Leadership lessons from PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi

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Growing up in India, Indra Nooyi was expected to lead a conventional life: happily married with kids, taking care of the elders at home, serving as a conservative, obedient wife. Or so she thought. Nooyi now stands as PepsiCo’s C.E.O, overseeing over 260,000 global companies, has been awarded one of Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women and was ranked the second most powerful woman on the Fortune list in 2015. Nooyi has managed to rise to the top despite all cultural, societal and gender challenges. Here are five lessons we can all learn from her journey.

  1. Do not be afraid of breaking the rules

Nooyi’s inspiration to allow PepsiCo to grow is rooted in a sense of rebelliousness she learned as a child. Although she grew up in a socially conservative Indian city, she was constantly pushing the boundaries.

In those days, there was a well-defined conservative stereotype, so everything I did was breaking the framework,” she said in an interview with HBR. “I played in a rock band. I climbed trees. I did stuff that made my parents wonder, ‘What the hell is she doing?’” However that sense of rebellion only proved to be a seed, waiting to bloom later into her adult life.

“I’m still a bit of a rebel, always saying that we cannot sit still,” she said. “Every morning you’ve got to wake up with a healthy fear that the world is changing, and a conviction that, to win, you have to change faster and be more agile than anyone else” [1].  

Translating this into her work, she plans to take PepsiCo down unforeseen paths, rapidly testing new products and exploring new territories, such as making their brands more health and environmentally conscious.

  1. Be gracious and stay connected to those around you

Nooyi values her team and makes it known that their work is appreciated. To exemplify her gratitude, Nooyi sends out a thank you letter to the parents of her employees, explaining how proud the company is for their children’s contributions.

Nooyi said the letters opened a “floodgate of emotions.” Parents would write her back saying how honored they were. This allowed for a higher workplace satisfaction, as her employees felt appreciated and motivated while they made their families proud.

“Every morning you’ve got to wake up with a healthy fear that the world is changing, and a conviction that, to win, you have to change faster and be more agile than anyone else.”

  1. You may be a CEO in the office, but not at home

On a episode of a “Freakonomics” podcast, Nooyi shared her thoughts on work life balance. Growing up her mother had always said, “Leave your crown in the garage. Don’t try to pretend that you’re still the big boss [at home], because you’re not” [2]While Nooyi oversees thousands of employees, she acknowledges that when she is at home she must leave her ego and professional identity on the front door step.

  1. No matter how large your success, stay true to your values

For Nooyi, money is a means to a larger end. When PepsiCo was experiencing extremely low stock prices and investors were questioning the future of the company, Nooyi took a new route. She launched the “Performance with Purpose” initiative.

A precursor to the modern sustainability movement, she created a vision to reduce sugar, sodium and saturated fats in PepsiCo products. In addition, this new global corporate agenda set benchmarks to reducing water usage, greenhouse gas emissions and manufacturing waste. Staying true to her values, Nooyi plans to not only give Wall Street what it wants but also the planet what it needs.

In an interview with Forbes, Nooyi was asked what inspired her to focus on “Performance with Purpose.”

“Corporations don’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. “We are a part of every community where we do business. I wanted to make sure that PepsiCo was not only delivering top-tier financial returns, but doing so in a way that was responsive to the needs of the world around us” [3].

  1. Become a lifelong student

Traditional, structured education is important, however much of success is derived from curious minds. Managers did not get to the top following the status quo or completing consulting reports and traditional planning cycles. “You’ve got to learn how to read widely, walk the market, look at trends in the marketplace, make connections that don’t seem obvious,” Nooyi said during a “View from the Top” event at Stanford.

From rocking out as a lead guitarist in her hometown in Madras, India, to singing karaoke at corporate gatherings, Nooyi encourages us step out of our comfort zones. Presiding over $60 billion dollar company does not happen overnight. However, as we seek success, we must remind ourselves it is not done by simply following the footsteps that have been paved before us, it is through accepting challenges, proliferating new visions and rebelling against the status quo.


[1] https://hbr.org/2015/09/how-indra-nooyi-turned-design-thinking-into-strategy

[2] http://freakonomics.com/podcast/indra-nooyi/

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2017/11/21/indra-nooyi-achieving-both-financial-growth-and-purpose-at-pepsico/#41e634d2eaa6

[4] https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/pepsi-ceo-break-past-dont-play-too-nice

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