Indra Nooyi devotes many pages in the book to a serious discussion about how companies must step up to provide employees an infrastructure of care so they can breathe easy. (Source: Reuters)
Indra Nooyi’s much-awaited book My Life in Full, published by Hachette India, is completely worth the hype that it has generated. Whether you want to read it as the biography of PepsiCo’s former CEO, or as the story of a woman of colour in corporate America, as a resource on diversity and inclusion, or as an Indian immigrant’s love letter to her glorious American dream, this book will not fail you. It engages with all these topics. The business leader has delivered yet another winner.
The most endearing thing about this book is that Nooyi, even while talking about her achievements, does not come across as blowing her own trumpet. Her gratitude for the personal and professional support systems in her life that enabled her rise and her success reverberates throughout this book.
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For starters, she mentions that the book was “shaped and written by Lisa Kassenaar, a most gifted writer”. This acknowledgement is important yet often missing from books by celebrities who have ghost writers, secretaries, assistants and spouses doing a lot of the writing on their behalf. Kassenaar took Nooyi’s “stories, facts, anecdotes, and pages of edits” to weave them into “beautiful chapters, each with core lessons”. Nooyi calls Kaseenaar “a real treasure”, and says, “I am in awe of her skills.”
Appreciating people’s contributions is a habit that has served Nooyi well. If you read this book, you will notice the profound impact that encouragement can have on the self-esteem, well-being and performance of employees. Once, while reflecting on how her accomplishments would not have been possible without the opportunities her parents and grandparents gave her as a young girl in Madras (now Chennai), she came up with the idea of writing to parents of her senior executives.
In the book, she shares, “Over the next ten years, I wrote hundreds of notes, thanking mothers and fathers for the gift of their child to PepsiCo. I also wrote to the spouses of all my direct reports, thanking them for sharing their husband or wife with PepsiCo. I worked with my chief of staff to help personalize the letters for each recipient.” If this makes her sound like Elizabeth McCord from the television series Madam Secretary, you will notice many other similarities when you read the book.
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While Nooyi heaps well-deserved praise on the men who mentored her, she is also candid about the discrimination that she faced as a woman in the upper echelons of power occupied mainly by men. She reveals, “Golf-and-business stories may seem cliché, but connections forged over eighteen holes aren’t incidental, and some of the most coveted places to play in the US still bar women.”
In 2007, Don Kendall – a man who served as PepsiCo’s CEO much before Nooyi – invited her to join Westchester County’s Blind Brook Country Club. It is quite close to PepsiCo’s campus in Purchase, New York. This club has been used by many of PepsiCo’s past CEOs to entertain customers and friends. Nooyi could not join it because membership was open only to men. Kendall suggested that Nooyi get her husband to become a member so that she could get access to the club as his wife.
When Nooyi checked in with her husband, Raj, about this idea, he looked at her in horror. “Why would we ever become members of a country club that doesn’t accept women? Forget it,” he said. Kendall, apparently, was unable to fathom why Nooyi turned down the creative work-around.
Being an immigrant and a person of colour brought her criticism from colleagues seething with resentment and jealousy. “I knew I had been referred to as a ‘quota hire’ when I joined PepsiCo in 1994,” she shares. When Nooyi became a CEO, it was assumed that an Indian American hire was Nooyi’s contact. Women and people of colour who were promoted by her were seen as benefiting from her diversity and inclusion agenda, rather than being rewarded for their contributions.
It was frustrating but she learnt to laugh at the situation, as leaders must. If they let every snub ruin their peace of mind, they would never be able to do what they need to in order to run their business and make profits. Nooyi shares, “Sometimes I felt like people assumed that everyone from India—all 1.3 billion people—were my cousins or somehow related to me. It was disheartening but amusing in its own disturbing way.” She writes without any bitterness, and has a charming sense of humour.
While women who aspire to high-profile leadership roles in the corporate world will have much to learn from Nooyi’s journey, this book must also be read by men who are unaware about the barriers women face in realizing their potential. Nooyi makes a strong case for paid maternity and paternity leave as well as childcare. She had a supportive husband, mother, mother-in-law, housekeeper, nanny and relatives to help raise her two daughters. A lot of women do not have this kind of help.
Nooyi still had to deal with pangs of guilt on several occasions when she had to be away from her family in order to fulfill professional duties and advance her career. She devotes many pages in the book to a serious discussion about how companies must step up to recognize that employees need an infrastructure of care in order to breathe easy. She says, “We learned fast during the COVID crisis that our economy is fully equipped, across many roles and industries, for people to work remotely.”
This book does an excellent job of championing the idea that what is good for business must also be good for society. Nooyi addresses many concerns that have been raised about PepsiCo’s products in the last few decades – their impact on public health, their consumption of water resources, their over-dependence on plastic for packaging. The solutions and alternatives that she worked on during her tenure are presented in a manner that will appeal to those interested in innovation.
Nooyi recounts how she met the people who made her think differently, and how they filled the gaps in her knowledge. The humility to admit ignorance is under-emphasized in lists of leadership qualities that are must-haves. This book is a reminder of how vital it is to be a student and listener.