My Life In Full - Indra Nooyi

Lessons from a Legend

Read and came away blown by Indra Nooyi’s “My Life in Full”. So many riveting and little-known aspects of her giant career – and a goldmine of learning for everyone in corporate life, specially women. There are many oft-recounted episodes like the “Leaving the Crown in the Garage” story, so will not dwell on those. But there are several other lesser-known nuggets, which are inspirational and awe-invoking. My take on some of the things that we can all try to implement:

Be the Master of your Game: She literally knew every line item of every financial statement of every business, geography and vertical of the company and group she worked for. She travelled extensively and met and interacted with different jurisdictions and stakeholders of her vast global empire. She knew her subject matter in and out – she read, reviewed and marked up every document and presentation that was sent to her and prepared for meetings weeks in advance. She was also advised once in her career to know what makes up “the right side of the decimal point”, and acquired a grasp of the minutest of cost drivers and cost savings in every operational sub-task and on-field micro-activity.

Making P&L numbers is just one part: Owning your P&L is important but not the only thing – in fact she writes that when she was about to leave for a London-based role in PepsiCo, where she would have had her own P&L for the first time, she was told at the last minute that the move was off. She stayed back to lead various strategic initiatives at head office, followed by the mantle of CFO. As CFO she had a whole host of departments reporting to her including Finance, Regulatory, M&A, Tax, HR and IT. She manned key portfolios which were the organization’s lifelines.  No one is indispensable – but some people prove themselves to be infinitely valuable through the criticality of the functions they hold, and the immaculate delivery they assure through their helmsmanship. Be one of them.

Nothing to beat plain old “shoulder to the wheel” approach: She redefined ‘hard work’ – there are instances in the book where she writes that during certain periods, she would be at her office desk by 6 am, return late in the evenings, change into her ‘flannel nightgown’ so that her daughters would feel she was not leaving again, then stay up till midnight working on her material and communications. Can’t  begin to imagine how her body and mind coped with these excruciating timetables. Adrenalin , I guess. Superhuman individual capacity, I suppose.

Be on a lifelong quest of learning: As may not have been very widely known before the book, she also worked in various industries such as textiles, semi-conductors (Motorola), consultancy and heavy engineering, before PepsiCo. She actively built her knowledge-base of each of these industries and not just through intrinsic on-the job mechanisms: she hired professors, took tutorials, read textbooks in those subjects. She writes that when her taking over as CFO of PepsiCo was announced, one of the thoughts that came to her was that it may be time to reopen her Finance textbooks from Management school and spend some time with them. Learning for the rest of us is that never think you can overdo the learning part. Pay for a teacher’s lessons, take night classes, open your long-forgotten college books, do whatever it takes, at whatever stage of your professional life – but never stop learning

Don’t just be the torch-bearer – create a solid line-up to handover the torch to: She was not just a symbol of diversity but a champion of it. As she was climbing the corporate ladder herself, she questioned and debated with HR how they were translating diversity goals into their hiring, whether there was pay parity across genders at every level, whether enough was being done to foster a multi-cultural work environment. Leaders are not satisfied with merely breaking barriers themselves; they use their influence to enable the next generation to benefit from what they have achieved.

It’s not smart to say “It’s not my job”: She always inevitably took on much more than what was her official role. At the time that Pepsi bought Quaker Oats, she was leading strategy, and regulatory approvals were not strictly her remit. But the FTC approval for the deal was vital, and without that the entire transaction would have fallen apart. Even though someone else was officially in charge of the project, the CEO wanted her to be responsible for it, since there was no scope for slip-up. And this make-or-break responsibility was in addition to the roles that she was already performing! She stepped up and delivered the FTC approval after months of toil, finally sealing the historic deal for Pepsi.

Mentors don’t happen – You have to build your own mentor network: From early on in her career, in each of her roles, she had strong mentors who not only respected her competence, but also liked her and took to her as a person. When they moved companies, they wanted her to follow them. When they took on a project, they wanted her to lead it. Wherever we work, it does not help to simple meet targets and live in a cocoon. You need to be engaged with the leaders and strike a chord with them so that they will naturally want to recreate the partnership with you at different levels and in different workspaces. Your professional path will automatically keep blazing ahead through the opportunities that open up.

Weigh the unobvious factors: The PepsiCo chairman had to actually pitch Pepsi to her for her to join the company because she was also being courted by GE at the same time. ‘We don’t have anyone like you’ and ‘We need you more’ is what he said, in sum. At every step, make careful choices based on the impact you can have, not just the title and pay cheque.

Apart from all this, there are many fascinating stories on her experiences as a first-generation immigrant, management student, expectant mother, young mother, wife and daughter, and how she dealt with the challenges of all these roles, while going on to become a legend in corporate America. But more on that for another discussion!

2 thoughts on “Lessons from a Legend”

    1. Shalini Shrivastav

      Thanks, Sonali! So happy you enjoyed reading this. There are so many powerful ideas in the book and not easy to articulate them all  – but I thought at least a few can be written about to start with

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