Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi Talks Leadership and Owning Failure
Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi (right) with Hattie Hill, CEO of the Women's Foodservice Forum, which is holding its annual conference this week in Dallas.
Indra Nooyi said she grew up in an “unusual” household in Madras (now known as Chennai) in eastern India, because her father and grandfather constantly said, “the girls are as good as the boys,” a unique message in a traditionally male-dominated society.
“The men in my household had so much conviction that women were equal to men,” said Nooyi, who went on to become PepsiCo’s first female CEO and spoke about her career today during the Women’s Foodservice Forum’s annual conference in Dallas.
“Never be satisfied with the status quo,” is what Nooyi said her grandfather would always stress to her.
It’s a message that stuck with Nooyi, who worked at Johnson & Johnson in India before attending Yale’s School of Management and later held strategic planning roles at the Boston Consulting Group, Motorola and robotics company Asea Brown Boveri before joining PepsiCo. Named CEO in 2006, PepsiCo’s annual revenue nearly doubled under Nooyi’s leadership. She stepped down in October and last month joined Amazon’s board of directors.
Asked to share some lessons with an audience of more than 3,000 people—mostly women—connected to the foodservice industry, Nooyi offered what she called “the three Cs,” things she would “go back and tell her younger self.”
Competence: “If you’re not very, very good at something, nobody is going to notice you.”
Courage: “There’s no point in being competent if you don’t have the courage to talk about it.”
Communication: “As a leader, you have to change the minds of so many people,” said Nooyi, which means you must have the oral and written communication skills to “sync up the thinking and the speaking.”
When it came time to talk about a failure in her career, Nooyi said the Kendall Jenner ad, a 2017 ad that showed the model handing a can of Pepsi to a cop and sparked outrage because it appeared to co-opt imagery from a Black Lives Matter protest, remains top of mind.
“That whole process pained me,” said Nooyi, who noted the original idea for the ad was focused on the idea that Pepsi has always been a brand aimed at bridging divides. When Nooyi first viewed the ad, she said it gave her “a little tummy rumble,” but that it was showed to a diverse group of people at the company who gave it positive reviews.
“But then came the negative response,” Nooyi recalled. “I thought to myself, why wasn’t I in tune with what was happening?”
Nooyi pulled the ad and the incident prompted her to direct PepsiCo to create a catalog “of every iconic scene from history … a don’t ever play with those.”
“It doesn't matter what the intention was,” she continued. “As CEO, I felt terrible at having offended a group of people … I owned the failure.”
WFF’s Annual Leadership Development Conference continues through Wednesday in Dallas, where the organization is based.