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

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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,…

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