Retired PepsiCo CEO: Leadership ‘starts with understanding yourself’

Retired Wake Forest School of Business Dean, Steve Reinemund, speaks on leadership at the WFU Charlotte Center on Saturday, Dec. 19.
Retired Wake Forest School of Business Dean, Steve Reinemund, speaks on leadership at the WFU Charlotte Center on Saturday, Dec. 19. ©WFU/Ken Bennett

When it comes to leadership, knowing what’s important to you matters as much as what you do, according to the retired PepsiCo Inc. chairman and former dean of the Wake Forest University School of Business.

“It really starts with understanding yourself and really having a good sense of purpose in your life, and what it is you stand for,” says Steve Reinemund, 67, who was dean for six years and PepsiCo’s chairman and CEO between 2001 and 2006.

Reinemund, who is an executive in residence at the School of Business, will speak about leadership Saturday at WFU Charlotte Center from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. The event is free, but registration is required at

His talk will focus on what he calls the four traits effective leaders must possess: character, competence, commitment and compassion. On that last quality, Reinemund says, “I don’t think there’s a time more so in modern history for business to show that aspect.”

Reinemund talked to the Observer on Thursday about the expectations of leaders running companies and other organizations. Comments are edited:

Q. What’s different about running a big company now, compared to when you did?

A. I think the biggest difference is transparency. In the previous generations, the hierarchical nature of business and communications allowed leaders to be isolated, and in some cases fake it. I don’t think that today that’s possible. You either have it or you don’t, and everyone knows it. But it’s a positive: People want leaders who admit their weaknesses and demonstrate their strength. A true leader can have impact. Transparency can be a powerful advantage.

There’s a lot of discussion about the individualistic nature of the younger generation. I don’t know if I agree with that. They want to be part of a winning team. I think students today graduating have a more holistic way of looking at their careers than my generation did.

Q. What’s the most overlooked skill that leaders today should cultivate?

A. Understanding who you are and what’s really important to you is a starting point. What are your overall values? For many of us, we find that in our faith. I’ve worked with leaders in my life who have been very effective, principle-based leaders that came to that realization in other ways.

Q. What, if anything, do you miss about leading a public company?

A. I certainly loved my experience in doing it. I enjoyed the personal relationships, and I’ve maintained those after I retired. I can’t say I look back and say I miss anything specific.

Q. In newspaper articles, your successor at PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, said she had a good working relationship with you when you were both at the company. Does she reach out to you to consult?

A. We are good friends and have been for many, many years, and continue to talk. I personally believe a former CEO should be rarely seen and never heard. We exchange emails fairly regularly. She’s an extraordinarily great leader doing a great job. I’ve always been a supporter.

Q. It was noted that Nooyi brought diversity to the CEO ranks. (Nooyi was born in India.) Why do you think there are few women and people of color leading Fortune 500 companies, and what could be done to change that?

A. I think those numbers are changing. It goes back to the four characteristics of leadership. Part of competency is experience. When the effort to really change the makeup and inclusive nature of business became more and more focused, it took some time for the cycle to work through. When you look at the percentage of women in business schools 20 years ago and today, it will tell you the story about the pipeline. Today, our programs are pretty close to 50-50.

One of the mistakes that can be made in this effort toward diversity is not recognizing the importance of experience. If you push somebody too fast, you can oftentimes set them up for failure. From the women’s perspective, I really see the progression moving at a pace that is going to get where we need to go.

With minority groups, I don’t see it progressing at the rate that I think it should. Leadership in all aspects of society has to reflect society. So you have to have a commitment that that is the goal. Then you have to work through different aspects of society to do what has to be done. I don’t think there’s a set formula for every situation.

Want to go?

Saturday’s Lunch & Learn with Steve Reinemund happens 11:45 a.m.-1 p.m. at Wake Forest Charlotte Center, 200 N. College St., Suite 150 (Room 124), Charlotte. Free. Registration required at