How to Build Female Leadership: Three things men need to do to advance women in the workplace

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing my good friend Indra Nooyi on my podcast, How Leaders Lead with David Novak, about her new book, “My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future.” Indra, the former Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, and I worked together at PepsiCo before I became chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands. In fact, under her leadership, she spun off the restaurant brands which made Yum! possible, so I’ll always be appreciative of her decision-making abilities and judgment!

Indra’s book inspired me to do this episode because I thought it would be interesting and insightful for our listeners to hear how we both think about work, family, and diversity in the workplace.

I asked my daughter Ashley, a working mom with three incredible children (if I do say so myself as a proud grandfather) to join the conversation and lead the interview in order to get a current perspective on this important issue. You can find the full episode here.  

Indra Nooyi, Former Chairman and CEO of Pepsico was my recent guest on How Leaders Lead.

Two of my big takeaways from this interesting discussion were:

1.  Diversity at the leadership level matters a great deal.

2.  It cannot be men vs. women, or women vs. men. Men must participate in the conversation if anything is to change - the entire family must become part of the discussion.


When I think about women advancing to positions of leadership in corporate America, I think about my wife Wendy and my daughter, Ashley.

Wendy experienced infuriating challenges at work early in her career in the 1970s that eventually derailed her career altogether. When she had a disagreement with a male co-worker, she was disrespected and ultimately lost her job. Wendy could have run that company — she was their number one salesperson — had it not been for gender discrimination at work. I know situations like that weren’t uncommon in the ’70s. But I still get mad when I think back on it.

Today, I think about my daughter, Ashley, and her leadership potential. She is a working mom of three children who also aspires to lead an organization one day. I was able to witness Ashley’s delight as she interviewed Indra. I could tell how much awe and respect she had for a female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. This experience solidified for me how important it is for young leaders to see people that look like them in leadership roles. Because when they can see themselves in that position, it shows them that anything is possible!

The interview with Indra also reinforced the challenges that working women and mothers STILL face as they work towards leadership roles. In many ways, it’s like we’re still stuck in Wendy’s 1970s!


Growing up, Ashley watched me rise in the ranks at PepsiCo at the same time that Indra did. Looking back, and now listening to the podcast, it really struck me that despite Indra and I being part of PepsiCo at the same time, we experienced rather different things. I was kind of aware of it at the time, at least I thought I was. But I’m HYPER aware of it now, which quite honestly, makes me a better leader.

It’d be easy right now for me to pull out data about gender inequality, and suggest leaders need to be more empathetic (which is easier said than done). But Indra reminded me of a story about a path we shared at PepsiCo that really brings the point of “empathetic leadership” home:

Back in the day, there was a cobblestone path that led to the Chairman of PepsiCo’s office. Walking it, you knew you were headed to a big meeting, like going to see the Wizard of Oz. I remember how confident I felt striding up that walkway to see Roger Enrico, feeling good in my suit and tie and polished dress shoes, to convince him that I should be named the new CEO of Yum! Brands. I fondly remember that pathway when I think about my career.

Indra saw things differently. She always hated that pathway! When she and other women walked up to the Chairman’s office in high heels, they’d either have to tip-toe across the cobblestones so their heels didn’t get stuck, wear tennis shoes, or go so far as to take their shoes off altogether and walk barefoot!

That’s why one of the first things Indra did when she became CEO of PepsiCo was to pave that damn path so no one would have trouble walking! Now THAT is empathetic leadership!

The conversation Indra, Ashley, and I had last week highlighted three things that men must do to join the conversation on how to advance women leaders in the workplace:

1. Men Must Build Empathy

One of the definitions of empathy is to “walk in the shoes of others.” Think about it: if I had literally walked in Indra’s shoes down the cobblestone path at PepsiCo, would I have been the one to pave the way?

I had an impactful experience with empathy when my wife Wendy was on bed rest during the end of her pregnancy with Ashley. I had to do it all —  the laundry, the grocery shopping, and taking care of her all while holding a full-time job. For someone who had never had to “do it all” before, that was a real eye-opener for me. From it, I developed a deeper sense of empathy for what a working woman experiences, especially a single mom. That experience followed me as I advanced in my career.

Men would do well to think about the workplace as a place where their mother or daughter would work. Let that lens enhance our understanding of what the work environment should look like. We must be on the lookout for unfair situations or environments that are unsupportive of women and end them.

2. Men Must Mentor Diverse Talent

If you are a man in a position of leadership, you must challenge yourself to mentor talent differently. The talent you choose to mentor must be first and foremost, competent. He or she must show real promise as a leader. But I also believe that men should be on the lookout to mentor diverse talent.

I made an intentional effort to develop minority and female talent at Yum! Brands because the more diversity we brought to the C-suite level, the better our company would perform. The facts are everywhere about how diverse teams come up with better ideas.

But not only that, when female and minority leaders are put into positions of leadership, that diversity cascades to all levels of the organization. People see themselves in the leaders above them and think, ‘hey, I can do that too!’

Indra had many male mentors who recognized her talent and helped her advance to the next level. We all need to do the same. Remember, you choose who to mentor, they don’t choose you. So go out and do it. Believe me, you’ll learn as much from them as they’ll learn from you!

3. Leaders must proactively put more talented women in positions of power throughout the organization

This last point might go without saying. But if you need more convincing, consider this: in all the research I've viewed, women score higher than men on the empathy and collaboration scale. Empathy and collaboration are essential leadership traits in today’s business environment. Women also represent 50% of the buying power in the United States. How can a company that wants to sell at a national or global scale not focus on having women at the center of the conversation?

I benefited during my time at Yum! Brands by having a female Human Resource leader, Anne Byerlein. She brought to my attention the need for a daycare center. Was this something that I was actively thinking about? To be honest, in those days, not really. But Anne had insights on this that I didn’t have. She was also in a position of authority to bring it to my attention and make it happen. It was a great benefit to the company and helped us retain a talented female workforce.

I think all leaders need to keep pressure on the Human Resource function to balance the playing field between men and women. Pay parity, for one, must be constantly monitored by the HR department, the leader of the company, and the board of directors if we’re to keep our most talented people. Just because you might not face a particular inequity doesn’t mean inequities don’t exist. Make sure to pay close attention to your HR leader and don’t be tone-deaf to something because it isn’t an issue you personally face.

Jessica Kim, the CEO of ianacare and recent guest on my How Leaders Lead podcast, said something very profound. She said that it is “counterproductive for women to be the only ones having conversations about improving the workplace for women since it is going to take humble and unconventional men to help make lasting change.”

Personally, I can’t wait until the unconventional becomes the conventional. If you’re a male leader, it starts now by getting involved in the conversation, whether you’re comfortable doing so or not.

What do you think?

November 2, 2021