Indra Nooyi’s Leadership Should Inspire Male-Female Mentorship

Thomas Harrison, former CEO of Omnicom’s Diversified Agency Services

Before my early retirement, PepsiCo was a client. And so, I continue to be interested in the company, its brands, culture and progress. I was especially surprised by and interested in the announcement by Indra Nooyi that she had chosen to step aside, leaving the board to choose a very talented insider as successor CEO.

I had several thoughts almost simultaneously. First, that Nooyi has led PepsiCo with incredible grace and purpose. Her vision has transformed the company from one of sugary beverages and salty snacks into one that has a lot more good-for-you health-conscious options. Under her leadership, PepsiCo has planned for and enjoyed significant financial growth. I thought, too, that she is one unique CEO who embraces the “know when to go” philosophy. It’s important to step aside when you are at the peak of your career. Thoughtfully brilliant.

But then I had another thought. Another female CEO who is an amazingly talented, stunningly visionary, an inspirational leader is stepping aside. Not down…aside. What is next? What purpose can Nooyi champion in her encore career? Only she knows this now.

I read an article about what it means for female leadership in Fortune 500 companies with another female CEO stepping aside. It included a statistic that 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by females and a World Economic Forum statistic that ‘suggests’—wrongly I hope—that gender parity will not exist in the United States for 168 years and globally for another 217 years. You’ve got to be kidding! That is like predicting the weather on any day in the year 2186. In that same article, there was an opinion that men should no longer mentor women in business. That’s just a lot to take in.

It is very revealing that almost 95% of Fortune 500 corporations are still led by males today. Many men have proven to be spectacular, visionary and inspiring leaders, and some have not. Some women have proven themselves equally spectacular leaders, and some not.  There were many female Presidents and CEOs of the companies I led and they were and are amazingly insightful, inspirational, get-it-done and sometimes entrepreneurial leaders.

Sad that boards are not identifying more well-qualified female candidates when they are searching for a CEO. They do exist. Major search firms are and have been working diligently to identify qualified candidates for board search committees to consider. It’s sad as well that maybe women are still just not always putting themselves out there to be recognized in 2018.

I cannot even comment on the absurdity of the World Economic Forum statistic because it could not have anticipated or understood the powerful feminine dynamics significantly influencing every aspect of our world today. Women are at the center of every aspect of life…think about it! They give life, they manage lives, they direct living.

Male-female mentorship

Let’s address the male mentorship comment. Several years ago while CEO of the then largest division of a global holding company, I tried an experiment with millennials. I called it Reciprocal Mentorship. Because I recognized then that our clients were getting younger and thinking differently and that our workforce was becoming populated with very talented members of the millennial generation, I wanted to learn all I could about them. Not just from books about them, but from them directly. After all, they are the next leadership generation. I chose a millennial who I felt had great ideas, was very creative, well-spoken and I offered to mentor him if he would consider mentoring me.

I remember him saying to me, “I know what I can learn from you, but what can you possibly learn from me?” Because I had anticipated that question, I reflexively said, you can teach me about you, all about your generation.”

The experiment was an amazing success. It made me a more relevant leader because it provided me a much better understanding of and appreciation for millennials, it made our company a millennial magnet and made the millennials who worked with us more loyal to our company.

So when I read that men should not mentor women, I immediately thought of “Reciprocal Mentorship.” Why can’t men mentor women and women mentor men? How many times have we heard that men do not understand women?

Select one of the many talented women in your company who has stood out, mentor her and let her mentor you. Yes, let her mentor you. Listen to her. Learn from her. This is just one important step in evolving to where we need to be with leadership in our companies. Some tend to regard gender equality as a challenge, a problem to be solved, when in fact it is an opportunity to be capitalized upon for our companies.

We try to solve the ‘problem’ with the same worn strategies when, my guess, is if we look at equality and female leadership as the opportunity that it truly is, the challenge might be solved in a whole new and innovative way. It has been found in business that the biggest challenges and opportunities can be addressed simply and effectively by people from multiple and varied backgrounds who come to the planning table with collaborative, open minds rather than with pre-determined strategic paths. Saying that men should not mentor women is just defensive and divisive. But when men do mentor women and they miss the opportunity to learn something, that’s a form of defensiveness as well. Open up, everyone! Together we can be great.

Don’t focus on the negative aspect of another female CEO stepping aside. Focus on the incredible corporate, cultural and financial advancements that were enjoyed under her leadership and spread those statistics. Maybe those statistics taken together with other positive outcomes from female-driven companies will change the narrative, change the mindset, change the seemingly slow progress toward gender equality.

This argument should never be about women vs men. Not about men losing to women or women losing to men. This is not a game to be won or lost. It is about winning the right game. It is about the right talent bubbling to the top and about everyone winning.

It should not even be an argument. It is not about only women standing up for themselves, it is about women and men standing for what simply is right. It should be about the best thing to do for our businesses, to select the best leader for that time, for that business in that business climate, at that time in its history and cultural situation, for all the right reasons regardless of gender consideration.  Just take joy in the ultimate decision. And, let’s refute that World Economic Forum prediction.

Read more: Women CEOs Share Defining Traits, Report Says

Thomas Harrison :Thomas Harrison is the Chairman Emeritus of Diversified Agency Services (DAS) and former CEO of DAS, a division of Omnicom.