Learning from Indra Nooyi: 7 Leadership Lessons for Enduring Success

  • Nooyi is someone who is known for her vision and with the help of the courage of her convictions, unleashing the power of her people to achieve a goal. To give an example of Nooyi’s achievements as the chief executive, the revenue of PepsiCo grew from $35 billion in 2006 to more than $63 billion in 2017 and by the end of that year, the company’s total shareholder return was more than 160 percent.
Learning from Indra Nooyi: 7 Leadership Lessons for Enduring Success
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“I am very honest — brutally honest.” — Indra Nooyi 

Leadership is not only about leading the rest in terms of knowledge and action. It is also about leading in terms of influence as several people get encouraged by how leaders think and act. A leader’s life experience is as significant a part in her overall growth and that also leaves an impact on people who idolize them. Indra Nooyi, the Indian-born former chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo, is one such leader. The 64-year-old, who was born in a Hindu family in modern-day Chennai and studied in a Convent school, a diverse experience that played a role big enough in her overall growth.  

Nooyi is someone who is known for her vision and with the help of the courage of her convictions, unleashing the power of her people to achieve a goal. To give an example of Nooyi’s achievements as the chief executive, the revenue of PepsiCo grew from $35 billion in 2006 to more than $63 billion in 2017 and by the end of that year, the company’s total shareholder return was more than 160 percent. Nooyi also came up with an initiative called ‘Performance with Purpose vision’ which succeeded in doing two things at one time — driving long-term growth and impacting the society and environment positively. She stepped down from Pepsico’s top post in 2018.  

While the success story of Nooyi receives a wide applause, one must not lose sight of the hard work and struggle she did in order to reach the pinnacle of leadership in her career.  

Nooyi’s success story is closely linked with the way she leads and here are seven reasons why she is a woman who tasted enduring success: 

Have a vision: 

According to Nooyi, whenever you are taking up a new role, it is very important that you lay out a vision and share it with the group of people who you lead. Having a vision — a blueprint — makes it far easier for any leadership to achieve the aspired goal. This is precisely what Nooyi did when her role transitioned from the chief financial officer to the chief executive officer in PepsiCo. While she took up the top role in 2006, she knew that she was set to encounter a lot of challenges and did a thorough homework about everything relevant to have an entirely different new vision. “There was a lot of anxiety when I took over,” she told David Novak, the founder and CEO of OgoLead. “I realized that I could have all the anxieties inside, but to the company I had to project confidence, optimism, a can-do spirit and a must-do resolve.” 

Speak the truth: 

Nooyi is convinced that leaders should be honest in their approach, no matter what. This has several advantages. While on one hand this gives the leader a positive impression and earns him respect over his leadership especially if the times are challenging, it also helps the leader to convey to his/her people what he/she wants to achieve with their help. Nooyi is so particular as a business leader that she shares with her team all the segmented details — short, medium and long run. It is not that all people will buy a leader’s plan but the transparency in the approach definitely will convince people that he/she is here with a genuine leadership.  

Have listening ears:  

Leaders operate under great pressure because they have a lot of responsibilities to meet while working with many people. It is not easy for them to achieve their goals easily, thanks to factors like convincing management and dealing with financial viability. To meet these challenges successfully, a leader needs to do one thing flawlessly and it is about listening to others. Two minds always make better than one and a leader who knows how and when to listen to others while carrying out result-oriented research and analysis stays ahead of the rest. Nooyi has been such an example of a leader who sheds ego to make a real difference.  

Be an avid reader: 

While leaders make a lot of noise in the media — mainstream or social — they themselves need to do a lot of hard work behind the curtains to make their success an enduring one. Leaders need to be avid readers to not only know things but also nurture their analytical and anticipatory skills. Nooyi, for instance, is known for conducting research and deep analyses before arriving at a decision. However, she puts in a lot of efforts into her research and that includes in-depth reading. Whenever she faced a big project in Pepsico, Nooyi studied problems from all angles and read up books covering all possible aspects. She even kept professors to answer her queries. Nooyi loves to be a student throughout her life and this is the kind of commitment a leader needs to show to keep his/her success over a long period of time.  

Set free the power of your people: 

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A leader never operates in a vacuum and he is as good as his team/colleagues/followers. Great leaders are those who succeed in setting up a culture where every single person of the team feels that he/she is a good contributor. When a lot of individuals feel together the urge to contribute to make a difference, it eventually helps the leader to scale the heights. Nooyi is one such leader who loves to take her team along with her towards the goal and she has reaped rich benefits. In her growing years, Nooyi loved to see her family proud and this urge to see others feel valued and happy is something that the former PepsiCo chief possesses and has gone on to see her succeed as a leader.

To give one example of Nooyi’s leadership that concerns all: she drew huge satisfaction from the fact that she penned letters to the parents of members in her team. This did wonders as by boosting the parents, Nooyi actually gave her team members more confidence and that helped in improving their productivity which came back to benefit Nooyi’s leadership. “I tell the parents what a great job their son or daughter is doing. That recognition is worth more than money, stock runs, hugs, tickets – anything – because at the end of the day, when your parents say to you, ‘I’m so proud of you; your boss just wrote to me saying you’re awesome,’ the look on their face is worth more than one million dollars,” she told Novak.  

Understanding the importance of time: 

For a truly successful leader, time is as important as the profits and returns. Nooyi belongs to that league of leaders. The entrepreneur once came across a cartoon in the New Yorker that said: “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time, we created a lot of value for shareholders.” This cartoon made Nooyi serious and she thought about balancing the short-term interests with the long-term ones, and that made her get into an even higher level — the time horizons. According to a piece published in Asian Money Guide, Nooyi said: “When you focus on the levels of return alone, you’re producing returns that, however high they may be in the short run, are not sustainable.” She brought a change in PepsiCo in tune with this thought and came with a time-focused strategy that balanced both the level and duration of the returns. She said that because of this strategy, the company managed to deliver good returns that have grown consistently and sustainably over a period of time.  

Balancing the work and personal lives: 

As a ruthless achiever, Nooyi never ignored the importance of shielding the personal life. A mother of two daughters, Nooyi concedes that it becomes very much challenging for one to take care of the personal life once he/she is at the helm of a large company and there lies the importance of balancing it in a way that it doesn’t hurt either of the two important parts of your overall life journey. Nooyi did it exceedingly well in managing her family while leading as a chief executive. Example? Just as Nooyi got selected in the list of the world’s most powerful women, she also got picked by Forbes among the top three world’s most powerful moms, along with the likes of Hillary Clinton.  

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