Jennifer Wells: Is Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi really a role model for women?
Highlights from the CEO’s playbook circa, sadly, 2018.
“Today I woke up at 4 a.m. and I read the balance of the stuff I hadn’t read over the weekend from my mail.”
“I came to work at 8:30 this morning, and I go ’til about 10:00 tonight.”
(A working dinner with design staff is slotted in there.)
“I’ll get home by about 10:30 or 11 tonight. I’ll probably read whatever mail came from today ’til about midnight.”
(So the CEO is clocking a 20-hour day.)
“Go to sleep, and be back up at 4 a.m. tomorrow. And that’s a normal routine.”
That excerpt, scraped from an interview PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi gave to Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner, provides essential context to the announcement this week that Nooyi is stepping away from the top job at the pop and snack food giant after a dozen years at the helm.
Corporate America shook upon hearing the news of Nooyi’s departure, set for Oct. 3, because there are few enough women running big business, because Nooyi is being replaced by a man and because other women CEOs have departed and have themselves been replaced by males.
Have we not fixed this yet? Oh, surprise. No.
PepsiCo is a $64-billion (U.S.) company, measured by revenues, and Nooyi has arguably steered it competently through a period of declining soda sales and increasing nutritional awareness. The company likes to say that it has three consumer categories: fun for you, better for you and good for you — say, Doritos, Smartfood and Master Brew Kombucha — and Nooyi has been adept at shaping the company’s brand platforms.
Four years ago, activist investor Nelson Peltz submitted a 31-page white paper to the board making the case for splitting beverages and snack foods into two publicly traded companies. PepsiCo was underperforming its food and beverage peers, Peltz argued: “during the CEO’s seven-plus year tenure, PepsiCo’s total shareholder return of 47% has grown at less than half the rate of the Consumer Staples Index (103%) and competitors like Coca-Cola (115%). PepsiCo’s EPS growth has also significantly trailed that of peers.”
In the end, Nooyi prevailed with PepsiCo’s “Power of One” strategy.
In this guise, Nooyi became one of the too-few standard bearers for women at the top.
Or did she?
Consider the aforementioned exchange on the Freakonomics podcast in which it becomes apparent that the “norm” in Nooyi’s world is the age-old playbook with rules set by a male-dominant corporate culture in which devotion to the job, pretty much 24/7, is the expectation. Did Nooyi believe that there’s a “standard model for what we think of as the CEO?,” Dubner wanted to know. In Nooyi’s estimation the challenge lies in how to support women seeking a balance between career and family and perhaps aging parents and, well, life. “It’s got to be a concerted effort on the part of governments, societies, families, companies — all of us coming together,” she remarked.
And yet nowhere in the exchange does she provide examples of ways in which she, empowered, worked to change the culture. On the contrary, Dubner surfaced a clip from an Aspen Ideas Festival appearance in which Nooyi told the tale of one of her daughters complaining of her mother’s non-appearance at mother-daughter morning “class coffee” gatherings at the convent school her daughter attended, held each Wednesday. “I developed coping mechanisms,” Nooyi recounted. “I called the school, and I said, “give me a list of mothers who are not there.’ When she came home in the evening she’d say ‘You were not there, you were not there.’ And I said, ‘ah ha, Mrs. Redd wasn’t there, Mrs. So-and-So wasn’t there. So I’m not the only bad mother.”
There’s a surfeit of problematic role-playing there, including the convent’s own casting of “the mother.” But it’s Nooyi’s own corporately strategic response to her daughter’s disappointment that stands out. If the CEO can’t find, say, an hour one Wednesday morning a month to attend a child’s school, then who can? The true leader’s approach to this dilemma would be to post a video clip of the coffee gathering for all workers to see. Suggested rubric: “The Importance of Family.”
Workaholism makes no room for such ideas.
A year ago Nooyi told Fortune magazine that she gets up every hour to respond to the pinging of her email. “I’m used to this pace of working at this point,” she told the magazine. “That’s what I like.”
In another interview she said she had sacrificed everything she loved because she wanted to do her job well.
She told Stephen Dubner that as a woman it was a constant to hear comments along the lines of “Well, a guy CEO wouldn’t have said that. Or a guy would have said it differently. You are held to a different standard.”
She did not address changing or even challenging the standard.
She did not address how to change the definition of what it means to be a leader.
“Women are searching for role models,” Nooyi told Dubner. “They want to talk to people who’ve made it to the CEO suite, or to the C-suite I’d say more generally, to learn from them as to how they’ve operated in a more male setting.”
But that’s precisely the problem: trying to play by the wrong rules.
In announcing her resignation Nooyi said she’s tired, that her family needs her. She’s 62. When asked by The New York Times whether she did see herself as a good role model for other women she replied, “Probably not.”
Perhaps, like Sheryl Sandberg, she is undergoing a grace of conversion. Sandberg, Facebook executive and author of giga-seller Lean In, saw the world quite differently upon the subsequent death of her husband. “Before, I did not quite get it,” Sandberg has said. “I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home.”
Perhaps Nooyi too will pen a book. I would like to read how, given all the power with which she was vested, she left the corporate world a better place for her daughters.
Jennifer Wells is a business columnist based in Toronto. Reach her on email: