Author Talks: Indra Nooyi on leadership, life, and crafting a better future

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Indra Nooyi, former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, about her new book, My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future (Penguin Random House, September 2021). Nooyi discusses her trajectory to become the first woman of color and immigrant to run a Fortune 50 company, the difficulties that came with managing a demanding job with a growing family, and what she learned along the way. She also makes an urgent call for male CEOs, business, and government to prioritize the care ecosystem and argues that providing support for young family builders will unleash the economy’s full potential. An edited version of the conversation—with relevant quotations from the book interspersed throughout (in blue)—follows.

“In the months before I left PepsiCo, in 2018, I thought about how I would contribute in the years ahead, knowing that I am one in a chain of women leaders who can help move us forward for generations to come. I set out to write a book and insisted to all around me that it would not be a memoir. Instead, I thought, I would devote every ounce of my experience and intellect to a manual for fixing how we mix work and family.

The book you hold is not that book.”

Why did you write this book?

I never set out to write a memoir. I started off wanting to write a bunch of policy papers on how to grease the skids for women to reach the top of a company. And then, coming out of the pandemic, I wanted to make it easier for our frontline workers to be able to do whatever they do and still have a support structure for them to take care of their families.

That’s where I started. But then everybody who read my policy papers said, “Hey, nobody’s going to read these policy papers unless you inform [them] with the arc of your own life.” So this book resulted from those conversations. This is not a tell-all memoir. This is not filled with stories. This is about stories that inform the two issues that I’m talking about. This is a different sort of a memoir, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

“Mine is not an immigrant story of hardship—of fighting my way to America to escape poverty, persecution, or war. … Still, I do feel connected to everyone who streams into America, whatever their circumstances, determined to work hard and to set in motion a more prosperous life for themselves and their families. … I still have that fear—an immigrant’s fear—that presses me to try to do well and to belong.”

What was your immigrant experience like?

I didn’t come here because of persecution or because I was fleeing problems in the country of my birth. But once you come into the United States, whatever the reason was that you left your country of birth, you are an immigrant in the country. And you go through all the teething pains of getting to know a new culture, understanding everything about it, and assimilating into it, in whatever shape or form you choose to assimilate. I didn’t have the entry pains that many people have, but once I got in, I had to go through the assimilation process.

I think, in many ways, it was easier for me because I was at Yale University, where it was a structured environment. Though at that time there wasn’t a big support structure for international students, there were other international students, who helped out, so I somehow made it. Other people may not have that infrastructure. They may not have family support. They may not have a network of friends to help out. The assimilation process is very similar for many of us; we just have different support structures.

“I wonder why I am wired this way where my inner compass always tells me to keep pushing on with my job responsibilities, whatever the circumstances. … I love my family dearly, but this inner drive to help whenever I can certainly has taken a lot of time away from them—much to their dismay. I sometimes wish I were wired differently.”

Why did you feel the need to prove yourself?

I felt that the United States did me a big favor by allowing me to come in. For whatever reason, that’s how I felt. And I felt that I had to prove that I was worthy of being a member of this country, so I always worked hard. Had I stayed in India, I would’ve continued to work hard—hard work is in my DNA. I worked hard my entire life because I wanted them to say, “She did good by the United States.” I wanted India to say, “She did good by India, because she didn’t bring any disrepute to the country.” And I wanted my family to say, “She never, ever let down the Krishnamurthy family,” which is my family of birth, and then, subsequently, the Nooyi family. I had all of these imaginary responsibilities that I took on.

Since I’ve finished my career at PepsiCo and retired, it’s no longer about achieving anything. It’s about giving back—as so much was given to me—to my community, the state, the country. I give back here in the US, and I give back in India. I’ve rebuilt all of the labs in all of the educational institutions that I studied in, from high school or middle school to college, to the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata. In the US, I give back to every educational institution that I, my husband, and our kids have been involved in. So we’re in this giving-back phase, both in terms of money and time. In earlier days, it was about doing a good job and feeling like you accomplished something.

“Many women end up choosing, if they can afford it, to drop out of the paid labor force. … Some call this a ‘leaky pipeline,’ although I think that kind of language downplays the problem. The pipeline is way beyond ‘leaky.’ It is broken…

We still have relatively few women with the experience and fortitude to be considered for the position of CEO of a multibillion-dollar enterprise. This is a real issue because we are not enabling so many talented young women to achieve their full potential—a loss for the overall economy.”

On the realities women face in business

Let me go back to the categorization of my book. I actually think it’s a realistic book. It’s not an optimistic book, because sometimes people write books that say, “Make a checklist, and your life is going to be OK. Just do A, or B, or C and—bingo—your life is going to be great.” That’s not how it is. When you’re juggling work, family, other pressures that you’re facing, your own hopes, dreams, and aspirations, it’s a lot to cope with. And there isn’t a manual that says, “If you have to worry about options A, B, and C, this is the checklist.” There isn’t a manual for life. Life unfolds, and you have to really figure out different pathways at every point in time and the trade-offs you have to make virtually every day. For me to suggest that there is a manual would be foolhardy. Realistically, there isn’t a manual. But what I can tell you is what kind of support structures we should be building to reduce stress on families.

I think we have to sit back and say, “Lots has changed.” When I entered PepsiCo, in 1994, there were zero women CEOs; in 2021, there are 41 women CEOs. Have we made progress? Optimistically, we’ve got 41 CEOs. That’s a big number. But it’s less than 9 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs. There’s lots of room for women to grow and ascend as CEOs. The other part is that being a CEO is not the only hope, dream, and aspiration of many women. Women want to be entrepreneurs. Women want to start companies. Women want to run NGOs. Women want to be in other positions in society. That’s OK. All that we’re saying is whatever you want to do, we want to make sure that there are more tailwinds than headwinds when it comes to work and family and the integration of the two.

“If anyone is wondering, there is no club of the most senior women in corporate America. Men in business operate in a system with centuries of history related to playing that role in society. Their clubs and associations were established long ago, and they don’t have to do anything extra to set them up.”

“Many men—CEOs and others—perpetually linger on the sidelines of the work–family debate, in part because they are reluctant to break routines that are, ultimately, easy, comfortable, and lucrative for them.”

Why should men get off the sidelines?

Men hold most of the positions of power, and it’s very, very important that they come to the table to talk about how we can make it easier for all family builders, not just women, to integrate work and family. Today we are in a war for talent. Women are 70 percent of the valedictorians in high school. Their graduation rate from college is ten percentage points higher than men’s. In STEM disciplines, their GPAs are one whole point higher than men’s. They are getting the majority of professional degrees. Even in engineering, MIT is 47 percent women. Caltech and Georgia Tech are more than 30 percent women. Women are a potent force in the economy. As somebody said, they represent the biggest emerging market opportunity in the United States.

If you really are in a war for talent, you should want these women to come into your company. If that’s the case, let’s find a way to make all of the family responsibilities equal between men and women. Let’s find a way to make it easier for women to come into the workplace and retain their jobs as opposed to dropping out in large numbers. So men in power have to start discussing these issues with a lot more heart than just saying, “Oh god, it’s a feminist issue.” This is an issue that has to be approached like an economist. It’s a resource that has to be allocated in the economy to improve the GDP of the country.

In fact, McKinsey studies have been spectacular on what would happen if more women were deployed in the economy. The growth that the GDP will go through is really, really impressive. Why do we ignore all of the analysis that’s been done and scored? I wonder, for instance, if appointing a diversity and inclusion [D&I] vice president alone is the right approach. Diversity and inclusion cannot simply be delegated to one individual. That is a cop-out. It should be on the CEO’s plate as a priority and central to the HR agenda, not something that ebbs and flows with the quality of a diversity and inclusion leader.

On improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Typically, companies appoint a D&I head and say, “OK, it’s done. I’ve appointed a D&I head. Nobody can question me now, because I can point to the fact that I have a head of D&I.” But what people forget is that diversity is a mathematical number.

Are you diverse? On what metrics are you diverse? Do you have ethnic diversity? Gender diversity? Racial diversity? All that stuff. But inclusiveness is a state of mind. It’s an emotion. Are you going to make everybody feel welcome and included? That requires deep involvement by all people in power to make sure that you identify bad behavior that’s not inclusive, nip it in the bud, and model the right behavior. A D&I officer can’t do it. It has to be a responsibility and a tone at the top. And boards have to ask CEOs, “Why are your metrics not trending in the right way? Are you really looking for the right talent? What does the retention number look like? How many [diverse employees] are getting developed and promoted? Let me see the organization’s health scores. Do diverse people feel included? Does everybody feel included, but particularly the diverse people? Are they underrepresented in the country?”

I think these are the kinds of questions that boards should be asking. With a caveat: the board agenda is now getting more and more overloaded with issues related to cybersecurity, pandemic management, all the committee requirements. We have to think about whether boards have to meet for a longer period of time. Do boards need to have more committees? Do they need to increase in size? What can they drop? This is a very difficult discussion that needs to be had because as the world has gotten more complex, as companies have gotten bigger, boards have remained small and are still meeting on the same agenda.

“I also believe CEOs and boards have to finally step up on pay parity. We all know that women, on average, are paid less for the same work as men. This is a travesty, and we need a far more precise effort to resolve the discrepancies. Some companies are now publicly revealing their pay disparities, putting their own feet to the fire. I admire this, but I am not sure it’s needed. I absolutely believe, however, that directors should demand and review fully transparent compensation analysis and hold the CEO accountable for getting to pay parity. It’s about time.”

Do we have too much faith in boards to fix this?

One of two things has to happen for us to really make boards think about D&I in a wholly different way. Boards need to change their mindset so they can start to embrace these notions, and they need to lean in to hold CEOs and companies accountable. Or we have to add people to the board with this new skill set. Or alternatively, we have to refresh the board, for example, by adding term limits. Most importantly, boards should be shaped for the future, not stacked based on the past. Very often, there are people who are just on boards because they’ve been on boards for 20, 25 years, and more. One of the biggest “Aha!” moments for me is realizing you have to constantly think of your board in terms of shaping it based on the future needs of the company. Very often, you don’t think of the board that way, because there’s no mechanism to renew the board in US corporate-governance laws. We have to rethink how we reshape the board.

“Competing to reach the very top of an organizational pyramid is a brutal business no matter who you are, and once a woman or a man is within striking distance of the CEO’s office— two or three levels away—the idea of balancing work with any kind of normal life outside work isn’t practical. … Make no mistake, the required support systems and sacrifices to lead at the very top are enormous. Broad-based solutions that help most people find better work–family balance may not apply.”

Is work–life balance a myth?

That’s why I use the term work juggle. Work–life juggling. Are you constantly trading off priorities? It’s when you’ve constantly got multiple balls in the air and you hope nothing drops. It’s not easy for a stay-at-home mom who’s juggling so many home priorities. It’s not easy for a working woman without a family who’s also juggling other priorities—it could be an aging parent or a relative she’s looking after or a work environment that’s hostile. Everybody’s juggling all the time.

When you include work, home, and children—if you put all three together—that’s a lot to juggle because everybody wants you full time. And if you look at the CEO job as an “N minus two” position, when there are typically about 30 or 40 people, and many of them vying for the top job, all bets are off. It’s a slog. Whether you like it or not, to hold your job at the senior level, you’ve got to work extra hard. In that level, it’s either up or out. To compete with others, and contribute, and be noticed is a tremendous investment of time and energy. That’s why I think the hope is that by the time you reach that level, your kids are already going to college, so you can have all the time to focus on the job.

“I was always aware that women in the corporate world were climbing a steeper, more slippery ladder than the men. … Even when I was on the very top rung, I was still on the women’s ladder.”

“At some point in my CEO years, I also learned about the power of looking the part. For a long time, I had paid little attention to my wardrobe. I worked with men, and they wore gray and blue suits with collared shirts. I did, too. …

I got firsthand affirmation that changing my look made a difference in the boardroom, too. I started wearing nicely tailored dresses and jackets with pearls and maybe a scarf to work every day. At the end of one board meeting, one of our male directors wrote me that ever since I changed my clothing, he found me more intimidating.”

How is the women’s corporate ladder different from men’s?

I think women today are held to a different standard. They’re too loud or too soft. They’re too emotional or not emotional enough. They’re too strident, or they’re too weak or passive. Every possible badge is given to women. It’s disconcerting because you can feel it. You get these badges. You can see the looks among men when women dress a certain way. It’s the environment we live in, whether we like it or not. And that ranges from every business event you go to, every social event you go to, and sometimes even in boardrooms.

When I changed my clothing and went with more tailored outfits—and it wasn’t high fashion, it was just elegant corporate outfits—a board member told me that he found me intimidating, whatever that means. I don’t know. I don’t care. But the fact of the matter is somebody actually said they found me intimidating. If a man shows up in a business suit, is he intimidating? I don’t think so. Why is it when I showed up in a well-tailored business suit, I was intimidating?

“Women’s voices are too high or too low, or they are seen as too short or too tall, or too fat or too thin, to be great leaders. These judgments wear us down … I think women can’t escape the reminders that we must always weigh our power—whatever it may be—against society’s expectations that we must, at all costs, remember that we are imperfect.”

“I had heard of and seen male CEOs yell, throw things, and use four-letter words with great gusto, apparently a sign of their passion and commitment. But I was well aware that showing any of these emotions myself would set me back with the people around me. …

So on days that I was mad that people, both inside and outside the company, didn’t quite get what I was trying to do, I’d go into the little bathroom attached to my office, look at myself in the mirror, and just let it all out. And when the moment had passed, I’d wipe my tears, reapply a little makeup, square my shoulders, and walk back out into the fray, ready, again, to be.”

The fact of the matter is that there’s always a badge. There’s always a tag placed on women. We have to stop that. We have to stop defining women versus the ideal worker of the past, who was a man. If you constantly do that, women are going to get a raw deal. We have to say the ideal CEO, the ideal worker, the ideal executive of today is whoever’s doing the job the best. And we’re not going to constantly define them versus somebody else who’s our image from the past.

“I think the fundamental role of a leader is to look for ways to shape the decades ahead, not just react to the present, and to help others accept the discomfort of disruptions to the status quo.”

On being lonely at the top

When you’re a CEO, you’re always thinking about weighty things about the company—either a decision you have to make or data you’re looking at that could impact the quarter or the year. You’re in possession of a lot of data. You have to make sure that, whether it’s at home or anywhere, you don’t leave the data for people to see by accident and then blurt it out. People don’t realize it’s highly confidential, even for family members.

To be extra, extra, extra, extra careful, I would hide my bags under a cupboard or something like that because I wanted to make sure that there was never any paper left around the house that somebody might look at and say, “Mom, are you working on this?” You don’t want to discuss everything with your husband, because there’s only so much you can discuss that are problems. You also want to have a normal conversation with your husband. But more importantly, I think families are so vested in you. If I shared my problems with my husband and he had a negative perception of the person that I said something negative about, I didn’t want that, so I stopped discussing anything negative with my husband. I was also supercareful around my kids because one was already in business school and the other was in college. I did not want any of my stuff to get to them, for fear that they would say something.

I became much more cocooned when I became a CEO. You can’t discuss anything with other people either, except in generalities. To be in the role of the CEO, you’ve got to have incredible courage. You’ve got to have an incredible backbone. And you’ve got to have incredible fortitude because there aren’t too many people you can talk to. There aren’t too many people you can vent with. You’ve got to have your own strength and call on it in the toughest moments.

“I think that leaders need to understand the details behind what they are approving before they affix their signature to anything. This is not about trusting the people that work for you. It’s about basic responsibility. Don’t be a ‘pass-through.’ … I know I drove people crazy with questions, but this was my job.”

On bringing in experts

When I was doing it, I did it because I was clueless about that topic and I wanted to learn more about it. The first step is to get into the details. Don’t sign something unless you understand it. And if you’re confronted with a problem, really get into the details before going to the big picture. Zoom in and then zoom out. And third, have humility. If you don’t know something, feel free to reach out and talk to people. Because what happens is typically you say, “God, if I brought in an expert to help me, then I’d realize how little I know about the subject.” Big deal. You can’t know everything about everything. Bring in the expert. Let them coach you. Sitting in your office, you might be able to ask more questions than you could in a bigger meeting. I honestly believe that getting the experts in, sitting down one-on-one, and learning everything there is to learn is a good thing.

On really understanding China

I spent several weeks in China after I became CEO, and I wanted to understand the country because it represented such a big opportunity. The way we had to operate was in China, for China, with China, and I wanted to understand that better. I went with some members of my team and spent multiple weeks there. But I was told that you don’t go to China and spend multiple weeks without taking some time to understand the country, its history, its political structure, the players, et cetera.

For a period of six months, my team designed a training program for me. Every two weeks, a different speaker would come into my office—could be a professor, could be a China expert. They would come into my office and give me a two- to three-hour seminar session on China, along with a bunch of readings I had to do. Then the next person would come, and the next. They put a whole curriculum together. The final session was Henry Kissinger coming in and wrapping everything together to tell me the integrative picture on China.

Some people might have said, “You mean you don’t know anything about China that you have to go through this kind of education?” Au contraire. I was giving respect to the country and its culture and its history in saying that you don’t go and spend six or eight weeks in a country without really understanding what that country’s about. No CEO does this. I wanted to make sure that I was a CEO who was going in with some knowledge—a little sliver of knowledge—so I could appreciate the country a lot more. I would encourage other leaders to do the same.

“I was very proud of my work at PepsiCo. Total shareholder returns in the 12 years between December 2006 and December 2018 totaled 149 percent, beating the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, which was up 128 percent. The company returned more than $79 billion in cash to shareholders. … Market capitalization rose by $57 billion in those 12 years. … Net revenue jumped 80 percent to $64 billion in 2018. …

I knew we could have done even more—or done it faster—if the financial crisis hadn’t tossed us around like the rest of the global economy, but we’d handled that well too. I had worked as hard as I could and had truly loved the company with all my heart and soul. …

I also had no regrets about leaving my job and was sure I wouldn’t miss my role as PepsiCo’s chair either, when I stepped down in a few months.”

Is there anything you wish you had done differently as CEO?

I had a 12-year tenure as CEO, and you can either say I ran three four-year tenures or two six-year tenures. In the first six years of my CEO-ship, I was navigating through the financial crisis and creating a more international PepsiCo because we were more US-focused and had to build out the international footprint. I was also addressing the North American bottling relationship, which was not particularly great at that time. So six years of heavy lifting on that particular front, along with putting in performance of purpose. The second set of six years was delivering performance from the expanding core—both geographically and from a product perspective—and then not having to expend as much energy as I did on addressing the North American bottling issues.

When you look at these two eras, I wish I didn’t have the financial crisis, and I wish I didn’t have the bottling crisis to deal with. Because so much more could’ve been done with the company. But I also realize that’s foolhardy. Every person goes through some sort of a crisis in their tenure as a CEO. My successor’s dealing with COVID-19 now. The mark of a good CEO is knowing how to navigate through a crisis and constantly thinking about how to create a stronger company coming out of the crisis. As long as you have an eye toward the long term—as opposed to “How do I navigate for the quarter or for my duration as CEO and somehow come out looking good? I don’t care what happens to the company after me”—you’re OK. That’s what I was singularly focused on.

“Writing this book has been a new experience for me—a journey, a labor of love, a different kind of hard work. I didn’t intend to write my own story in such detail when I started out. I thought that I would write a few articles filled with facts and figures on how we must support women, young family builders, and our collective well-being, and I was sure I would find an audience.”

What advice would you offer to CEOs who want to write a book?

The most important thing to do when writing a book—and a memoir, in particular—is to put your story down on a piece of paper. It’s painful because it brings back memories from the past. It makes you think about all your past choices. It’s a period of introspection and reflection. Be prepared for that.

Second, while you’re early in your career, especially if you’re ascending, create a digital record of your entire life: every speech, every photograph, every piece of tape that’s available on awards you might’ve received. Collect all of that. Whether you write a book or not, collect all of that information because you never know when you’re going to use it.

Third, don’t write a book just to celebrate yourself. Write a book with a message. Write a book with a plan of action. Write a book about how you’re going to give back. At the end of the day, a lot of people write memoirs. They are informative, no question about it, but all of them would have a shelf life that’s longer if it leads to some tangible action.

“There is no single reason why more women don’t lead big companies. There is no list of ten items that simply need fixing. There are hundreds of issues—some tiny and difficult to pinpoint and some huge and structural—that add up to make it so. Despite all the progress we have made, the modern workplace is still replete with damaging customs and behaviors that hold women back.”

“My conclusion is that our society can leap ahead on the work–family conundrum by focusing on three interconnected areas: paid leave, flexibility and predictability, and care.”

What lies ahead for Indra Nooyi?

It’s very easy for me to say we have to do this. We have to think about a care infrastructure. I’ve written the book, I’ve done the book tours, it’s done, and I want to take it a step further. Again, I want to give back my time and money. There are so many organizations that have been working on researching, scoring, prioritizing all the different initiatives to provide a care network. I want to bring them all together and figure out a way that we can intelligently work together to put in place a care network.

It may be a bunch of alternatives. It may be home care, community care, or organized childcare in companies. Whatever it is, it’s going to be a patchwork, a quilt of care options. But I want us to at least have a manual of care options, including the cost and the benefits. So when people are thinking about implementing it, they can fall back on this approach to care. I can’t do it myself, because I’m not a policy person. I’m more like, “Here’s the problem. This is how we need to go about addressing it.” I need to bring all the policy experts together to say, “How do we prioritize it? How do we fund it?”

I want to take this to the next level of progress so that people don’t say, “Hey, she wrote a book. So, big deal. So many people have written a book.” I want to actually make life better for those who are struggling so much with this care conundrum.

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