Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo and author of My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future, participated in a main stage discussion on the fundamentals of great leadership at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival where she offered lessons for business leaders.

Tina Brown, guest curator for the festival, set the stage for a conversation on leadership by sharing, “As the saying goes, ‘Management is about doing things right. Leadership is about doing the right thing.’ But that simple maxim never seems to have been harder in an era when every misstep is magnified and turned into a viral swarm.”

Nooyi was joined in conversation by Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, and journalist Katie Couric, who moderated the conversation. All three speakers acknowledged that this may be one of the most difficult moments in time to be a leader. During the conversation, Nooyi shared some essential insights – here are three:

Lesson 1: Focus on the long term benefits of the business

Nooyi said that one mistake that CEOs make is to focus on their tenure as CEO as opposed to the long-term benefit of the business. Anyone working in business with stakeholders and/or a board of directors has to rely on metrics to demonstrate their success. However, she cautioned that if you look at everything as, “metrics and programs that you have to do just to survive as a CEO, when the wind blows the other way, you’ll drop them.”

To thrive in the long-term and not just survive as a leader, Nooyi stressed the importance of internal support and the need for boards to not only hold their CEOs accountable, but also have their backs. In her 12 years as CEO of PepsiCo, she had to transform the company for its long-term success and even though the press eviscerated her early on, Nooyi maintained support of PepsiCo’s board. In describing the press, she said to laughter in the room, “The first six years were hell. The next three or four years, they said ‘Oh my God she was so prescient,’ and the last six years – even though I’ve retired since – I’ve had I’ve received every award known to mankind.”

Lesson 2: Diversity should be a strength

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) was something that corporate leaders embraced in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, but Nooyi said that companies backed off of their commitments once DEI and ESG were labeled as “woke”.

“If you said, ‘To improve society, I have to draw from the best and brightest and lift them all up so society gets better and the company has a bigger talent pool,’ you will think about diversity differently. You wouldn’t call it a DEI program. You’ll talk about it as a talent hiring and retention program,” said Nooyi.

All of the panelists echoed the strength of diversity. For example, Mayor Landrieu shared a story from his previous role as a White House Senior Advisor overseeing the implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. While traveling around the country to places where projects were launched, he met a junior in high school in Kentucky who told him, “Mayor, out here in the hollows of Kentucky, talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is clearly not.”

“I just want to say to my fellow Americans, ‘Listen, quit cutting yourself short by cutting out folks that don’t look like you or believing that it’s not important to go find the best and the brightest talent because if you did that and if it was all fair, then the room would look very different than the way rooms look today,” said Mayor Landrieu.

Lesson 3: Think beyond maximizing shareholder value

Another area that Nooyi challenged was the idea that maximizing shareholder value is the only priority of a corporation, suggesting that leaders evaluate their community impact as part of their strategies. One example she cited was outsourcing of semiconductor manufacturing overseas that led to jobs and innovation being shipped outside the USA. “On the way out, companies benefited. On the way back, governments have to pay. When you maximize shareholder value, you outsource jobs, and then what happens? You wonder why the country doesn’t have jobs,” said Nooyi. She shared that this could be a key reason for what led to the CHIPS and Science Act being passed in 2023 to bring this industry, talent and national security industry back to North America.

All of the panelists acknowledged that the past 25 years have been a trying time for the country, but have emphasized the critical role business leaders play in the stability of communities across the United States. Most importantly, they have shown the important role they play in solving societal issues. Nooyi closed her remarks by saying, “I think we have to stop and ask ourselves, “All the actions we take, are they right for society?”

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