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Don't let spotlight burn new Pepsi CEO

The Baltimore Sun

Let's all let incoming PepsiCo Inc. Chief Executive Officer Indra Nooyi do her job when she steps into that position next month.

Easy on the breakfast, luncheon, dinner, commencement and award ceremony speeches. Hold the puffery about her being in an all-girl rock band in college. Don't ask her to tell jokes to prove her quick wit. Be judicious in magazine covers.

Just let her be a CEO, not a public relations juggernaut. A role model, yes, a figurehead, no.

Don't force her to become the public successor to Carleton S. "Carly" Fiorina, shoved out as Hewlett-Packard Co. boss last year after a high-profile tenure in which she was relentlessly presented as the face of women in the executive suite.

Fiorina flew close to fame's flame and was consumed by it. When a controversial merger she engineered didn't produce immediate results, her detractors were ready, willing and able to pound the drums for her departure.

PepsiCo stands to become the biggest company by stock market value with a female boss. It also gains a foreign-born leader of color, an executive who industriously worked up through the ranks. The company has been building a tradition of quality leadership and smooth succession that Coca-Cola Co. can only envy. It also mastered upbeat publicity, something Coke saw crumble beginning with the ill-fated New Coke campaign.

Of course, the spotlight can also burn: Last year, Nooyi gave a Columbia University commencement address that compared the five major continents to fingers on her hand, with North America and the U.S. as the middle finger. After a firestorm that she had criticized America for seeming to give the finger to the world, she issued an apology.

Any discussion about whether women can be effective leaders is obviously silly. What about Queen Elizabeth I? Indira Gandhi? Golda Meir? Margaret Thatcher?

It is in the U.S. presidency, vice presidency and top jobs at corporations that women most visibly lag. Nooyi will be one of only 11 women in the top spot in the nation's 500 largest corporations, according to the nonprofit group Catalyst Inc.

She did a great job helping PepsiCo to diversify by working to acquire Tropicana and Quaker Oats. She no doubt will have great opportunities as the company becomes even more international. Product diversification and global outreach are right up her alley.

But let Nooyi do her job. Then maybe one day - soon, one can only hope - naming a woman as CEO will represent just another day at the office.

Nooyi enters the top spot on a high: PepsiCo stock recently hit a 52-week high.

Andrew Leckey writes for Tribune Media Services.

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