CEO, she wrote, “Think hard about time. We have so little of it on this earth. Make the most of your days and make the space for the loved ones who matter the most. Take it from me. I’ve been blessed with an amazing career, but if I’m being honest, there have been moments I wish I’d spent more time with my children and my family. So, I encourage you: be mindful of your choices on the road ahead.”
Chintan Girish Modi is an independent journalist, writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect
first published: Oct 15, 2021 07:27 pm

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