Philip Morris Malaysia’s Director of People & Culture, Swati Chawla

This transformation journey the company is currently undergoing is by far the most important and complex that anyone in the organisation has experienced, she says. That said, it is looking successful.

Throughout Swati Chawla’s career, she has not only worked at several markets, but also in contrasting sectors from consulting to corporate.

Her skills and expertise in human resources have landed her roles at Baxter International (between Singapore and India); HSBC Bank (in India); Hewitt Associates (across Malaysia, India, and the Middle East), and Syngenta (between Singapore and Switzerland). Most recently, she spent three years with Philip Morris International (PMI) in Hong Kong SAR – before moving to Malaysia today to ply her trade as Director of People & Culture.

And at every role – and location – Swati Chawla, Director of People & Culture, Philip Morris Malaysia (PMM) tells Human Resources Online, she received “many skills and valuable lessons”. The more important ones, she humbly wants readers to take away from, are the following.

First, it is to ‘play to your strength/s’.

Chawla explains: “Whilst this is critical in consulting to carve out your space and build on your personal brand, it comes very handy in the corporate environment as well. Take on tasks/projects that help amplify your strengths. This will not just improve your productivity, but it will also help you shine.”

Second, it is to equip oneself with stakeholder management skills.

Chawla shares that it is important to understand your audiences/stakeholders/customers and then work on a segmented approach to design, influence and deploy solutions based on their needs/motivators, and drivers. She adds that customisation is key to managing stakeholders.

Lastly, it is to learn how to prioritise.

“This has been the most helpful skill I have polished during my consulting assignments. In life, there will always be more to do than possible. It is very important to prioritise the workload based on the three levers: criticality, impact, and effort. Depending on the situation, I use all three levers or sometimes, a combination of two to help me prioritise.”

These are areas that Chawla holds close to her heart, and pledges as her workplace mantra every day at PMM – which is proving effective as she drives the organisation towards a “smoke-free future” goal, and spearheads its "leave no talents behind” strategy, and more.

Q Swati, you’ve been in HR since day one, strongly moving across sectors before landing your current leadership role. Share with us how you keep the flame burning in what you do.

By choice, my career path has included multiple roles & challenges across different industries as well as continents. It is the variety in the roles and the different sets of challenges & learnings that come with each that keep me engaged and excited.

In addition to that, my desire to experience the entire gamut of HR and become a holistic HR professional has pushed me to do roles both as a generalist in business partnering and as a specialist in organisation development, TM & analytics, and HR consulting. Luckily, for me, I embrace change and that helps to keep the fire burning.

Q Prior to your time in PMM, you used to be in the agri-chem sector. Whilst they seem like completely opposite in the focus of the business, from your point of view, how different—and challenging— is the role of a HR professional between such contrasting fields?

I feel the boundaries between sectors, industries, and companies are all blurring. There is a high prevalence of industry-agnostic learning & trends that can be applied to various scenarios irrespective of the industry. Specifically, in HR, this has been the trend for long.

The role of HR is agnostic of the industry and sector. However, other factors such as the stage of business, transformation, the purpose of the business, degree of disruption, sustainability, openness to change, and organisational culture, define how different and challenging each role is to the other.

In the agri-chem sector, the industry is going through the challenge to move to sustainable farming to feed the growing population of the world, while at PMI, our ambition is for cigarettes to be replaced by science-based smoke- free products as soon as possible, for the benefit of people who smoke, those who care about them, and public
health. Regardless, both sectors have a degree of challenge but the magnitude and paths differ.

Q Philip Morris International (PMI), at a global level, recently pledged a “smoke-free future” goal, which aims not only to stop selling cigarettes, but also offer an alternative to tobacco products. Talk us through some of the initiatives this new goal entails, and what is HR’s role as the driver to meet a company’s transformational goals. How will this change the talent landscape in this sector, and in the Malaysian context?

The transformation that we are currently undergoing is by far the most important and complex that anyone at PMI has experienced. We have redefined our purpose and are completely changing our ways of working to achieve our smoke-free vision. With more than 71,000 employees at PMI, collaboration is of the utmost value to ensure we can operate effectively. The biggest impact witnessed by our people is our change in culture and the evolving capability requirements to remain successful.

We have hired a lot of new talent with diverse skills while putting a lot of effort in upskilling our existing talent. Specialist areas of digital, retail, customer experience, omni channel delivery, and e-commerce have taken a huge importance in the industry in Malaysia and elsewhere. In addition, HR practices such as organisation development, performance management, talent management, learning & development have had to be aligned to drive agile ways of working. This helps employees achieve peak performance, with the right level of resources collaborating cross functionally, with clear goals and expectations and with relevant learnings and rewards. We have also significantly stepped up our internal communication efforts to ensure that all our employees stay connected with the big purpose of the company, while along this journey.

Q How important is the current – and the future – crop of people in driving such a transformation?

Our people are the biggest assets we have, actively leading this bold transformation from a traditional cigarette manufacturer to a science and technology-driven company.

There is a genuine effort and commitment to help the transformation succeed and we have been very fortunate to have a passionate and result-oriented workforce. Today, they are also a very proud workforce due to PMI’s bold vision to transform the industry and to positively affect the lives of more than a billion smokers and their families. All of us look at this transformation as a once in a lifetime opportunity and are geared to take on this challenging and inspiring journey to create history.

Q The organisation is also all for the spirit of leaving no person behind in their journey towards a better future. How does this mindset fit in terms of career, skills, and leadership development? How do you bring this to life through your employee campaigns with regard to employee loyalty, retention, and longevity?

The demand for high quality talent is booming across several industries and we all are competing for this talent while working hard to address both social and environment challenges that the world is facing today. Our industry defining transformation offers an opportunity to candidates and employees to be a part of a significant purpose-driven change. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is a great proposition for candidates to join us and for existing PMM employees to continue to be a part of it.

We are transparent about being an ‘equal salary certified’ employer where our employees are paid equitable pay based on job rather than gender. This along with our policies around wellness and other benefits help us to provide our employees a great place to grow and build their careers at.

We also dive deep into the layers of the organisation where more diversity exists and make it a point to find hidden talents. We create opportunities for them to move across functions and lines of business. We provide skills and/or knowledge upgrade while providing a support mechanism where we help identify mentors, coupled with clear career roadmap in their development.

Diversity & inclusion have been and are vital to our business agenda. While we focus on ensuring diversity of gender, nationality, age, and et cetera, the most important factor is driving diversity of thought.

Encouraging open communication also helps make employees feel more included, strengthens the bond between teams, and allows employees to share constructive feedback. This also allows for creative flow of ideas to & from and in turn makes employees feel valued, heard and extend their commitment to the purpose of the organisation.

Q Share with us some proven strategies, and perhaps others that you’re still looking to refine.

Providing a conducive working environment for our employees has always been our main priority. Recently we launched ‘SmartWork’ providing employees with a hybrid work arrangement. Along with that we also have a holistic wellness calendar with activities comprising physical, mental, workplace and financial wellbeing to enhance our employees’ wellbeing.

We also offer an employee assistance programme (EAP), which includes short-term counselling/ assistance programme that helps employees and their families cope with stress, mental illness and other issues, if needed. ‘Parents Connect’ is another initiative, which works as a working parents’ support group in PMM. Its focus is to help parents (mothers and fathers) in PMM to get together to discuss topics not just related to juggling the different roles being played as a professional but also covers topics such as raising children and family.

These are just a few examples of our initiatives, and we constantly review our employees’ benefits program by looking at the different approaches to positively impact productivity, wellness and engagement of our employees.

Q On the personal side, what was the first mistake you made as a rookie in HR? On that note, what is your advice to aspiring HR professionals on success and life in HR?

Like many others, I joined HR thinking that it was all about passion for people, and doing right by them. However, very early on, I learnt that HR is as much about passion for business as much as it is towards people and it is about balancing the two. One cannot do justice to the job if one is not learning about both. Of course, situation depending, the scales would tip either side, and only if you understand both, you would be able to do right by people & business.

Q Since PMI imagines a future of alternative choices, let’s bring this to the HR context – what's the one thing you don’t wish to see in HR’s future – and why?

This is the only change I wish to see in HR: I wish for HR to move away from initiatives, which I describe as being 'HR for HR'. Sometimes HR functions tend to act more as custodians of process rather than enablers of business and design solutions inspired by best practices or trends rather than real business challenge. I would wish for HR to be more customer-centric and drive business impact.

PreviouslyUp the ranks: Philip Morris Malaysia appoints Swati Chawla as Director of People and Culture


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