Updated: Jun 30, 2019
Indra Nooyi has been a mentor of sorts to me. We’ve never met, but I’ve watched her career closely over the years. As chair of the board and CEO of PepsiCo, a $150 billion business, she is undoubtedly one of the most powerful women in the world.
I visit her wisdom and quote her often because she is a phenomenal example to immigrant women leaders, but she’s also an example to all women leaders.
Indra was born in Chennai, India, and grew up during the food shortages of the 1960s. She obtained her BS and MBA degrees from two of India’s most prestigious institutions — Madras Christian College and Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, respectively. During her early professional career in India, she worked at Johnson & Johnson and Mettur Baerdsell, a textile company.
She migrated to the United States with a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree at Yale School of Management in 1978. Following graduation, she joined Boston Consulting Group, and subsequently held strategy positions at Motorola and Asea Brown Boveri.
She joined PepsiCo as chief strategist in 1994. She became PepsiCo’s chief financial officer in 2000, president in 2001, and chair of the board and CEO in 2006.
Indra Exits PepsiCo
Her upcoming departure from her roles as PepsiCo board chair and CEO, announced on August 6, 2018, has led to numerous conversations about the declining population of women CEOs.
As we seek to reverse this trend, one of the most important tasks is to prime the next generation of women leaders. In Indra’s words to the WSJ, “We are accelerating the development. So I think in the next five to 10 years we should see a big cohort of women coming through the C-suite.”
What can this cohort of women leaders learn from Indra Nooyi? Below are key lessons for women, particularly immigrant women, who’d like to accelerate their development as leaders and learn from this outstanding world leader.
Seven Lessons From Indra’s Leadership
1) Be Visionary. Indra defined her vision for PepsiCo early on and inspired colleagues and stakeholders to bring it to life. She led the company through the financial crisis, successfully fought off an activist investor, and steered the company away from sugary drinks and toward healthier options. During her tenure, the company’s revenue rose 81 percent to $63.5 billion.
Fundamental change and innovation take time, but they all begin with visionary leaders.
2) Be Strategic. Indra is a strategist by profession, but she also exhibits mastery of this critical leadership trait.
Summit Leadership Partners describes being strategic as involving a combination of skills, behaviors, and perspectives: curiosity; challenging the status quo; continually weighing short- and long-term decisions and related implications; taking a broad perspective; balancing the interests of various stakeholders; and maintaining self-awareness.
Reports of her departure consistently note that she leaves PepsiCo with a sterling reputation and a track record she can be proud of. She’s served in the role for 12 years, twice as long as the average S&P 500 CEO tenure. She wasn’t forced out by investors, the board, or other unpleasant circumstances. A year ago, she decided the time was right to leave PepsiCo and advised the Board to begin planning for her departure, including grooming a successor.
The length of her tenure, her record, and the manner in which she is departing are all indicative of this leadership trait and the value she’s consistently brought to the company.
3) Be a Student for Life: When she took the helm as PepsiCo CEO in 2006, Indra spoke to Steve Jobs to learn how he transformed Apple, and shares that she put his advice to practice. Even after over a decade in her role as CEO, she states that she is still learning. She speaks of disruption, including how she gleans insights from other industries, works to understand market trends, and explores how to engage those trends to create value for investors.
In a 2015 Harvard Business Review interview, she stated, “Every morning, we’ve got to wake up with a healthy fear that the world is changing and a conviction that, to win, you have to change faster and be more agile than anyone else.”
4) Acknowledge and Learn from Mistakes: Perfection is not the goal. Indra acknowledged when PepsiCo erred. A prominent example is the Kendall Jenner ad campaign in 2017, which led to enormous backlash for the company. She acted quickly, pulling the ad and acknowledging the company’s mistakes. Earlier in her tenure, she overcame an activist investor’s quest to break up the company. Notably, today she calls the investor constructive, stating that the experience helped challenge the company to think critically about its strategy.
5) Embrace your Immigrace: Some believe that immigrants should rid ourselves of, or significantly downplay, certain cultural attributes (e.g., names, accents) in order to be successful in the United States. I advise immigrant women leaders to embrace what I call their immigrace, those unique attributes we bring to the United States and to the world. I believe our genius lies in our unique, unrepeatable stories.
Indra integrates her unique, personal brand into her corporate brand, including aspects of her Indian culture. She proudly wears Indian fashion at social events and enhances outfits with beautifully textured Indian scarves. She speaks frequently of her journey from growing up in India to leading a large global corporation.
Ultimately, Indra says she is “at home” in both Indian and American cultures, which, I believe, should be the exemplar for all immigrant women leaders in the United States.
6) Communicate Effectively: Indra embodies executive presence. She has mastered, as I define it, “the art of presenting herself in a manner that is professional, competent and confident and commands the highest levels of respect and engagement.” Indra communicates with clarity and is also known to simplify even the most complex ideas.
She has famously cited effective communication as one of the five Cs of leadership (the other four are competence, courage and confidence, consistency, and compass). In her estimation, “You cannot over-invest in your communication skills, written and oral.”
7) Leave the Crown in the Garage: As one of the most powerful women in the world, Indra Nooyi is a queen in her own right, and has been referred to as such for years (as early as 2009). The October 2017 print edition of Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women in Business featured Indra on the cover as the “Queen of Pop.”
Indra chooses to wear that crown, leading effectively as the company’s top executive and world leader, but also chooses to sometimes set it aside in her role as daughter, wife, sister, and mother in the family, all roles that no one else can take.
In a July 2017 LinkedIn article, she shared the story of how she learned this powerful lesson. She had arrived at home at 10:00 p.m., excited to tell her family the news of her appointment as president of PepsiCo, but her mother sent her out to the grocery store to buy milk. When her mother eventually heard her news, she responded, “Let me explain something to you. You may be president of PepsiCo. But when you step into this house, you’re a wife and mother first. Nobody can take that place. So leave the crown in the garage.” Indra speaks candidly of the challenges women face in managing work and family priorities. She recommends collaboration among families, governments, companies, societies, and other stakeholders to drive long-term solutions for working mothers around the world.
With Profound Gratitude …
Indra leaves a remarkable legacy at PepsiCo. I am grateful that she continues to lead with grace. Her example will deeply inspire generations of immigrant women leaders for decades to come.
About The Author
Chinwe Esimai is Managing Director and Chief Anti-Bribery Officer at Citigroup, where she oversees the firm’s global anti-bribery program. She was born in Nigeria and is passionate about inspiring immigrant women leaders. She shares leadership insights for immigrant women at chinweesimai.com and at Forbes.
Originally posted on LinkedIn.