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Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, at left, speaks with PCMA conference emcee Holly Ransom—and one of them is appearing on the stage as a hologram.

3 Leadership Lessons from PepsiCo’s Former CEO

Indra Nooyi tells PCMA’s Convening Leaders attendees that a well-defined purpose drives high performance, knowledge-sharing helps change initiatives succeed, and balancing work and family will make companies stronger.

After all the uncertainty leading up to the start of Professional Convention Management Association’s Convening Leaders conference in Las Vegas last week, the event went on for about 2,500 people in person and more than 600 people virtually. Five attendees were found to have Covid at some point during the conference and were immediately isolated, while other in-person attendees received notification of those situations shortly thereafter.

To close out the show on January 12, PCMA used hologram technology to bring in former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who oversaw an 80-percent increase in the food-and-beverage company’s revenues between 2006 and 2018 as the leader of more than 270,000 employees worldwide.

Now on the board of directors for Amazon and Philips, Nooyi recently published her memoir, titled My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future, relaying her experiences as a corporate leader, working mother, and lifelong learner.

From her 40-minute main-stage discussion with Holly Ransom, PCMA’s conference emcee, here are three factors that Nooyi says are central to the future success of organizations, and where leaders of meeting and event departments could play a role in bringing about change and progress in their own organizations:

• Performing with a larger purpose in mind—one that goes beyond maximizing sales and revenue—"is not about simply giving money away,” she said. “If we [at PepsiCo] didn't focus on and invest in specific purposes, we couldn't deliver the right performance. It is a virtuous circle.”

For example, by the time Nooyi became CEO in 2006, the soft-drink market had gone from 90 percent sodas to 45 percent sodas. In light of that, “I knew we had to retool the portfolio to have healthier offerings: make them fun for you but good for you,” she said. “Also, we were using 2.5 liters of water to produce one liter of soda when more than 40 percent of the world’s population is water-distressed. We had to reduce our water usage, reduce how much plastic goes into landfills, reduce the carbon that comes out of our trucks.”

Lastly, “we know that young people want to work in consulting, in tech, in the financial industry, but we wanted those people to come to us. So, we decided we were going to make PepsiCo a place where you can bring your whole self to work. We need a care infrastructure for employees’ families” that includes the flexibility to work anywhere thanks to investments in technology. “So, our pillars for performance were the products, environmental sustainability, and human sustainability.”

The response to Nooyi’s revised purposes was not exactly warm. “A lot of [executives and shareholders] said, ‘Do you think you’re Mother Teresa? We like soda and chips; your job is to keep selling those.’ But that was the only way I was going to run the company, and the board could have fired me if they wanted to.” The board didn’t do that, and “we cut our water consumption in half, implemented closed-loop systems to greatly reduce plastic usage, and got the right people working for us.”

• Sharing knowledge is the key to transformation and innovation. “The biggest thing is to root the transformations you’re making in an outside view of the world, the macro trends,” Noori said. “Many companies think that they have to transform something because their competitors are doing it. But transformations are hard; they involve changes to processes, capabilities, and, most importantly, culture. So before you embark on something, you must understand very clearly the big macro trends showing that your transformation makes sense.”

Next, do you have the courage and the resilience to see your organization through the most difficult parts of transformation? "I did a lot of research on the trends that were going to impact PepsiCo over the next 10 to 20 years, and I used that as a true north. If anybody questioned a transformation, I said, ‘I'm doing this because this is what the big trends say. If you agree that these are the trends, don't you think we need to make these changes?’ Many times, people responded, ‘Yeah, those are the trends—but do we have to go this far?’

“These are the kind of things change leaders will face, but they should ignore those critics. Having backbone, confidence, and resilience is critical here. Understand why you're embarking on a transformation, build support among your opinion leaders, get your board to support you, and just go. … Approach your innovation in a systematic way, and assign or hire the right people to execute it.”

• “When we think about the future of work, companies should put the family at the center,” Nooyi said. “What is it going to take to create, nurture, and develop families and then build a future of work around that? If we achieve that, we will have a better society with less mental stress for adults as well as kids who are not deprived of time with their parents nor sitting in front of a screen all the time. I think communication technology is going to be a positive in this area; I hope we can harness it to build a better workplace and society going forward.

"I think companies have to really focus on the care infrastructure. Today, we don't have available affordable quality childcare in every place. There are childcare deserts all over the country. I will approach this like an economist, not a feminist: 70 percent of high school valedictorians today are girls; 55 percent of bachelor degrees are being earned by women; and more than 50 percent of professional degrees are being earned by women. I sit on the board of MIT, where 47 of its engineers are women. You have this extraordinary group who wants economic freedom, who wants the power of the purse, and who often wants families too. But we throw so many hurdles at them, and it’s not fair. We need the brilliance of the women to keep our economy growing.

“Getting back to the idea of organizational transformation, we can break this down mathematically and talk about the cost businesses would incur by putting in an infrastructure of care and flexibility—and that figure will pale in comparison with what we get in return.

“The time has come for us to think about this issue as economists. I’m not speaking as a feminist. It’s not a political issue. This is a human issue, and it is not an issue we can keep punting down the road.”

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