Leadership Wired Blog

From Communication Flunkee to Connection Junkie


It’s not uncommon for a schoolteacher to send home an encouraging note to a student’s parents to celebrate her successes at school. “Susie worked very hard today on her multiplication tables, and she even helped a classmate who was struggling to understand the assignment.” However, it’s almost unheard of for a Fortune 100 CEO to handwrite a letter to the parents of a high-powered executive leader, praising his contributions to the organization. Yet that’s exactly what PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi did. She wrote a letter to each and every parent of the leaders on her executive team, letting these mothers and fathers know all about the great things their child had accomplished for Pepsi.

Nooyi is keenly aware that her employees’ lives have more dimensions than work, and she realizes that their success on the job depends, in large part, on supportive families. That’s why, in addition to connecting with her teammates’ parents, Nooyi writes letters of appreciation to the spouses of her key executives every quarter. She thanks them for accommodating the long hours and busy travel schedules of their husband or wife. Simple acts such as these have endeared Nooyi to her people and have established her legendary reputation as a leader who genuinely cares for her colleagues.

However, Indra Nooyi hasn’t always been stellar at connecting with people. While a business student at Yale, she flunked a required course on communication. Though intellectually brilliant, Nooyi was disposed to speak so incredibly fast that her ideas would get buried under a barrage of words. She had to recalibrate her communication in order to connect with the audience—slowing her pace to make sure her thoughts were getting home to her listeners instead of zipping past them.

Nooyi has followed the simple lesson learned from her days at Yale into her career as a corporate leader. She is adamant that effective leaders must be able to connect with people. Indeed, she counsels fellow executives to, “never bet on someone who cannot articulate what he or she is thinking in a compelling, engaging way.”

For Nooyi, connecting requires more than being able to make a persuasive argument to people; it demands forging an emotional bond with them. “Leadership is not about just being an intellectual leader,” she says, “leadership is about leading with the heart.” This insight motivates Nooyi to initiate personal relationships with her people—to search for what truly inspires them. She makes a genuine effort to learn about their families and friends rather than merely heeding their reports on financial metrics or market trends. “At the end of the day,” Nooyi advises, “don't forget that you're a person, don't forget you're a mother, don't forget you're a wife, don't forget you're a daughter…don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget that tomorrow your job may go away, and then what you're left with is family, friends, and faith.” Her powerful ability to connect comes from treating her employees as unique persons, whose professional identities only scratch the surface of their wonderfully complex individuality.

Thoughts to Ponder

Does the condition of a person’s family life necessarily affect the quality of his or her professional performance? Why or why not?

How might your organization be more sensitive to, and supportive of, the family commitments of your employees?


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