How to Become a CEO, According to Indra Nooyi: Focus on These 3 Things

May 6, 2019

Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi explains how to become a CEO with this career advice.

Indra Nooyi is one of the world's great success stories, working her way up to become the CEO of PepsiCo for 12 years and is now one of the most powerful women in the world.

Her favorite question to be asked? How do I do what you did.

“I will be even happier if more people came up to me and said, ‘I want to be a CEO, what does it take to get there’?" Nooyi said in an interview featured on LinkedIn Learning. “Because that means people have hopes and dreams and they feel the system will allow them to get there.”

Good news for the rest of us – she has a succinct, actionable answer. According to Nooyi, the three things you focus on to become a CEO are:

Indra Nooyi, in an interview featured on LinkedIn Learning, gives advice on how to build a successful career.

1. Focus on doing your current job better than anybody has ever done it.

It’s almost impossible to move up within an organization and gain the support of others if you aren’t doing your current job really well. Yet, if you focus too much on becoming a CEO, your performance in your existing job can slip.

“Don't get fixated on your CEO aspiration,” Nooyi said. “Focus on doing the current job you have so well that people say, ‘Nobody else can do that job as well as (you are) doing it.’ So I think it's critically important to focus on the current job.”

2. Develop a “hip pocket” skill.

Nooyi suggests developing a “hip pocket” skill. Meaning a skill you become so good at, you are seen across the organization as the expert at it.

This should ideally be a human skill, not a hard skill (a hard skill can pigeonhole you). For example, Nooyi said her own “hip pocket skill” is the ability to make the complicated simple.

“If I go back through my entire career, anywhere where things were too complex, it always came to me,” she said. “Indra, you simplify it for us. You tell us how to navigate through this extremely complex problem. That's been my hip-pocket skill then; it is today.”

3. Have a set of ethics and the courage and skill to communicate them effectively.

Of the three on the list, Nooyi believes this is the rarest. The best leaders have a set of ethics they believe in that serves as their compass, and have the courage and skill to stand up and communicate what those are.

“If you really feel strongly about something, have the courage to defend what you're suggesting,” Nooyi said. And, to make your point, you need to learn to communicate your ethos effectively, she added.

“If you want to be a leader, and you can't communicate effectively, forget it,” Nooyi said. “In the digital world, people think texting and tweeting is plenty. It's not. You've got to be able to stand in front of employees and get them to go places they never thought they needed to get to.”

If you do these things, Nooyi believes you won’t need to worry about all the day-to-day politics we all get wrapped up in, and you will become a CEO.

“Focus on these building blocks,” Nooyi said. “And once you focus on these, the CEO-ship will come automatically, in it's own time. Don't be in a hurry to get there. Don't play the politics. Be aware of the politics in the company, don't play the politics in the company.”

Looking for more great advice like this? Check out the free LinkedIn Learning course, Career Advice from Some of the Biggest Names in Business.

The course features career advice from people like: