AdAsia 2011: How Pepsi grooms future leaders: Indra Nooyi

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising | November 04, 2011
Indra Nooyi, chairperson and chief executive officer, PepsiCo, delivered a riveting 45-minute valedictory keynote talk on how to manage brands better in the new world order, and how to manage business with de-averaged realities.

After scores of speakers, panellists and moderators throwing light on digital advent, the twin Asian forces - India and China - and the emergence of brand engagement as the hottest new marketing mantra, Indra Nooyi, chairperson and chief executive officer, PepsiCo, gave a talk that almost summed it all up.

In the context of this year's AdAsia theme, Uncertainty: The New Certainty, Nooyi briefly brought up Heisenberg's 'Uncertainty Principle', which states: The more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be controlled, determined, or known. She then went on to marvel at the extent to which times have changed. Unlike a few years back, she opined that today, there's a 'negative' kind of uncertainty that prevails, owing to three interlocked crises: A crisis of leadership, a crisis of governance and a crisis of expectations. The third, said Nooyi, is a consequence of the first and second.

"This complex world feels out of control," she said, "as consumer demands are changing in a heartbeat." She was, however, quick to add that one mustn't fall into the "trap of pessimism" because this same world is also full of opportunity and abundance. For instance, the middle class is going global, West Asia is growing, and women comprise the biggest emerging market today.

"How can we thrive in this new world, though?" questioned Nooyi, and went on to answer the question by putting forth five solutions.

Firstly, Nooyi spoke about the importance of 'adaptation', with a fleeting mention of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution that underscores the survival of the fittest and the importance of being able to adapt to one's environment. "Volatility is the new reality (what with dwindling certainty of economic growth and commodity prices) and the skill of adaptability is thus a valuable one to learn," cautioned Nooyi.

"Uncertain times require us to have a long term horizon, while simultaneously ensuring good returns here and now," Nooyi continued, easing into the second solution, which essentially involves managing a marriage of the short term with the long term.

Nooyi's third solution was to be extremely ambitious, that is, to strive to make "big changes to big things". She explained that the era of incremental thinking and relying on past knowledge to solve current problems is long gone. "Today," she elaborated, "innovation entails re-thinking one's entire product/service offering. Disruption is now our friend and if companies don't disrupt themselves, their competition will." In fact, she even suggested the establishment of 'internal disruption groups' in companies to look into this aspect.

To attracting and to develop the right talent was Nooyi's fourth point. She emphasised the need to re-train people in order to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas beyond national boundaries. "The way companies buy, bond and broaden talent (that is, employees) determines the success of the company," she declared.

The fifth and last pointer urged leaders to be very visible, both inside and outside the organisation. Further, she went on to say that leadership is a rational as well as an emotional process, as leaders need to form an emotional relationship with their team members. In the context of leadership, Nooyi stressed the importance of maintaining good relations with one's employees, stakeholders of the company and the board of directors.

Lastly, she concluded by saying, "Creative adaptability is the answer to uncertainty," thus punctuating the three-day event.

Later in a conversation with John Wren President & CEO, Omnicom Group Inc, she talked about how Pepsi believed in building future leaders. The company which has more than 300,000 employees across the world and it has identified around 300 employees who are most important for the company. What's interesting is that there are another 1,200 employees across levels, who have been identified as potential leaders and could take up important positions in the next 3-5 years. These employees are put through various tests and experiences to enhance their skill sets.

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