4 best career advice lessons from departing PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi

Here are some of the best pieces of advice departing PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has given on careers that we can apply to our lives.

Photo: IIP Photo Archive via Flickr

After 12 years at the helm of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, one of the most famous women of color to ever lead a Fortune 500 company, announced that she is stepping down as CEO. “Twelve years is a long time, and I’d like to do something different with my life,” she told the Wall Street Journal about her decision to leave. “This wasn’t a discussion out of emotion or anything of that sort.”

During her tenure, she not only took the maker of Mountain Dew, Gatorade and Doritos into international markets and healthier territory, she also became known for mentoring others who aspired to follow in her path. Here are some of the best pieces of advice she’s given on careers that we can apply to our lives:

On the realities of work-life balance

While some people advise us to have it all in our quest for self-improvement, Nooyi was more realistic, giving pragmatic advice on the compromises women make as they balance work, children and marriages: “I don’t think women can have it all,” she said at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival. “We pretend we have it all.”

As an example of her “coping mechanisms” she created to deal with these compromises, Nooyi said she enlisted her receptionist to help her parent her daughters when they called her at PepsiCo. When her daughter Tyra called, the secretary would follow Nooyi’s instructions to get Nintendo access. Nooyi recalled how the conversation would go: ” ‘Have you finished your homework?’ Etc. I say this because that’s what it takes. She goes through the questions and she says, ‘Okay, you can play Nintendo half an hour.’ Then she leaves me a message. ‘Tyra called at 5. This is the sequence of questions I went through. I’ve given her permission.’ So it’s seamless parenting. But if you don’t do that, I’m serious, if you don’t develop mechanisms with your secretaries, with the extended office, with everybody around you, it cannot work.”

“You know, stay at home mothering was a full-time job. Being a CEO for a company is three full-time jobs rolled into one. How can you do justice to all? You can’t. The person who hurts the most through this whole thing is your spouse. There’s no question about it. You know, Raj always said, you know what, your list is PepsiCo, PepsiCo, PepsiCo, our two kids, your mom, and then at the bottom of the list is me. There are two ways to look at it. (laughing) You should be happy you’re on the list. So don’t complain. (laughing) He is on the list.”

On what she learned from Steve Jobs

When Nooyi got the PepsiCo CEO job in 2006, she reached out to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs for advice. In the two hours they talked, he advised her to take hands-on ownership of ideas if she wanted them to actually happen.

When she told Jobs that PepsiCo’s design was a top priority for her, Jobs recommended her to get personally involved if she wanted that to be her legacy:

“If design is important to you, it has to report to you because it’s a new skill that you have to build in the company,” Nooyi said Jobs told her. “If you don’t show CEO support for that function, don’t even get started on that journey,” she recalled him saying.

On why learning never stops

To be a leader, you have to be willing to keep up with the trends and think differently than your peers. That means going beyond the standard advice of consultants.

Nooyi told a group of Stanford Business students that bosses who rely upon the traditional strategic planning cycle or consulting reports are doing their companies a “big disservice.”

“Our CEOs and leaders have to be lifelong students — not just students in the sense of attending courses or reading a book or two. You’ve got to learn how to read widely, walk the market, look at trends in the marketplace, make connections that don’t seem obvious,” she said. “Very often I think what happens is that we separate out the consumer out there from the consumer in us. We are the consumer.”

On how to combat the loneliness of leadership

For women who reach the highest pinnacles of power, the view from the top can be isolating. There are currently only 25 female CEOs in the S&P 500 stock index, and two of them will be out by the end of this year. “When you become a C.E.O. and you’re a woman, you are looked at differently. … You are held to a different standard, there’s no question about it. It’s not that you’ve become C.E.O., and now you get a hall pass. You don’t.” Nooyi said during a Freakonomics podcast interview. “I think this group of women CEOs, all of us, are going through that right now. Hopefully, as the numbers get bigger — and I hope they do — nobody’s looking at us as women CEOs but just as leaders of big enterprises. I hope that day comes sooner than later.”

Her advice to make it less lonely? Create your own personal board of directors to consult with in confidence about the decisions you make.

In that same interview, Nooyi said that when she became a CEO, she started meeting up with other CEOs like IBM’s Ginni Rometty and General Electric’s Ken Chenault for advice.

“You’ve got to create your own ecosystem, and your own kitchen cabinet, so you can sort of alleviate some of the loneliness without giving away any confidential information. I remember that we had a group of five CEOs that we would meet every quarter,” Nooyi said. “And the five of us would get together every quarter — we tried to get together every quarter — to talk about issues that were on our mind. And it was a good safe group for us to sort of bounce ideas off of each other. … We’d talk about everything, ranging from big broad portfolio bets, to, ‘how do you articulate an investor story?’ to ‘how do you think about people development?'”

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.