Leadership

Former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi: Confident Women, Your Time Is Now

The global business executive sheds advice on confidence, resilience and the value of dreaming big.

By Emily Brooks

Leadership

The global business executive sheds advice on confidence, resilience and the value of dreaming big.

By Emily Brooks

In the musty corridors of the Sydney Cricket Ground, Indra Nooyi and I are discussing the fact we have two ears and one mouth. Not collectively. Individually, and therefore as individuals, we should listen more than we speak. “We have two eyes too,” Nooyi points out. Again, for good reason. “I’m a student of observation. By observing people, you can tell a lot. So observe and listen.” 

After stepping down from her position as CEO of PepsiCo in October last year, ending her 12 year tenure as chief executive of a company she had spent 24 years of her life working for, Nooyi has had more time to observe. And what she’s currently witnessing is a better looking path for young women than ever before. “The next few decades are the decades of women. Women should dream big. They should have total confidence in themselves,” she said. “Don’t let anybody take away your confidence. It’s yours. Bank it, and keep building stuff that you can bank. And if you ever feel like your confidence is being sapped, go get a shot of confidence from somewhere. Because you can overcome anything if you’ve got confidence. Build that reservoir of confidence in yourself. Know that the world needs you today, confident women, we need you today. So your time has come.”

 

“…as a woman CEO, you are the focus of everybody and they’re looking to see what you do wrong so they can really bring you down.”

 

The Future Of Work And Breaking World Records

Now, as a director for global giant Amazon and an independent director of the International Cricket Council, there are two very obvious passions for Indra Nooyi. The first is the future of work. What it will look like. How it will be more inclusive of women. The biological clock and career clock are in direct conflict and always will be, but Nooyi is adamant workplaces can do a lot more to work around it.

“What we will do is find solutions to provide support mechanisms so that they might be in conflict in some areas and other areas it doesn’t matter, the conflict, because we are going to give you so much support on the side,” Nooyi said. “We have to help young people, especially young women, to be able to have families and make a living by going to work. We can’t expect women to have children and then not provide the infrastructure to support them. For me, it’s a pay it forward.”

In the meantime, her second passion will pay it forward even sooner. The T20 Women’s World Cup final will be in Melbourne next March and Nooyi says we must fill the stadium. You must be there. I must be there. We must all be there, to beat the crowd of 93,013 that saw the Australian men’s team’s win against New Zealand at Melbourne Cricket Ground, and set a world record for a women’s sporting event.

Indra Nooyi meets with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2018, New York City. Image credit: Kevin Hagen/ Getty Images

On Leadership And Resilience

On her last day at PepsiCo, after Nooyi farewelled her employees in the courtyard as CEO and chair of the company, she arrived home to be greeted with 100 boxes full of archives. The only present physical evidence from her time at the company. “My first reaction was, ‘Where am I going to put them? When am I going to unpack them? How am I going to organise them? Or should I just ignore them and just sleep it out for a few days?’” Nooyi recalls. “The next day I started searching for an office. I got an office right away, moved everything there and unpacked it… Because it’s daunting to see your life, your 24 years of PepsiCo packed up in 100 boxes.”

The executive admits her identity was tied up with the company when she left. She lived and breathed it 20 hours a day for more than two decades, but when she departed she swore to herself she would not intervene with the new chief executive. “I decided to make a break, and I’ve gotten so busy doing other things. It’s a good place to be,” she said. “A clean start.”

It’s a leadership trait she believes all good leaders should have. Good leaders must put the company before themselves. Great communication skills, courage and confidence are also vital. But maybe most importantly, good leaders must have resilience.

“Without it, you’re toast,” Nooyi says with a smile. “Because the CEO job is a brutal job. Especially as a woman CEO, you are the focus of everybody and they’re looking to see what you do wrong so they can really bring you down. You have to buckle down and say, ‘I’m here for the long haul. I’m working for the company, not for myself, so I have to worry about the future of the company, not just my tenure as a CEO’. And in light of all the criticism that comes your way you’ve just got to be steadfast. It tests your very capability in the area of resilience and confidence. Things happen that shake your confidence to the core.” 

The Three F’s always held Nooyi’s core intact. Family, friends and faith. “I had a husband I could chat with. He would give me good advice,” she said. “I had a very good group of friends, and my kids and my mum, everybody gave me a lot of support. And when everything failed, I always would result to spirituality. Not religion, but spirituality. A good belief in that to say, ‘Whoever’s up there, give me a hand.’ You know, it helps sometimes to give you peace.” Nooyi has publicly identified as Hindu.

 

“When you have market growth at 2-3 percent and you want to grow it 4-5 percent, the only way you’re going to outgrow the market is through innovation. Just staying in place will only make you lose share, not grow share.” 

 

Looking Forward

In the age of the internet, small players have been liberated to compete with the big, and competition across industries for market share is now fierce. Now, whether it is cricket or business, innovation is key to the success of every business. “In the early years, the marketplace was growing, so it lifted all the boards with it. In recent years, the market growth has slowed down considerably,” Nooyi says. “So when you have market growth at 2-3 percent and you want to grow it 4-5 percent, the only way you’re going to outgrow the market is through innovation. Just staying in place will only make you lose share, not grow share. So if you want to grow faster than the market you better have an innovation pipeline that is better than anybody else’s out there and priced in a way that you can actually get a premium for it.

“The innovation pump in PepsiCo was primed to the point where we have enough for the next two or three years. But it takes two or three years to get the pipeline primed, so my success was to keep priming that pipeline because you need a three year window to see what could come and what you could launch and whether it was incremental instead of cannibalising what you already had.”

As a student of observation, it’s no surprise Nooyi can read markets. But the women she admires were unexpected. Michelle Obama and Melinda Gates of course made the list. But they stand beside women with lesser known names yet equally valuable lessons. “I go deep into that and wonder, ‘What is it they say? Why do I admire what they say? It could be Michelle Obama one day, it could be Melinda Gates the next, it could be my mum, it could be a musician I met somewhere. Each of them brings a little something to the table and I go, ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting how they approached this problem or this issue or how they were treated and the calmness with which they carried things through’. I also look at women who are extremely arrogant and think, ‘I hope I don’t come across that way.’” For the record, she doesn’t.