PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi: 5 powerful career habits that drove her success

Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi steps down today after a 24-year career with the company.

Born in India, the 62-year-old was one of a handful of people of color to run an S&P 500 company. During her 12-year tenure as chief executive, Nooyi transformed PepsiCo into one of the most successful food and beverage companies worldwide. Her push for healthier snack and beverage choices, along with an eye for product packaging, led to an 80 percent sales growth in the 12 years she was CEO.

Nooyi will remain as chairwoman of the board of directors until early 2019. As Nooyi readies for her next phase, here are the traits and habits she used to help steer her career.

1. Imagine you're the president

As a child in India, Nooyi and her sister were asked to play an unusual game. Each night at dinner, their mother asked her daughters to imagine what they'd do if they were the prime minister, the president or some other world leader. By the end of the dinner, the girls presented a speech and their mother decided which speech won her vote.

Though her mother instilled many traditional values in her daughters, she also encouraged them to be whoever they wanted to be. "She gave us that confidence," Nooyi said.

The game helped build Nooyi's confidence. Later, when she'd attend business school, she said some male classmates would doubt her abilities and even refuse to make eye contact with her. She pushed through, assured in her skills and abilities.

She'd say to herself, "I can do this better than anyone else can," she explained at a 2015 talk at the 92Y in New York. She added, "If everything else fails, they're going to come to me and say, 'Fix it,' because I know I'm that good. Remember, I could be president of India!"

2. Develop a niche skill

Find a specific talent or skill that has served you well and hone it, Nooyi told LinkedIn executive editor Daniel Roth. When issues arise, said Nooyi, you want people to automatically think of you as the sole person who can solve said problem.

Nooyi relies on her ability to use research to simplify complicated issues. "Over my entire career, what I've been known for is making simple the complex, whatever the issue is," she said. "Somebody gives me a complex problem I become a student. I don't care that I'm CEO, or president, or CFO. I become a student."

As CEO, she made the tough decision to overhaul the PepsiCo's IT system. To understand the technologies and what was needed, she read 10 textbooks cover to cover over her holiday and had professors on call to answer her questions. This legwork didn't just make her more informed and help her clearly identify the right solution, it helped her overpower skeptics who were hesitant to make a change.

Reflecting on your top skills and what you want to be known for can help you become a go-to person on your team. "When you have a competence that nobody else has, you become more valuable," said Nooyi.

3. Think like your customer

As CEO, Nooyi oversaw more than 26,000 employees globally including more than 100 brands and trademarks. Yet during her first few years at the helm, Nooyi made visiting grocery stores a weekly priority so she could see how PepsiCo products looked on shelves.

She'd take photos of the products' packaging and placement, and send critiques to her design and marketing teams.

Thinking beyond an individual project or assignment to its overall purpose or mission can focus and inspire you. It can also ensure you're building solutions people need.

"I am a shopkeeper. I'm a gatekeeper of my family," she told WNYC "Freakonomics Radio" podcast. "So I look at our business through a different lens and then I come back and I talk to my people about what I saw was good, and what wasn't really good."

"I'm not just a CEO," Nooyi added. "I'm also a consumer."

4. Surprise with gratitude

Shortly after her promotion to CEO, Nooyi visited India to see her mother. During her stay, visitors congratulated Nooyi's mother on the CEO's success. It soon dawned on her that parents of great workers rarely get recognition for the person they helped raise, she said on "The David Rubenstein Show."

After the trip, Nooyi wrote more than 400 letters to the parents of her senior executives, expressing her gratitude. Parents responded to say they were honored, she recalled, and some of her executives told her, "My God, this is the best thing that's happened to my parents. And it's the best thing that's happened to me."

Taking the time to acknowledge those who support you shows that you value their time and effort and don't take them for granted. An act of kindness can also make people more likely to help you achieve future goals.

5. Be strong

Nooyi was anxious when she made the transition from CFO to CEO. Though she developed a well-researched plan, that did not squash her worries. "There was a lot of anxiety when I took over," she said on an oGoLead podcast.

Still, she put those concerns aside to put forth her vision and get buy-in. "To the company I had to project confidence, optimism, a can-do spirit and a must-do resolve," she said.

Her charge for healthier food choices, for instance, initially received some push back from investors. But Nooyi stayed resolute in her strategy for the company. The New York Times reports that half of PepsiCo's revenue now comes from healthier snack and drink products, up from 38 percent in 2006.

Said Nooyi in a statement last August, "PepsiCo today is in a strong position for continued growth with its brightest days still ahead."

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