Why the future belongs to curious leaders
It is not a boom time for listeners. Our attention span is yanked about by the pace of modern life, trapped within our “filter bubbles” on social media, convinced our point of view is right. There seems to be less incentive than ever for us to truly hear others, and certainly not to engage with them regularly. Present-day CEOs are engaging less in conversation than ever. Yet I’m convinced that listening is the one skill that in business, makes by far the greatest difference. Understanding the world from other perspectives allows you—and your company—to grow. In a workplace exchange, I am convinced that the most powerful thing one can say is: “Tell me more.” It invites the other to engage in conversation and signals a genuine desire to hear.
“Tell me more” was something I said plenty when I started as President, South and Southeast Asia for Philip Morris International (PMI) in January 2018. The region consists of over 12 culturally diverse markets, driven by a mind-blowing pace of change and entrepreneurial energy – especially in the tech sectors that PMI is look-ing to in its transition to smoke-free products. So, seeking to understand this dizzy-ing environment rather than dictate to it, I found myself consistently telling myself that what I don’t know is what I need to learn. Nearly 25 years traveling the world with the company has taught me that a dose of humility is the best first step to suc-cess—and the only one able to open all doors.
This spirit of receptiveness and reciprocity is what Philip Morris International is looking to take on board as it evolves for the future. Historically, the cigarette in-dustry is a controversial one—but we are looking to move away from the past, to-ward providing smokers with better alternatives to continued smoking with our “smoke-free” products. This is the biggest transformation in Philip Morris Interna-tional’s history, and it’s one we can’t undertake without listening attentively to consumers, stakeholders, and shareholders. I’ve personally experienced being a single different perspective. When I was made the company’s first woman vice president of sales at the age of 32, the lack of dif-ferent points of view at the top level was glaring to me. My male peers and superi-ors all looked alike, talked alike. I made the mistake, at first, of trying to be like them—when difference should be our greatest asset in business, the starting point of all conversations.
Now Philip Morris International is committed to having 40 percent of women in management roles by 2022; we were recently awarded global EQUAL-SALARY certification, the first multinational company to receive it. Once again, this drive toward equality can only happen through dialogue and listening. On International Women’s Day this year, we flipped the script by engaging our male colleagues at a special conference—to discuss the problem of unconscious biases in preventing everyone in the workplace getting their “fair share.” Many were surprised to hear about basic practices that inhibit inclusive conversation. Like talking over women colleagues in decision-making situations; not having the courage, in other words, to learn from others.
These days, it’s exciting to see that more people are willing to enter into conversation with us—not for our sake, but for the sake of the estimated more than one billion people who smoke. The World Health Organization predicts that almost as many will still be smoking in five years. However controversial Philip Morris In-ternational’s business has been perceived by others, no forward progress can be made without exploring the perspectives on every side of the smoking debate.
Committing to this transformation has meant using our listening skills to their full-est. Paradoxically, though, listening to others helps build one’s own sense of worth. Realizing where one fits into the bigger picture gives clarity about how to have the highest impact in the workplace and beyond. Surrounded by alpha-male executive colleagues when I first became vice president, I finally realized that the best thing I could be was myself. That freed me up to undertake leadership as it should be—a constant searching and pushing of our boundaries outward, rather than retreating inward.
Wherever I am in the world, when I call home to speak to my daughters, I always try and find a cool, interesting backdrop for our Facetime calls. I’m trying to im-part the same values to my children that I’ve learned over time, to encourage them to be curious about other cultures and ask questions. That way, when the moment comes, I hope they will already have the confidence to open up and say with curiosity and humility: “Tell me more, please.”