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Crucial lessons from ex-PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi's memoir

Updated on: 28 September,2021 10:53 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Sukanya Datta |

From a determined little Girl Scout growing up in Madras to an immigrant business leader shattering the glass ceiling, the ex-PepsiCo CEO’s trailblazing journey comes to life in a tell-all memoir. With the help of a coach, we decode a few crucial lessons from the book

Crucial lessons from ex-PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi's memoir

Nooyi’s memoir emphasises on the need for workplaces to view employees, and their families, as part of the organisation. Representation pic

Years before she was revolutionising the path of PepsiCo, one of the largest consumer packaged goods companies in the world, as its CEO, a young Indra Nooyi, along with her siblings, would spend days playing, snoozing and singing on a huge rosewood swing set that graced the women’s living room in their middle-class Madras home. This was pre-liberalisation India, before Madras was Chennai. Life was frugal, but a sense of clockwork discipline bound Nooyi, her sister Chandrika, and brother, Nandu — one that was silently instilled by their pragmatic parents, under the watchful eyes of thatha (grandfather). And so, while Nooyi delves into her conquests across the world in her hot-off-the-press memoir My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future (Hachette India), it’s her foundational years — spent frolicking on the swing, solving maths problems by her thatha’s bedside, churning butter to help amma, and forming the first women’s cricket team of her college — that lend us a peek into the person behind the leader.

The awe-inspiring book traces her journey across the globe. From her school and college days in Madras/Chennai to her B-school years in IIM Calcutta, a sales trainee in Mumbai, and an immigrant student at Yale, it charts her ascent as a diligent, hard-working strategist who rose through the ranks at Motorola, The Boston Consulting Group, ASEA Brown Boveri and PepsiCo. Through all of this, she reminds us, her family — two daughters, husband, parents and siblings — continues to occupy centrestage. Of course, there are curveballs, but Nooyi offers us an honest insight into how she hits them out of the park. Here are a few lessons from her life that stayed with us, and which victory coach Farzana Suri decodes for corporate leaders:

Indra Nooyi. Pic Courtesy/Dave Puente
Indra Nooyi. Pic Courtesy/Dave Puente

1 Show, don’t tell: Despite steering the path of some of the most sought-after companies in the world, and becoming an inspiration for generations of women, Nooyi remains humble. She celebrates her Indian upbringing, acknowledges her privilege, and is all about show, don’t tell. Suri reflects that when leaders lean in on their humble beginnings, they exemplify that hard work, skill and equal opportunities are valued. “It doesn’t matter what you, as a leader of a family or corporation, tell people; it’s what you show them that registers. This is a sure-fire way of earning respect and trust,” Suri adds.

2  Be open to feedback: Instead of fearing the critics slamming PepsiCo for unhealthy products, Nooyi learnt from them, changing the course of the company towards a more responsible and environmentally sustainable direction. “It’s when leaders stop coming from the space of ‘I know better’ or ‘I know it all’, that the paradigm shifts towards growth. This requires courage, and the confidence and security of knowing who and what you are — a work in progress,” Suri explains. When leaders open themselves to feedback, they show that their leadership is not about them, but what serves the greater good.

Farzana Suri
Farzana Suri

3 There’s no substitute for research and legwork: Be it as a sales trainee going door to door in Mumbai, a senior executive diving into research to devise strategy, or a CEO making personal visits to grocery stores to understand how people buy, Nooyi is never afraid of legwork. Suri tells us that in the corporate world, when you stay in the ivory tower of your office chamber, you run the risk of being kept out of the information loop. “Staying informed as a leader gives you the advantage of recognising shifts in corporate/customer dynamics at a 
grassroots level,” she asserts.

4 View the employee, and their family, as part of your organisation: As someone who values her family above all, Nooyi’s book is a handbook on how to manage work and personal life. She fiercely advocates the need for employers to address the disconnect that exists between the corporate world and the stress of building families, through infrastructural and behavioural support, including childcare and eldercare provisions, healthcare policies, and paid leaves. Suri shares that such an approach ensures engaged, loyal and more productive employees. “Employees work best when they’re able to accomplish everything they need to do professionally, while ensuring they meet all home and family obligations without burnout,” she reveals.

5 Be empathetic: Whether as a Girl Scout eager to help all, or a CEO who writes thank-you letters to her employees’ parents, Nooyi is an empathetic leader. Suri notes that like Nooyi, good leaders demonstrate a you-come-first attitude. “You must be accessible. The leaders who value people will make spending time on them a priority, and reap the benefits of loyalty,” she adds.

6 Companies aren’t just profit-making centres: While devising the ‘Performance with Purpose’ framework for PepsiCo, Nooyi says, “What’s good for commerce and what’s good for society have to go together” — a piece of advice that helps build lasting legacy organisations. “Leaders embracing a business approach driven by purpose are likely to be more profitable in the long-term than an attempt to maximise shareholder value,” Suri sums up.

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