Wynton Marsalis & Indra K. Nooyi - The Dialogues - Connecting Leaders - Specials - Egon Zehnder
Indra K. Nooyi came to the USA from her native India as a young woman. In addition to her many other talents, a gift for closely observing people helped her get a quick handle on the culture of her new country and launch a career that took her to the very top at food and beverage giant PepsiCo. Endowed with a sharp eye, she noticed something special at a concert by the celebrated jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, who Nooyi greatly admires: Marsalis, the longtime artistic director of New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, did not behave like a star in his band, but instead made sure that every musician had a chance to shine. The two got together on a beautiful spring day on New York’s Upper West Side. It was not the first time they had met, but the first time they had sat down together to reflect on the meaning of creative and inspired leadership. Though Nooyi and Marsalis move in different professional worlds and measure their accomplishments according to different metrics, their insights on leadership were often perfectly in tune. They discussed how to put the interest of the team before self-interest and how to listen. And they talked about how authenticity requires heart and soul as well as an understanding of your own cultural traditions, how “tough love” can push you to the top, and how paranoia can actually be good for you.
Indra K.Nooyi: People sometimes compare organizations to a symphony orchestra. But I think the best companies and management teams have more in common with jazz groups. Jazz is improvisational. The players take their cues from each other. There is freedom to give and take, to be creative and spontaneous.
Wynton Marsalis: The beauty of Western classical music is that 65 or 70 people can sit in a room and achieve the objectives of Beethoven with a minimum of fuss. When the conductor stands in front of the orchestra, everybody is looking at the same score. The bassoon player understands what the timpanist understands – “This is in G and it’s mezzo forte.” Jazz is less restrictive. It’s based on the premise that everyone wants to swing. When we all work together, the music swings, and when we don’t, it doesn’t. So to achieve the results we want, everyone has to be clear on the objectives and move things in the same direction.
Nooyi: What typically happens in corporations is that everybody is competing with each other. You have too many soloists!
Marsalis: I find that the best jazz musicians have a very clear understanding of the integrity of their role. They know that if you lose a sense of that integrity, it’s impossible to function together. In that sense, our music is based on a deep understanding of interpersonal relationships. If you want to swing, you have to find each other. That means you can’t always do what you want to do.
Nooyi: When you have too many people playing solo, you end up with a clash. It’s no longer music, it’s cacophony. There is a time for solos, but there is also a time for watching for cues from others and playing together.
Marsalis: The perception of jazz is that we all get along. But in actuality we are always trying to get along. What makes it difficult is that no two of us will ever feel the time – the rhythmic pattern of a piece of music – in quite the same way. For example, if I ask you to tell me when one minute is up without looking at your watch, you might speak up after exactly one minute, whereas I might speak up after just 35 seconds. We feel the time differently. So we are both pushing and pulling each other. I say, “It should be here,” and you say, “No, it should be here.” In order to swing we have to find common ground. If you give up all your time for me, we are going to start rushing, because I’m feeling 35 seconds. If I give up all my time for you, we’re going to start dragging.
Nooyi: We have to constantly accommodate each other.
Marsalis: Right, it’s give and take. We have to find a way to be ourselves while making a thousand little adjustments. It’s like being in a conversation. I can be improvising and doing my own thing, or playing the blues and expressing how I feel. But that is always in creative tension with your experience and the feeling you are trying to communicate.
Nooyi: I think this also applies to business. Too often, people don’t take the time to really listen to each other or stop to think about what part they are playing in the bigger picture. The result can be a lack of authenticity.
Marsalis: How would you define authenticity?
Nooyi: I mean bringing your whole self to what you are doing. Whatever you do, you have to do with authenticity. You need authenticity to be a part of an organization, to be a part of an ecosystem, and to participate with head, heart, and hands. Without it, your work becomes mechanistic. You are just punching in and out rather than giving your all to make the experience as good as it can be.
Marsalis: I agree. I find that authenticity also means knowing about your traditions and your history. I spent a lot of time around older musicians when I was young. Harry “Sweets” Edison was a jazz trumpeter who came out of Kansas City during the Depression and went on to play with the great Count Basie Orchestra. He was a mentor of mine when I was fifteen. He always said to me, “Man, you’ve got to learn how to play the blues.” I thought I knew what he meant, because I had always played some form of blues. You couldn’t help it if you lived in New Orleans. But to me, the blues referred to a twelve-measure musical cycle. What I didn’t understand was the depth of the tradition he was talking about. The blues was not just a musical form; it was a rich legacy that is part of our national identity as Americans. It was only later that I began to recognize that the blues trains you for life’s hurdles with a heavy dose of realism about life and love and pain and death and stupidity and grace. So authenticity comes not only from the way you throw yourself into a task, but also from how wholeheartedly you approach learning what you don’t know.
Nooyi: Absolutely. New York is not the home of jazz. Why did you leave New Orleans and come here to pursue it?
Marsalis: Our music may not have originated here in New York, but this was a mecca of jazz. It was the home of Louis Armstrong and the Roseland Ballroom, of George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman’s Concert Orchestra. When I got here after graduating from high school, it was still the best place in the country to play jazz. But I found that the scene was depressed. The level of performance was nothing like what you heard on the records. The musicians and the industry had lost faith and the music was going a different way. At the age of 19, I suddenly became really popular. I wasn’t really that good. I played okay. But for some reason the spotlight fell on me. I felt guilty because I got a lot more publicity, recognition, and money than people who played better than me. And I had to represent their interests, figure out how I could learn to play better, and also safeguard the tradition of the music, which many musicians were moving away from. It was a long journey and I struggled a lot. I consistently got bad reviews and my ideas were challenged. It wasn’t until I was about 30 that I started to feel comfortable. We started Jazz at Lincoln Center when I was 26 or 27. I was fortunate to meet people who were not musicians but understood the mission of the institution and how it fit into the context of New York City. They took my artistic vision and turned it into something workable.
Nooyi: And here we are at Jazz at Lincoln Center – the house that Wynton built!
Marsalis: Well, we all built it! I know that you’ve also had a long and sometimes difficult journey. You came here from another culture, one where people speak differently and things have different meanings. What was that like for you?
Nooyi: Well, I had to relearn a lot. I had to watch other people and adapt to their ways of doing things. I also had mentors – people who taught me the dos and don’ts. The challenge was not to “go native” completely. I had to keep the best of my own culture, just as you had to hold on to the best of your New Orleans background. The challenge was to blend the best of both.
Marsalis: You had a very rigorous education and studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Then you went on to study planning, finance, and marketing. I’m fascinated by how your leadership draws on these different fields and moves back and forth between micro and macro perspectives.
Nooyi: I think of it as freedom within a framework. You have to have your feet firmly planted before you can let your mind wander. To me, chemistry, physics, and mathematics are core technical disciplines. They give you a solid foundation that allows you to dream and be creative. As I see it, you can be creative anytime, but you can’t learn science and math anytime – those subjects have to be learned when you are young.
_“You have to have your feet firmly planted before you can let your mind wander.” – Indra K. Nooyi_
Marsalis: I like the idea of freedom within a framework. That’s jazz. The framework is very flexible, but it’s foundational – it anchors you. If you listen to the recordings of the greatest jazz musicians, people like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, you’ll never hear them miss a single harmony. And believe me, that is a tremendous feat, because they are improvising under time pressure. But the reason they could do that is because they were rooted in a harmonic and rhythmic framework. Their rigorous discipline allowed them to improvise more freely.
Nooyi: Yes, that’s very important. Some people like to focus on the freedom that the framework gives them. Others seem more focused on how constraining the framework is. But both are necessary. Companies have to operate within a framework – otherwise you would have chaos. But people also need the creative freedom to give their best.
Marsalis: I think about that when I’m working with young players. I feel that the more young people can feel a kind of love and graciousness – especially when they are having difficulties – the more freedom it will give them. Yesterday I was teaching a young lady who was maybe ten years old. I simply described her playing back to her: “You have a beautiful sound, you’re focused, you don’t lose your balance.” Some teachers may tell you not to do this or not to do that, and their restrictions can cause you to retract. You have to take those “don’t-dos” and put them in the context of what you can do.
Nooyi: Not all leaders want to be teachers and mentors. It takes enormous time and energy. But if you care about developing and mentoring people, and if you want to leave behind a cadre of people who can move the company – or the jazz orchestra – forward, then you have to be willing to commit to that. You have to be encouraging and give people positive feedback, as you were saying. And you have to give them tough love. I grew up in a culture of tough love, and then I came to a culture where it’s okay to get an average grade. In my culture, if you get a B or a C, you had better not go home! You might as well go back to school and stay there. I think the answer is a combination of both. You can say okay to a B or a C, but you have to follow that up by asking, “How can we work together to get you to an A?” Ultimately, you have to give people a desire to strive for something better. Someone once told me that the distance between number one and number two is constant, so if you want number two to rise, number one has to rise as well. When you improve yourself, the organization gets pulled up with you. As leaders, I think we have to be lifelong students. Just because you have reached the top of your game does not mean you are not a student. I’m a CEO, and I am still learning and developing new skills all the time.
Marsalis: John Lewis, the great piano player, once told me about playing in Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra. He said that when bebop sprung up in the 1940s, Dizzy had become a legend almost overnight. He was only 31 or 32 years old. Yet he continued to take trumpet lessons. John Lewis and some of the other players said to themselves, “Man, if Dizzy can take lessons, then we need to be taking lessons too!”
Nooyi: Exactly. Being a lifelong learner means that people look at you and say, “If the head of the organization can be a student, why can’t we?”
Marsalis: As you said, this approach to leadership comes at a cost. If you want to mentor people, it takes time and energy. What makes this difficult in jazz is that people often go into music to be on stage or in the spotlight, yet the principles of jazz are egoless. The music requires a certain self-sacrifice. For the past 25 years, I have tried –unsuccessfully – to get bass players to play without amplifiers. The bass has an important balancing function. What I have tried to teach is that it’s important for the bass to be the softest instrument, because that makes the drummer play softly. Another example is shortening the solo. I’ve gone into jam sessions where I’ll be one of seven horn players. For some reason we will each play ten minutes. Why are we all playing that long? So I’ll say, “You know, I’m not going to play long when it’s my turn.” It requires self-discipline.
Nooyi: I’ve watched you performing at concerts, Wynton, and you are always looking around. You’re playing, but you’re also conducting. I think that good leadership involves both – you’re a player and people look to you and learn from you, but you’re also a conductor making sure the organization is working in harmony. At times you want some people to step up; at other times you want them to step down. You have to model that behavior. When people don’t take your cues, you have to address it. Honest feedback is critically important. You also have to lift the group so that people don’t play below their capabilities. But music is different from business in one important respect: The result of a musical performance is immediate. You hear it right away. If you don’t like something, you can go to the group right away and say: “That didn’t work, let’s play it again.” In business, we don’t have the benefit of repeat performances. We get one chance to get it right and the cost of failure is high. And it takes longer to see the results. Figuring out how to shorten the feedback loop and keeping the group constantly working in unison is a challenge.
Marsalis: Your leadership draws on a lot of planning and strategic intelligence. You have to think five or ten years ahead.
Nooyi: Or twenty years, in some cases.
Marsalis: How does that long-term perspective affect your strategy? How do you make adjustments along the way if you feel things are not going according to plan?
Nooyi: It’s difficult. Thinking strategically means you’re always looking around the bend, connecting the dots, and trying to make out pictures and shapes where other people see only point estimates. I think the biggest challenge is convincing the organization of the need to change direction. That’s very difficult. People tend to be comfortable with the status quo and they don’t know what payoffs and returns the new direction will yield. As a leader, you have to constantly communicate how the change is going to make things better. This communication can be time-consuming and emotionally draining, because people will push back, but you have to do it. If you’re not willing to put in the time and energy to convince people of the need for change, you simply can’t grow and evolve.
Marsalis: What does that mean in practical terms – looking around the bend and connecting the dots?
Nooyi: It involves several steps. First, you have to talk to people from other disciplines and industries. And you have to constantly soak up information from a range of unrelated sources. Being a voracious reader and culling the right information lets you put things together in new ways and see new stories. Second, you have to talk to people who have gone through big transformations. They can tell you about how they came to recognize the need for change and how they responded to it. I talk to a lot of transformation leaders to understand how they think. Third, you have to look at your own business with a long-term perspective and ask yourself what new technologies might come along and fundamentally rewrite the rules of the game. This means you have to be willing to be a student and seek out people who will share their thoughts and ideas about the future. You have to use your imagination to foresee the impact of various future scenarios. Finally, a certain degree of paranoia is critical! To an extent, you have to be afraid – if you are cocky, you won’t change. I come to work every day with this paranoia.
_“When we all work together, the music swings, and when we don’t, it doesn’t.” – Wynton Marsalis_
Marsalis: Give me an example of a transformation leader who made you stop and think differently about what you were doing.
Nooyi: When I first became CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, I went to see Steve Jobs at Apple. I asked him what he thought a CEO like me should be doing with a company like PepsiCo. He offered me a lot of ideas on the product side. Then he told me about what he was doing at Apple. He said that the company’s products were user-friendly, intuitive, and beautiful to look at, but he wanted the entire ecosystem around the products to be equally great. He wanted every accessory designed for Apple to be beautiful and aspirational. He wanted every store and every point of interface with Apple to be memorable. “I’m not just designing products,” he said, “I’m designing the experience you’re going to have with Apple.” We are now doing the same thing at PepsiCo. We are asking ourselves: “What kind of experience do we want consumers to have with our products?” instead of “What kind of products do we want them to consume?” This kind of design-led, consumer-focused approach is transforming our innovation process. And what about you – how do you approach change?
Marsalis: We struggle with the challenge Steve Jobs talked about – striving for perfection and making sure that everything we do has a uniform standard of excellence. If you listen to fifty Louis Armstrong records, you may hear him miss just one note. To play a trumpet and be that accurate all the time – and make it up as you play – is unbelievable. The same is true of Charlie Parker. It could be two o’clock in the morning, but he could still get up and play twice as fast as everybody else and be absolutely cogent and perfect. For me, the challenge is to communicate and get everybody to understand the absolute technical perfection that is at the heart of jazz.
Nooyi: How important is diversity of ideas in jazz? How does it push you musically?
Marsalis: History shows that monarchies are destroyed when royalty starts marrying within its own families. The same principle holds true for music. I find that the greatest jazz musicians were those who could hold opposites together. The real genius of Louis Armstrong was that he could unify opposing ideas in a way that you could see. He was one of the most refined trumpet players the world had ever heard, yet he could also sing the nastiest and most low-down blues imaginable.
*Nooy*i: I think diversity is great as long as you’re willing to listen to it. Many people in organizations snuff it out. They take somebody on their team who has a different point of view and say: “He’s no good. He’s not a team player.” I think that’s wrong. You have to seek out and encourage diversity of thought because it helps the team arrive at better decisions. But it takes a strong leader to accept people with different points of view who challenge what you do. It’s not easy.
Marsalis: I find that people want to follow leaders who can embrace diversity and grow from it. But they also want to see their views reflected in a leader’s decisions.
Nooyi: Right, they want to know that you started with one point of view and then came to a better decision after listening to dissenting views. As jazz music continues to evolve and modernize, how do you find musicians who can continually bring something new and different to the group?
Marsalis: It’s not hard to find people with creative ideas. But it’s difficult to find musicians who have the training and the creative ideas. I play with a lot of the musicians I taught when they were 12 or 13. They can be hard to deal with – after all, they’re jazz musicians! We have a culture that has grown free. It is very free and it embraces what I would call harmony through conflict.
_“Thinking strategically means you’re always looking around the bend, connecting the dots, and trying to make out pictures and shapes where other people see only point estimates.” – Indra K. Nooyi_
_“The blues trains you for life’s hurdles with a heavy dose of realism about life, love, pain, and grace.” – Wynton Marsalis_
Nooyi: Yes, exactly. You have to make people realize that everybody is going toward the same goal, and that everybody wins when we get to that goal. But that can only happen if you show real care and empathy for people. If you don’t show that, people can begin to feel that the company has no soul and that they are just tools of the trade. As a leader, you have to help people give their best to the company every day.
Marsalis: Have you been inspired by a leader from outside the sphere of business?
Nooyi: I like basketball and I used to watch videotapes of Michael Jordan when he was playing for the Chicago Bulls. He pushed himself. Every day he brought his whole self to the game. But he didn’t want all the glory for himself. He wanted the team to win. He knew when to pass the ball – even when he could take the shot himself. In one championship game, he could have taken the final shot and been a hero, but he saw that John Paxson was outside the three-point line and that his shot could win them the game. I also watched how Jordan listened to Phil Jackson, the coach. He was very attentive at every timeout. I learned a lot from Jordan about how to improve my own game – how to be a star but also be a team player, how to put the interest of the team before self-interest, and how to listen to the coach for guidance, even when you think you know what is right.
Marsalis: What I love about Jordan is that he understood the concept of fusion. He knew that it was better to have two or three or even five people working toward the same objective than simply to get the ball and go it alone. He understood it not only in his game but also in his actions as a person. Actions always speak louder than words.
Nooyi: I agree. Do you have a similar role model – somebody from outside your field who has inspired you to think differently?
Marsalis: A person whose life taught me a lot is the African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. She was born into slavery but escaped. She later helped others escape with the aid of an underground network in the North. Her motto was, “I freed thousands of slaves; I could have freed more if they knew they were slaves.” When I was growing up, she was always my favorite figure. What I learned from her example was that it’s possible to create a reality. I also think of the author Helen Keller. She couldn’t see or hear, but she could figure things out. She once said: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Keller has shown me that sometimes you don’t know what you’re seeing. There is a spiritual component to things that defies what we think. If we can give ourselves over to that, especially during times of duress or pressure, it can take us to a higher place. And that, I believe, is where we’re all going.