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21+ Leadership lessons you learn while #ShadowTraining under D. Shivakumar, the CEO Chairman of PepsiCo India

By |Ashutosh Nerkar | Marketing | Sales | Strategy | Entrepreneurship

The Pick-Up

It was 7:45 AM on 23rd February 2017. We were staying at the Doubletree by Hilton in Gurgaon, Delhi NCR. Gagandeep had landed from Mumbai last night and I (Ashutosh) had given my last term paper on 22nd; it was Marketing Channel Management under the legendary Dr. S.R. Singhvi at IMT Ghaziabad.

We had spent last night eating, reading and enjoying the executive splurge at Hilton. Obviously, we didn’t sleep, IMTians never sleep.

L to R: Anindita, Poorvi, Ashutosh and Gagandeep at breakfast lounge at the Hilton Hotel

The phone rang; it was Poorvi Sarin, the ever so ‘glamorous’ HR Campus Lead at PepsiCo India. “We are waiting for you guys, come quickly, we’ll be having breakfast together” she reminded. We hurried to the restaurant and scuttled through the breakfast spread.

Poorvi got a text saying Shiv Sir was coming late and would arrive by 8:45 AM. She smiled and said, “20 minutes more to eat, even I’ll have some coffee.” 5 minutes more into the day and she received another call. With eyes, as wide as saucers on the table, she said, “He is here.”


He was there tad 15 minutes early, keeping everyone on their toes.

“Hello guys, ready?” he inquired; we shook hands and walked towards his BMW. ‘What a Handshake!’, I said to myself, ‘It’s not just firm, it’s also warm and welcoming’.

Let me mention that he allowed us to sit in the rear seats and he himself sat in the front. Now for me, this clearly showed how practical and courteous a leader can be. Duly noted Sir!

He asked us, ‘What do you guys expect from this day?’ We responded with an answer that was in making since last 2 months. After which he said, “Okay, so here for learning, well one word of advice ‘observe’, it will tell you more than what anyone will”.

This pearl of wisdom was then crowded by usual small talk, which included our introductions, placements, hometown among other things as we reached the PepsiCo HQ.

L to R: Shiv Sir, Poorvi, Gagan and Me outside the Hilton Hotel

Hello Big Shots

We went straight to his office on the 6th floor. The fact that not everyone is allowed beyond 3rd floor made us feel important. We noticed that he was in his office well before most people, even before his secretary.

His office was a comfortable place, nothing overwhelming or intimidating. What did catch my attention was the front wall, entirely filled with books. Books from Business, Politics, Philosophy, Psychology, you name it and he might have it. These were punctuated with tiny Ganesha idols and huge Manchester United shield. Way to go Mr. CEO, totally impressive.

A guy’s room speaks volumes about his personality, his room spoke of his balance between work, knowledge and interest.

We were given the agenda for that day. I counted 10 meetings in 8 hours. Yes, even the guy at the top works the hardest. The first meet was to be with members of Ex-com (Executive committee); the agenda was to discuss the final arrangements for the arrival of PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, due next week.

Skipping the classified details of the discussion, let me tell you the learnings we noted through the first meeting of our training. Some of these are his Quotes.

  • “There is something called as ‘Executive Presence’. Every leader must maintain a presence that suits his nature and style of working.”
  • “One should never jump to conclusions, it must be a continuous process while including as many points of view as possible.”
  • “In life, emotional intelligence is much more important than any other management tool. Business is all about people and people are emotional beings.”
  • When you get a call from people, refer by their name, ask about their family and add an individualized touch.

L to R: Pavitra, Poorvi, Gagan, Shiv Sir and Ashutosh before Ex-com meet

Security Check

Next meeting was an interaction with the heads of security at various companies from across the Indian Industry. We spoke with the security heads at Apple, Nestle and some other companies before Shiv Sir began his address.

His speech was based on three pillars: Technological Security, Security of Women and Securing Intellectual Property Rights. We noted many wisdom nuggets. Here are a few;

  • He said, “Always Trust but first verify”. Information must be shared as much possible with all those who are concerned and relevant to it. This will impede the attempts to dig for information, discourage gossip and avoid confusion. It will encourage transparency and loyalty.
  • The effort must be to make people feel secure and not scared. He called for the emergence of non-intrusive security.
  • He advocated “More security is more comforting than less Security” even if it adds to pain initially, after the pain there is assurance. Assurance of safety.

I would like to mention his skill of speaking; I believe elocution is a hallmark of effective leadership. He spoke with examples from his own life. He commanded the attention of each and everyone in the room with his casual gestures, light-hearted anecdotes, and intense statement deliveries. He patiently heard questions even when they were verbose and answered genuinely.

Marketing Update

After having some discussion on social media, the role of HR and strategy with other CXOs in the building we joined Shiv Sir for the Monthly Marketing Meet. There were 55 brand managers, marketing heads and category heads present for the meet.

A couple of brand managers came and gave their reports on market immersions. He listened to them patiently, without uttering a single word. He was writing down points in his black diary. I noticed that he carried this diary everywhere and wrote everything that he found relevant.

After the presentations, he just asked the group only two questions, “How much of what was presented came as a surprise?”, “What should be our action targets and are we doing enough?”

Later in the day, he told me that, “Managers should learn to ask right questions; a few questions can do much more than hours of preaching. Questions you ask as a junior manager are different than you do as a senior. So, ask questions, ask them to yourself, to your seniors and to your juniors but ask only right questions.”

After which there was a presentation from AC Nielsen. They pitched their Neuro-marketing product for more accurate researches.

I was reminded of the lectures by Dr. Jayanthi Ranjan back at IMT-Ghaziabad. I could voice my inhibitions about neuromarketing which echoed with those of Deepika Warrier, the Nutrition Head at PepsiCo India. Shiv Sir, just listened. After a thorough explanation from the Nielsen team, the meeting dispersed. We proceeded to the next meeting.

L to R: Ashutosh and Gagandeep at the Social Media room

Branding Gatorade & Kurkure

We went to the next room, where we had people from J. Walter Thompson (JWT), one of the most admired marketing communications agency, waiting for Shiv Sir.

We were supposed to discuss the upcoming advertisement for Gatorade. As usual, there were some creative differences that were sorted out, a storyboard that was confirmed, a role of their Brand Ambassador that was discussed and the vision for the advertisement that was shared.

Here are some wisdom pearls that we noted down as Shiv Sir spoke to his Brand Manager and the JWT guys.

  • “When you are targeting Indian masses, the communication should be direct and not convoluted.”
  • An advertisement is a work of art for an agency but it must be a work of strategy for a brand manager.
  • If you have a celebrity in your advertisement, make the ad personalised to him because people see themselves in place of that celebrity.
  • Always context the ad with the environment that you are targeting in your consumer’s life.
  • A Brand manager must not dictate the creative agency. If he continuously involves with their creative work he must finally accept what the agency will produce, even if it is not their best work possible.
  • Trust your agency to give you the product they think is their best and then grade the outcome based on your terms.
  • A creative agency must be in love with the brand and then link it to the consumer.
  • Every advertisement gives new way for sales guys to interact with their customers.

L to R: Gagandeep, Ashutosh, Babita Baruah and Shiv Sir after the Gatorade meet

Supply Chain

We had lunch with Sir during the last two meets. No fuss, no unnecessary etiquette, just plain decency and practicality. He utilized even the lunch time.

Now we headed towards a meet with supply chain core team. They updated him on their performance, which was rather impressive and ahead of their targets. Some of the things discussed were confidential and others were filled with PepsiCo internal abbreviations. We couldn’t understand much that we can reveal here. However, there were 2 precise points worth mentioning,

  • Managers must cut down their own unnecessary activities. Thus, relieving those whose activities might increase because of you.
  • Leaders must appreciate the decent work wholeheartedly and speak to the core team as close friends do.

This meet went on for about an hour. We ended it with a candid selfie just before Shiv Sir got up for the next meet.

L to R: Poorvi, Pavitra, Shiv Sir, Ashutosh and Gagandeep

The Town Hall

Town Hall is a gathering where all the employees present in that office come together to get updates on key things. This town hall was a testimony to the excellent HR policy that PepsiCo India enjoys. It started with Shiv Sir talking about key topics related to FMCG sector which was in the news currently.

Shiv Sir also answered some specific questions that needed to be answered and everyone in the team was eager to know. Post which he asked the audience about the “Biggest Learning in 2016 “

He then gave the control to other Executive Committee members who stood in front of their juniors and took all the questions that came their way from the crowd. Suchitra Rajendra the HR head at PepsiCo answered some concerns with as directness and unambiguity as she had done with mine, earlier in the day.

Then all those who had gone out of their way to do something for PepsiCo, beyond their usual job description were publicly applauded and awarded for their efforts. PepsiCo calls them the Game Changers.

I could feel the building of a companywide culture. A culture that encourages excellence, fosters oneness and believes in transparency.

Through the Town Hall Meeting, Gagan and I felt as though we were sitting on the banks of a river. We observed this river of PepsiCo culture, it had been flowing much before us and would be flowing much beyond us. Perhaps we are pinpointing certain key features that even the ones who are in the flow take for granted.

  • Great companies are built by ordinary people with a will to do great.
  • When every person feels valued, they value those around them even more.
  • Most of the times people consider their tasks as a part of some commissioned work. So, it takes a great corporate culture to make people work self-inspired.
  • Though the job roles for each one are specified, extraordinary feats are achieved when they can go beyond their defined roles and contribute.

Personal Mentoring

Post the Town Hall we had a personal mentoring session with Shiv Sir. This session was more about how we should look at our careers ahead and imbibe qualities of a good leader. Shiv Sir said that “…a successful leader needs to have what I call D, E & F, where D is discipline, E is energy, and F is focus. Your work can be all over the place in bits & parts and have no focus, but it doesn’t help. You need to be focused; you need to sense everything going around that focus area.” Shiv Sir again reiterated the importance of “Being open to learning and drawing conclusions only after considering all perspectives”.

Then we parted for the day as he agreed to be there to guide us in the times we need, just a mail away.

HR Session

The final session of the day was an HR session with the PepsiCo India Talent Acquisition Head Pavitra Singh. In this session, we were briefed about the practices that the company follows as far as hiring and retaining of talent and how PepsiCo has built a legacy when it comes to hiring the best talent.


Truly, it is when you be with great people that you know how to be great.

Here we are Ashutosh Nerkar and Gagandeep Marwah, sharing the learnings which will help all of us who wish to go beyond what is just necessary. Knowing that such an encounter with excellence comes rarely we feel fortunate to have achieved it at the very beginning of our careers.

Now we can dare to give a shout out to all our fellow managers to go out there and be a Game Changer.

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