According to Indra Nooyi SOM ’80, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, running a corporation calls for three things: head, heart and hands.
Nooyi spoke to more than 300 people Wednesday as part of the Yale School of Management Leaders Forum — a program that brings leaders from the public, private and non-profit sector to talk with SOM students about challenges and chances in businesses today. With SOM Dean Sharon Oster facilitating the conversation, Nooyi outlined the goals of operating a business that has an impact on society, which include producing healthier products, maintaining environmental sustainability and making PepsiCo a good place to work. She then discussed the challenges facing any leader — and those confronting her in particular as a female CEO.
“I think leadership is a very personal thing,” Nooyi said. “I don’t think any CEO can pattern themselves after anybody.”
Nooyi said her own style of leadership has evolved over the years, making it difficult to characterize. She said a CEO must be innovative and forward-thinking to keep a company out of obsolescence. She said there is no exact formula to follow — no “recipe” from a cookbook — and that she writes her rules along the way.
Still, Nooyi rang clear on one point: the vital role of empathy in a leader — the “heart” among head, heart and hands.
“You have got to show passions for business and the people,” Nooyi said. “You have to treat each person as though they are the most important person in that company.”
Nooyi also emphasized the importance of companies such as PepsiCo operating with the goal of minimizing the costs they impose on society. For PepsiCo, Nooyi said, reducing these costs entails a strategy the company has christened “Performance with Purpose.”
The approach involves three components: human sustainability (an increase in the nutrition of products), environmental sustainability (operating responsibly with respect to both communities and nature) and workplace environment (creating a place where employees feel they can maintain both a job and a life).
Nooyi said she believes the philosophy resonates with SOM’s style of selecting students with an appreciation for both business and community. Dean Oster agreed, adding that “We have students with hearts and minds.”
The students, for their part, said it was this point that made Nooyi’s talk inspiring.
Marc Nicolas SOM ’11 said it was a unique opportunity to be able to hear Nooyi discuss both her leadership tactics and personal experiences. He said the idea of “Performance with Purpose” and the focus on integrating environmental, employee and community concerns with business was particularly admirable.
The same message stood out to Ben Healey SOM ’11.
“Ms. Nooyi really seems to represent the SOM ideal: a businesswoman who recognizes that her company is intimately intertwined with the societies in which it operates,” Healey said. “She respects Pepsi’s license from society and understands that comes with responsibility to be a leader not just for shareholders, but also for a variety of constituencies that help to make the company successful.”
Nooyi, a member of the Yale Corporation, visited Yale this weekend to meet with President Levin and the rest of the University’s highest governing body.