She is the Chairperson and CEO of the second largest food and beverage business in the world, and a naturalised American, but her innate Indianness and the warmth that comes so naturally to those growing up in a large, bustling family in India is, unmistakably, the first thing one notices about Indra Nooyi. A phenomenal success journey that saw her take over the corner office at PepsiCo in a matter of fifteen years, here she talks about her love for her work, and why the view from the top is as perilous as it is breathtaking.
GJ: When you look back at your childhood, what were you like as a young girl?
IN: I was a happy-go-lucky, athletic young girl. I played cricket and volleyball, climbed trees, participated in every debating competition possible and was always pushing myself to do things that were seemingly impossible to do. I had lots of people to mentor me—in expected and unexpected ways—and a wonderfully close family, with a great brother and sister. Family support made a huge difference to me because I grew up feeling very secure, knowing that I had parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and a big group of cousins, and that we were not wealthy, but we were full of love.
GJ: So would you say that your Indian heritage and DNA have influenced your success and working style?
IN: I grew up in an environment that emphasized hard word and the fact that if you promise to do something, you never let anyone down. The value of hard work is something that was drilled into me from the time I was born. Even today, I push myself to work extremely hard.
Growing up in India, you are surrounded by warmth, big families, lots of people and a society that embraces you. So in many ways, I have brought that with me to PepsiCo; I view it as my big family. I don’t care what the size of it is, it is my family and I have a deep emotional commitment to people here, much like we all do towards our families. In a way, the warmth of Indian families, the all-encompassing way we embrace second, third, fourth, fifth cousins, is something I have carried with me.
GJ: Before your stellar career at PepsiCo, you worked at British Textile Company, Tootal, Johnson & Johnson, Boston Consulting Group, Motorola, and eventually Brown Boveri. What were the most important and formative lessons you learnt in that phase of your career?
IN: In India, Tootal’s was called Mettur Beardsell. What I did at every job was that I worked extremely hard. And I was always a student. I learned everything about the industry, about the job, and I didn’t care what the job was, I just wanted to learn and contribute. The biggest benefit of being in different industries, having different experiences and working in all parts of the world is that you get a very broad perspective of business. You don’t have a narrow view of one industry or one set of issues. I learned everything from technology to heavy engineering to banks and everything. It gave me a very broad perspective, which I brought to my job with PepsiCo. This is why I was able to do the job very well.
GJ: In your professional shift from India to the US, did you have to make any adjustments or changes to your own working style?
IN: I had to make a lot of changes, and I do that even now—the way I dressed, spoke and carried myself; I had to learn to be more clear, and write in a much more logical and simple way. The most important thing when you come to a foreign country and decide to participate in mainstream business is that you can preserve your individuality, even as you embrace the local culture. And I balance that very carefully. I make sure to keep the elements of my local culture, but at the end of the day, I want to be a very good executive in PepsiCo or any other company that I was previously a part of.
Coming to work was not just about putting my background and individuality on display; it was more about getting the job done. I focused on questions such as how do I position myself as a better executive, get people to pay attention to what I am saying and not how I look or what I am wearing. I really worked hard at making sure that I was a very good executive who was taken seriously for what she was saying.
GJ: Of course, your journey has had its shares of challenges and triumphs, and you have had to make thousands of decisions. At PepsiCo, would you say that there have been significant decision you have made and lessons you have learnt?
IN: If we don’t have challenges along with the triumphs, we will never learn. Because when you are in such a big, iconic company, and do anything with it as a senior executive, the whole company is looking at you and everyone of any relevance in the world is looking at you; you are always in some sort of a fish bowl.
Over the years, I have had many challenges. Over time, you develop the courage of conviction, build the ability to dig into the details, and simply deliver on what you said you would deliver. That has been my rule over the past twenty years, at PepsiCo or any other job.
The biggest decision that I have made during my time at PepsiCo was that even when other very attractive offers came to me from other companies, I was so committed to this company that I said an absolute ‘no’ to those offers. Whatever the problems might have been at that time at PepsiCo, I stayed because I feel that when you are a very senior executive in a company, you are responsible for solving problems.
So, I feel like PepsiCo is my company. I have an incredible sense of ownership and have made a very firm decision to stay here. I think it is the best thing I did because besides the fact that being the CEO of an iconic company is fulfilling, transformative and spectacular, I simply love my time here.
GJ: How has your philosophy of ‘performance with purpose’ shaped the company so far?
IN: It has given the company a soul and depth, and now our employees connect with the company even better. Because they now believe that we don’t just do business, we do it in a very conscious way. Because they know that the way in which we make money is different, and is more than just giving away money for charitable causes. We are conducting business in a much more responsible manner. We are working to transform our portfolio, looking to be even more environmentally conscious, and we want to treat our people very well. So when people within the company see all of this, they are proud to be a part of it and talk about it.
Most importantly, I tell all my people that if there is something you don’t like about the company, go ahead and change it. When employees know that their company is doing business the right way, making money the right way, and operating with integrity and ethics, it makes us a better company and all the people better citizens within their own communities, too.
GJ: What would you say is the important facet of your time at PepsiCo?
IN: I came in as the head of corporate strategy and went on to restructure PepsiCo. Then I became CFO, President and CFO; after which I was CEO and finally, chairman and CEO, all within a period of fifteen years. So, it has been a very fulfilling journey. I would say the biggest thing about PepsiCo is that as long you perform well, make meaningful contributions to the company, and put the firm before yourself, they do everything possible to move you ahead.
GJ: Do you consider yourself an agent of change? If yes, why?
IN: Absolutely. In today’s volatile world, if you are not an agent of change, you should not be a leader. The world is not standing still, something is changing every day and as a leader, you have to make sure you always ensure the growth of the company in spite of all the volatility. The only way to stay one step ahead is to be an agent of change.
GJ: You have said that leadership is hard but good leadership is even harder, and if you get people to follow you to the end of the earth, you are a great leader. What would your advice be to aspiring leaders?
IN: Nobody is going to push you; you have to push yourself. It is like climbing Mount Everest: once you reach the summit, staying there is harder than the journey that brought you there. The view is fantastic, but there are other people too who are looking to reach that summit. You are being hit by the winds, it’s very cold and the platform is really very small. Being a leader is very much like that. Once you get to the top, too many people are looking at you, there are too many critics and very few supporters, and you have a lot to get done.
Aspiring leaders have to raise the bar for themselves all the time. They have to embrace learning and be a student all their lives. You have to listen a lot, get out of your office, reach people–your employees, partners–and have as much emotional IQ as intelligence. Because nothing can be done only by a CEO; people help make everything happen. So the important questions are: how will you work with people, motivate them, encourage them, cope with them, get them to execute on your tender and stay one step ahead of everybody else? It is really tough.
GJ: Your story is one of dedication. Have you, over the years, stayed inspired by a particular vision, or ambition?
IN: I will be very honest with you. I never started off by saying that I am going to be a CEO. I just wanted to do a great job, whatever I was doing. So I had no personal vision or ambition that got me here.
Once you become CEO, though, you have to decide what kind of company you want to build because other people are not going to tell you what to do. You have to decide what to do. So I had to ask myself that question and I think ‘performance with purpose’ was born then. Once we articulated it, with all the details, the challenge was to execute it. Because the first thing is to set out goals and metrics, and the second is to get everybody aligned with them. Setting up ‘performance with purpose’ was difficult.
I think what helped was that when I articulated the vision, I expected resistance but what amazed me is people loved it because they said it touched something inside their hearts. So it wasn’t an intellectual goal as much as it was an emotional goal for all of them. They found that it connected them to the company, connected them to their families and society, because now they could talk about this company as part of their identity. And so that was the vision I had for the company.
GJ: What would you say are the traits you possess that have helped you shatter the glass ceiling? Are these characteristics that you can trace back to your childhood?
IN: I always had a constant desire and curiosity to learn; to re-conceptualize situations and not be happy with the status quo; and look for the next best thing to do. I don’t look upon my job as a job. I have an incredible sense of ownership and look at it as a calling. And all of that has helped me professionally.
If you approach your job as just another job, it will be difficult and terrible. Every morning, I approach my work as an opportunity to change the world. I ask myself: what can I do to make the world a better place, and the company a better one? What can I do to help make this world better for people? My way of thinking is different, and I motivate myself to push and never give up. You have to stay motivated. The worst thing is to be motivated for a few days and then dump it; it does not work that way.
GJ: Have there been key decisions you have made, in your personal and professional lives, that have got you to where you are now?
IN: In my profession, I have taken on very difficult problems and been courageous in proposing the right solutions, which have not necessarily been the popular solutions. This means that people know that if something comes from me and my office, I have studied it, analyzed it and the conclusion I have reached may not be politically correct but is the right one for the company.
Personally, I think my decision to be a wife and a mother, while also being a good daughter and daughter-in-law, has been very difficult. There are only so many hours in a day, and juggling all of these roles was very hard. Maybe I have not done as well as someone who was focused on them may have. I have tried to be a mom when I could, a wife when I could, and so on. I wish I had seventy-two hours in a day, and not twenty-four.
GJ: How important is the support of the family to achieve as much as you have?
IN: If you want to have a family, their support is crucial. There are those who will say, I don’t want to have a family and am just going to be single. I am a very family-oriented person and there was no way that I was not going to have one, and have kids. My husband has been phenomenal; I don’t think I could have done it without him.
GJ: You once said that your mother was a study in contrast. She promised to get you married by eighteen, but deep down, she has valued your growth. How has your mother influenced and mentored you to be the person you are?
IN: Particularly for women, mothers are a big factor in their lives. If my mother had truly decided that she did not want me to go ahead at all, she could have put her foot down and kept me home. On the one hand, she said she would get me married off at eighteen but on the other hand, she let me go to Kolkata to study. When I wanted to move to the US, and my dad was fine with it, she, too, supported me, at every step of the way.
She is a brilliant lady who never got a chance to go to college and so, in many ways, I think she has lived her life vicariously through her children. And she has been there for us, supporting us whenever we needed her. If we had a headache, the first person we called was mom. She was always there with a supportive word, and has been the biggest force in my life.
GJ: What has kept you inspired over the years?
IN: A sense of self-motivation. Nobody can do it for you; if you can't motivate yourself, it is never going to work. Again, as I said earlier, from the time I was a kid, somebody was always telling me to work hard and not let anybody down. So, in many ways, I cannot say that I have got anything on the off chance. I decided that I wanted to do well, and I didn't care how far I got. I just wanted to do a good job.
GJ: Is there something about yourself that you have had to work on, through the years?
IN: There have been many things. In the early years, I had to work on how I communicated, how I carried myself, how I related to people and how I listened. I had to unlearn and re-learn, listen to other people's opinions because we cannot always have all the answers.
I have had to learn how to bring the organization along with me. Just because I have an idea and I got it before anybody else, does not mean everybody else got it. So I have had to learn to coach, to develop, to mentor.
I am learning patience; not tolerance, but patience. I am trying not to act like I am the smartest person on the rope, because I may be intellectually smart, but a lot of people are street smart and that is as important. So I am learning how to work and absorb from them. Believe me, I am a student every day that I come to work.
GJ: Mentorship is an important topic that you often speak about. Who have your mentors been?
IN: All through my life, I have had the most unbelievable mentors, from when I was a kid in school to people at work in India. When I came to the US, I would say that in every part of my life, everybody I worked for or with has, in some way or the other, seen something in me and participated in pushing me forward.
Early on, I didn’t see anything in myself. I just thought of myself as yet another Indian who is smart. But I cannot even count the number of people who, when I was in Holy Angels Convent, Madras Christian College, IIM Kolkata, and then working, reached out, gave me ideas, suggestions, tips on how to do things better and constantly reminded me to aim for bigger things because I was meant for bigger things.
I could not possible name everybody but there are so many people who, even today, if they see something that is not going right, will call me and give me a heads-up. I am grateful to all of these people because they don’t expect anything in return. Each one of them put themselves out there to coach me, mentor me, help me develop and give me advice.
If someone gave me useful tips or suggestions and I ignored it or did not listen with respect, they would not do it again. I feel very strongly that anybody who takes the pain to come up with a suggestion or idea for you is worth listening to. And so every one of the people that I consider as mentors–there have been many over the years–I gave and give them time and attention. Most importantly, I take to heart the suggestions they give me. If I cannot implement or follow through on something, I would always let them know why I cannot.
GJ: How important would you say it is for women to break the glass ceiling, to head multi-national companies, or become successful entrepreneurs or businesswomen? How do we get there?
IN: It is glass because we can see through it and it can be broken. The glass ceiling is not going to break by itself. I do think that the glass ceiling and all of those limitations were from a couple of decades ago. Many of us have already walked the trail and I think the time has come for women to commit and rise up to big positions. I don’t think companies have a choice.
In many ways, I think that if a company does not attract, retain and develop women employees, it cannot be successful because women are getting most of the degrees today, college, advanced and professional. So the next two decades, especially, are decades of women. The question that we all have to answer for ourselves is: are we willing to put in what it takes to move ahead? Our company is willing to put in the support systems to allow women to keep a job and a family, and balance all of it.
GJ: What would your advice be to young Indian women who aspire to reach where you are today?
IN: Do not start off by saying that you want to be a CEO; if you do that, you will be disappointed by the tricks and turns of your life. If you do your current job phenomenally well, people will automatically take you for your next job and the next one. People, too often, are focused on the destination and not the path to get to the destination. My strong suggestion would be to focus on the job you have, do a great job, and learn the next one while you are in the current role. Learn how your present job links to the next one. Learn how you can do your current job even better, and put your company before yourself. Think about what you are doing and how it is going to impact the organization you are a part of. If you get selfish, just do what you have to, and get out, then you will get what you deserve.
GJ: How would you describe your vision for the future?
IN: When I leave PepsiCo, I want to leave a company that people consider amazing. I want people to think of PepsiCo as a defining corporation. That’s one hope and dream that I have. Whatever life after PepsiCo will be, I have no idea, but whenever I decide to something else, I want to make a difference. I am a global citizen. I am privileged to live here in the United States, privileged to be a part of this society, but I am a global citizen and I want to make a difference in a world that has so many problems.