While it takes a healthy dose of humility, saying "I don’t know" is an opportunity to turn to others for answers, insights, knowledge and wisdom, affirms Stacey Kennedy, President, South & Southeast Asia Region, Philip Morris International.

Q How would you describe your journey with Philip Morris International so far? What has been your most memorable moment with the organisation?

It’s been an extremely challenging and gratifying 24 years with the company. From day one, I’ve loved the people and the company. I began as a territory sales manager, thinking that I would do this for a year or two. Cut to 24 years—and many roles—later, I’m still here.

There have been many, many big moments for me within this company, but the most memorable would have to be the pride I felt when making our announcement that we are transitioning PMI to smoke-free products and leading the charge to design a smoke-free future for our world. There are millions of legal age smokers who would otherwise continue to smoke who deserve information about and access to better alternatives. My job is to get smokers in South and Southeast Asia this information and access. This is quite a change from my job description a couple of decades ago, and I welcome it.

Q I understand that you believe a powerful sentence in the workplace is “I don’t know.” Why?

Yes, I do, and it’s because we’re taught when we’re in school, and later in the workplace, that we have to have an answer for every question. Especially if you’re a manager. A stigma has developed around saying "I don’t know," and it’s time to change that and to start to see "I don’t know" as an opportunity for us to turn to others for answers, insights, knowledge and wisdom. It takes a healthy dose of humility, but that’s how we make ourselves, our colleagues and our companies smarter and stronger — what we don’t know is what we need to learn.

Q Having worked across the US, Europe, and Asia, what differences do you observe in each region - in terms of talent as well as the pace of change and transformation?

The entrepreneurial spirit and rate and pace of change in Indonesia, India, Vietnam and many of the markets where I work today, and particularly in digital and tech economies, is pretty phenomenal. It’s much more obvious than even in Europe or more developed countries because, there, it’s in the background. We know the rate of change the world over, but it’s not so in your face every day. That’s really unique to Asia. The other thing I’ve noticed about Asia is that the speed to market is amazing. It shows the absolute hunger of entrepreneurs in Asia to be able to bring new products to market.

Q You were appointed to a VP role when you were just 32, making you the youngest VP ever appointed at Philip Morris. What was your secret to success?

I think my “secret” is my natural tendency to be a searcher and to push boundaries outwards, as opposed to retreating inwards. I have a natural curiosity that drives me to engage in conversations with others around this business, rather than retreating into my own bunker. That’s been a differentiator.

I would also say I’ve benefited from thinking in what I call “strategy mode.” Often human nature is to think very incrementally. We’re always trying to get at what is the smartest way to get to from point A to point B. But what I’m always looking for is a quantum leap. Is there a completely different way—not to hop from letter to letter to letter to get from A to Z, but to make one massive leap forward?

Q Being the first-ever female President of Asia Pacific operations for Philip Morris International, and a mother of twin daughters, what career advice do you have for young women looking to climb the career ladder?

I think women, and all people, can upskill themselves tremendously by just engaging in conversation. Lessons can come from anywhere and anyone. There are always new people to meet and new cultures to understand—and that’s information you can take with you and allow to inform your path in life.

As for balancing a career and motherhood, what I’ve found most helpful is to take down the walls between the two. I try to take my daughters along with me on as many business trips as I can, and I often talk to them about work. If they know I have a big presentation the next day, for instance, we’ll even role play where they’re firing questions at me. They like to get in my business and understand what it is I’m trying to accomplish, and I love that. I think it’s important for our kids to know what their parents do and what contributions we’re making. Most adults need to work to earn an income, and kids can understand this. But more importantly, positioning work as fulfilment is key to role model for children. “If you do what you love, you’ll always love what you do.”

Q What do you think organisations can do to empower more women leaders like yourself?

It’s the responsibility of an organisation to consider how to create an environment that is conducive for each member of the team to bring his or her best self to work. For too long, women in leadership have felt the need to blend in with what can often be a very homogenous group of male peers and superiors. I tried to play it that way at first myself, to pretend I was one of the gang, but that was absolutely the wrong mentality. That was a huge learning insight for me because by trying to fit in, the company didn’t derive the full value of my differences.

I take accountability for part of that myself because I think that each and every one of us has to ask ourselves, “Am I being my best authentic self? How am I bringing my best self to this team and to my work?” But it also goes both ways; organisations should be inviting and encouraging their female employees to be authentically themselves and to be in conversation about their different perspectives.

The more that a company can turn those insights from conversation into actions, the better off they are because then they can actually change and derive more value from their employees’ differences. And that’s true of gender differences, background differences, even different strengths of intellectual and emotional capability.

I also think organisations need to know the business case for diversity — to see that focusing on gender diversity and inclusion creates a more sustainable business and allows companies to derive their employees’ full value, and is worth investing in. For example, we put in a lot of work to ensure PMI’s recent global EQUAL-SALARY certification—we are the first multinational to earn the certification. It's been a very exciting time of growth and development for us, and it’s signaled all our commitment to all of our employees.

Q What is your view of human resources as a business function? How closely do you work with your HR head and on what kind of issues?

The partnership between HR and general management is critical. The pace of change within the HR function is tremendous as it is in business, and today more than ever, the critical skill sets in modern HR are very specialised, and we need specialisation more than generalists.

I have always believed that line management should be ultimately accountable for the caliber and performance of the organisation, and that can only happen with increasing effectiveness and efficiency of specialised skills in talent acquisition, retention, organisation design, OGSM (objectives, goals, strategies and measures) performance management systems, leadership and skill development, increasing digitalisation of our HR systems and learning programs, and much more.

Q Describe your ideal CHRO.

I think one of the things that is desperately needed from all leaders, but perhaps for a CHRO in particular, is the ability to truly listen and to engage more in the business. HR exists to support building the highest performance employee team the business can afford, and those employees will serve consumers – so the ideal CHRO knows what our consumer needs and journey are and how employees can best serve them.

Q If not this career, what alternative career path might you have chosen?

I have no idea how realistic it would be, but on my short list of "alternative careers" would be: international food critic and columnist, National Geographic photographer, and non-fiction author.

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