Leading Blog






01.26.22

Indra Nooyi: My Life in Full

Indra Nooyi

THE life story of Indra Nooyi is compelling and instructive. She grew up in Madras (now Chennai), India. Her memoir, My Life in Full is much more than an event-driven biography. It is full of candor and insights that reveal much about her character. She is a driven yet humble leader. It’s hard to put down.

Growing up in the 50s and 60s, she recalls, Madras was a place that came to life at 4 a.m. and shut down at 8 p.m. Her family played a huge role in her life, as much of her success can be credited to her upbringing.

Our Madras household was always noisy, with plenty of laughing, arguing, and shouting. It was a strict environment. Our life was steady and pushed me to learn both self-discipline and how to speak up. I got the courage to branch out and prove myself because I was raised with a framework that gradually gave me the freedom to explore. There was always home to anchor me.

“The twin demands that define me have always been my family and my work.” She states this truth that, unfortunately, has been lost on so many today:

Family, I learned from the very beginning, is fundamental to our lives on this planet. It is both my foundation and the force that has propelled me. We thrive, individually and collectively, when we have deep connections with our parents and children, and within larger groups, whether we are related or not. I believe that healthy families are the root of healthy societies.

Looking back, I see how my life is full of this kind of duality—competing forces that have pushed and pulled me from one chapter to another. And I see how this is true of everyone. We are all balancing, juggling, compromising, doing our best to find our place, move ahead, and manage our relationships and responsibilities.

Refreshingly, she talks candidly about the obstacles she faced in a constructive way—never playing the victim. Always juggling family and career. The challenges of being a woman. Personal responsibility and self-efficacy are very much a part of who she is.

In college, she joined the debating team. “Looking back, I can say that debating helped me build my confidence and hone my ability to persuade others to accept my point of view, and artfully push back on an opposing perspective. It was endlessly helpful.”

In 1978 she moved to the United States to study at Yale University. “I entered the US through the front door, with a visa and a seat at a prestigious university. It was my choice, and I knew it meant that I had to work my way up. Maybe this prepared me for a tough life in the corporate world; it certainly required me to accept heartache and pain in my personal and professional lives and to just plow on. My duty was to honor this opportunity.”

After Yale and her marriage to Raj Nooyi, she takes us through her career changes and the lessons she learned along the way.

“Leaders need to understand the details behind what they are approving before they affix their signature to anything,” says Nooyi. “This is not about trusting the people that work for you. It’s about basic responsibility. Don’t be a ‘pass-through.’” Earlier in her career, when working for Motorola, she demonstrated the need to get herself up to speed before making any decision. She recalls, “I knew nothing about cars and electronics. So, I had two community college professors come twice a week to my office for lessons.” A pattern she followed for the rest of her career.

In 1994 she took her first position at PepsiCo and eventually rose to CEO in 2006. Her plan was to rethink the company and add three imperatives to their work: nourish humanity and the communities in which we live, replenish our environment, and cherish the people in our company. She called it Performance with Purpose.

No business can ever truly succeed in a society that fails. I believe that a company’s impact on society needs to be written through all business planning, and that this cannot be an afterthought. What’s good for commerce and what’s good for society have to go together.

This leadership philosophy has guided her success: “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.”

She says the “frustrations of motherhood persisted for me, and I still felt plenty of low-lying guilt. For all my work stress, travel, and impossible schedules, I really tried to make sure I was a caring, involved mother to the extent I could.”

I have to share this story as it says so much about her and her family and the grounding it gave her. After she got the news that she would become the president of PepsiCo, she headed home at about 10 p.m.

The wintery roads were peaceful and dark. In those fifteen minutes behind the wheel, I let myself enjoy my accomplishment. I had worked so hard, learned so much, and earned my place.

I entered the house through the kitchen door and dropped my keys and bag on the counter. I was bursting with excitement—so eager to tell everyone. Then my mother appeared. “I have the most incredible news!” I exclaimed.

“The news can wait,” she said. “I need you to go out and get milk.”

“Why didn’t you ask Raj to go get the milk?” I asked. “It looks like he came home a while ago.”

“He looked tired, so I didn’t want to disturb him,” she said.

I picked up my keys, went back to the car, drove to the Stop & Shop a mile away, and bought a gallon of whole milk. When I walked into the kitchen again, I was hopping mad. I slammed the plastic bottle on the counter.

“I’ve just become president of PepsiCo, and you couldn’t just stop and listen to my news,” I said loudly. “You just wanted me to go get the milk!”

“Lisen to me,” my mother replied. “You may be the president or whatever of PepsiCo, but when you come home, you are a wife and a mother and a daughter. Nobody can take your place. So you leave that crown in the garage.”

As she reflected on her mother’s comment, she thinks it speaks to something “deeply important about how we combine work and family. She was right, of course, that no matter who we are or what we do, nobody can take our place in our families.” At the same time, yes, she should have let her share her news. “I have a feeling that if I were a man, a husband, a father, I might have had a little more leeway.”

I know it’s easier said than done, but we really need to let go of perfection. I often felt that, even as I was gaining influence and power in the corporate world, I was failing my family because I wasn’t home more. Looking back, I’m a little heartbroken that I spent so much energy worrying about this.

Nooyi is grateful for her relationship with her husband, Raj. “The only way our marriage works and lasts is because we are on this journey together for the success of our entire family. For any working woman with kids, a supportive spouse can compensate for all of the guilt we carry around.”

The “crown in the garage” comment also speaks to the broader relationship between power and humility. This is an incredible lesson for those who rise in their careers and end up in roles that give them real authority in the workplace and in society.

Over the years, I started to downplay my job with my extended family. When I was a mid-level executive, it was easier for them to talk to me and just let me be myself. Once I rose to the senior ranks, some started to treat me somehow as more of a stranger. They assumed I would be too busy to speak with them or too important to deal with “normal” people. Others simply resented my success. All of this created some unease in the family.

I adjusted by keeping my observations, experiences, and stresses to myself more than I might have otherwise and making sure I was in good spirits when I came home or was with family.

The trappings of leadership in or world—money, travel, meeting famous and fascinating people, beautiful living and work spaces—become easy to adapt to and accept. But true leaders must keep their feet firmly rooted to the ground and focus on the responsibilities of their jobs.

Don’t miss this book—My Life in Full.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 09:01 AM
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