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Pepsico CEO Nooyi Interview Shows New Reasons to Retire the Old “Having it All" Debate

July 5, 2014

This blog post originally appeared on the LinkedIn Blog. For the full article, click here

Once again, a thoughtful conversation about work-family challenges has been reduced to its simplest sound bite. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi was recently interviewed at the Aspen Ideas Festival by the owner of The Atlantic, David Bradley.During the wide-ranging conversation, Bradley asked CEO Nooyi her thoughts on the “Can Women Have It All” debate that was ignited by Ann-Marie Slaughter’s deeply personal essay in his magazine a couple of years ago.

The sound bite culture seized on Nooyi’s response.The focus of the subsequent headlines was clear: PepsiCo CEO says women can’t have it all.And then the debate began anew.

My first dismayed thought in seeing the coverage was “Et Tu Nooyi?”Must we once again hear from a woman who has reached the highest levels of the corporate world how impossible it is for a woman to be successful at work and at home?Are we again seeing a female executive as the standard-bearer for what women seemingly have to give up to succeed, followed by more hollow debates in which commentators criticize others for the life choices they make?

And then I watched the interview. It made me want to go out and buy Pepsi.

The entirety of the interview provided a much more nuanced view of Nooyi as a working mother than did the capture of a sound-bite on “having it all”.Like many parents, she revealed the conflicts, concerns, and criticisms – self-generated and readily offered by others – that are an inevitable part of the life choices parents make, whether working outside the home or not.Even as she questioned whether her daughters would consider her a good mother, she realistically described the direct conflict between the career trajectory clock, the biological clock, and the emerging needs of aging parents.

But something else particularly interesting can be derived from Nooyi’s description of the conflicts she has faced generally as a mother and a corporate leader.We saw a parent and an executive who took the long-view on parenting, just as she did on the sustainability of her company.

Her comments about her role as a mother make far greater sense in the context of her views on corporate governance and the responsibilities of a CEO.She spoke of how she responded to evolving trends in consumer choices and the importance of investing in transformation.She also stated that talent retention can best be achieved when people can bring their whole selves to work by seeing a purpose in their company’s goals.Finally, she described the criticisms she has faced from investors for her focus on the long-term sustainability of PepsiCo instead of quarterly profits.In other words, she executed on her vision for the long-term health and stability of PepsiCo, just as she did her best to put in place what she needed to do for the long-term in her roles as mother, wife, and daughter.

The folly of the “having it all” discussion reminds me of another expression that has always puzzled me.“Have a good one”, we are told frequently, by friends, store clerks, and strangers we encounter throughout the day.“One what?” I constantly want to ask.And why can I only have one of them, if it is good?It’s an imponderable salutation that is as devoid of meaning as the “can women have it all” question.

I hope that the next time someone asks whether women can have it all, the response focuses on the foolishness of the question. All of what? The inquiry implies the inevitable judgment about our parenting skills and an admonishment to those who choose work if their economic circumstances do not require it.Most parents are doing their best, whether or not they work outside the home, hoping that their kids grow up healthy, happy and capable of making choices that will work for them and their future families.

Parenting advice is very different from admonishment, which is what the "having it all" question inevitably suggests. There is no such thing as “all”, for anyone on any topic. There are choices, hopes, expectations, successes and failures.Parents need a break from judgment.Perhaps if we can all be a bit gentler on each other, we will then be able to have truly more than a good one.