This is the second part of my post on Women and Leadership. While the first part focused on comments by Xerox CEO (and a thoroughly inspiring leader) Ursula Burns at the 92nd Y and a MIT Club of NY event I attended, this part will be on the comments by PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and Barnard President Debora Spar made during the 92nd Y panel discussion.
Nooyi shared critical experiences in her childhood, where her mother made Nooyi and her sister imagine at the dining table every evening they were a famous public figure and write & give speeches about the key actions they were about to undertake in that public-figure capacity. Then Nooyi's mother would decide which of the two sisters would have her vote. (This daily ritual, when Nooyi was about 8 or 9, is even more remarkable when you know that Nooyi's mother held rather conservative views and did not work outside the home. Yet, she was adamant her daughters could do anything they wanted, and made sure they were aware of that.) Nooyi's paternal grandfather also taught her to do a job well or not do it at all.
I enjoyed hearing her talk about the environment she has faced as CEO, especially the controversies a few years back surrounding her decision to focus on healthier foods and drinks. She touched upon the push for incredible performance levels in 2001-06 before she became CEO without considering how those performance levels would be achieved and the time in 2006-08 where many CEOs had to change and companies pursued an expectations reset.
She also mentioned impatient investors, unprecedented attacks on the food industry and the pressure to break up companies without giving details, but as it so happens the part of her strategy related to design thinking is also the focus of an article in this month's Harvard Business Review, where you can learn more about what happened. She made an interesting point about the drinks at the PepsiCo meetings that gave her an early warning of the shifting trends in the population at large: from full-sugar drinks in the early 2000s to diet drinks around 2006-8 and now Aquafina (yes, a PepsiCo product) in 2015. She also made the point that "spreadsheets don't run companies", which Ursula Burns expanded upon in her remark that just about anything is possible on paper - something I discussed in my previous post. Nooyi praised great boards as a necessary condition for success as a CEO, where a great board is defined as a board who takes the time to understand strategy as well as the details of this strategy.
Debora Spar had a refreshing take on her childhood and teenage years, which she described as rather dull years spent growing up in Westchester, NY. Her attitude was to "shut up and do your work". She also shared some key moments as a pregnant young assistant professor at Harvard Business School at a time where the faculty had very few women, trying to prepare a case about baby food in Poland with an Excel spreadsheet that was not cooperating, and gaining more and more confidence in herself in those early years. She spoke very positively of HBS, where she was promoted quickly.
She made interesting comments about the situation two-income families face today: while women today are raised to believe they can do everything, if both parents work outside the home, who is going to take care of the home? She contrasted her time at HBS when it was a very male dominated environment and her time now at Barnard which is an almost completely female dominated environment, and made the point that power is displayed in different ways, conflict is handled in different ways, so that it is important to recognize the different ways men and women approach leadership, otherwise the issues women face in male-dominated environments (most companies today, one has to admit) will not get resolved. She also pointed out that women tend to drop out from the workforce when they have kids, but extending the maternity leave may not be the sole answer, because even if the maternity leave could last two years at full pay, when it ends you then have a two-year-old to take care of, and then what do you do? Later come the parent-teacher conferences, the bake sales, and all these events that are (more often than not) attended by mothers rather than fathers. Spousal support was emphasized by all three panelists as particularly important, but Nooyi pointed out that she feels some accomplished young women today still believe they have to make themselves be smaller than they are in order not to have their husbands feel threatened or diminished.
Spar also asked the rhetorical question during the Q&A on how to teach college students such as Barnard students resilience, especially those students who have had an "easy glide" in their academic path all the way into college (not meaning they don't challenge themselves, but instead that they have easily succeeded so far in the challenging endeavors they have pursued). How do you create safe situations for students that will stretch them, allow them to fail and help them grow?
The conversation then drifted to the importance of mentorship. Both Nooyi and Spar had fascinating insights into this part. Spar pointed out that one sees a willingness to learn in the good mentees - a desire to become better and to improve their contribution to the company, rather than a pure focus on success. Nooyi shared that she receives multiple requests every week from people who would like her to mentor them, but good mentorship doesn't work that way. You don't pick mentors, mentors pick you.
I'll end with something I forgot to write in my previous post about Ursula Burns. Someone asked the inevitable question about discrimination, and Ursula Burns's answer was most telling. She said she had expected gender/racial discrimination, but the one that had taken her a bit by surprise was age discrimination. By that she explained that some people had had trouble taking her seriously because of her young age when she was starting out and getting promoted. This is an issue that will resonate with many talented twenty-somethings, I'm sure. She also asked audience members to think about their own biases, instead of assuming that they have none.
All three women at the 92nd Y came across as remarkable and thoughtful leaders who make wonderful models for younger women today.