Robert Walters Leadership Podcast E11: Conversation with Naeem Shahab Khan, Philip Morris Malaysia
As organisations increasingly focus and proactively act on their Environmental, Social and (Corporate) Governance (ESG) goals and the impact they have on local communities, how are business leaders capitalising on this momentum to enact broader changes? What should talent in the market look for when it comes to developing mindsets and in-demand skillsets to shine in this new climate?
Episode eleven of our Talent Talk with Robert Walters podcast in South East Asia features Naeem Shahab Khan, Managing Director of Philip Morris Malaysia, and Ai Rene Tan, Country Manager of Robert Walters Malaysia, as they discuss all things ESG and how Philip Morris International is transforming itself to create a ‘smoke-free future’.
From building trust with employees and stakeholders, and giving ourselves the permission to not know everything, to always ensuring we keep ourselves relevant, and have fun in whatever we do, Naeem’s personal advice and insights are not to be missed.
Our Robert Walters Leadership Podcast is part of our Talent Talk series, where we feature leaders from diverse industries and the sharing of their experience, advice, and insights into the world of work. Watch the videocast of this episode here.
Ai Rene Tan: Hi, I'm Ai Rene, Director of the Sales and Marketing, Finance, Tech and Transformation divisions at Robert Walters Malaysia. I'm your host for this episode of our Talent Talks with Robert Walters; our leadership series, where we interview business leaders, recruitment experts, and career growth specialists on their careers, leadership lessons, and the latest talent trends.
Today, it's my pleasure to have Naeem Khan, Managing Director of Philip Morris Malaysia, join us. Welcome Naeem.
Naeem Khan: Thanks a lot, Ai Rene - really appreciate and it's a great pleasure for me to be here.
Ai Rene: Great. To start off with our first question, let's talk a bit about PMI and the company's move towards a smoke-free future. It's interesting for me to read PMI's earlier announcement that it aims for smoke-free products to make up more than half of its total net revenue by 2025. From being known as a big tobacco company to PMI's current transformation, tell us what does a smoke-free future mean?
Naeem: So, again, thanks a lot Ai Rene for this session and providing this opportunity for me to be part of this podcast. It's an amazing thing to be connected with you and all your audience.
Now, regarding your question, I think it's a very bold decision on part of the organisation, which has created some of the biggest and the most valuable brands in the world.
As you know very well, I'm not from the tobacco industry, hence anything related to actively phasing out the most profitable part of your business is a bit alien to me. But I think that we all know the harms and the challenges which combustible cigarette brings to the humans. And the reality is that they possess significant risks to all the smokers, to their loved ones. So the faster we remove smokers away from combustible cigarettes, the better it is for them and public health in general. I think it's a great start for us to drive a transformation effort and transformation journey.
And then we started this whole transformation, we raised quite a few eyebrows as well. I remember using this phrase that "People who don't smoke should never start, and if they smoke, they should quit. But if they don't quit, it is better for them to change." And one and a half or 2 years ago, this was a new challenge for us.
However, I do see many conversations that did start to happen with the stakeholders who used to close their doors for us. Furthermore, talent in the market also are more open - we acquired over 35 new talent in the last one and a half year. And for most of them, one of the primary reasons they joined us because they want to embark on this whole smoke-free journey, which Philip Morris has taken on.
And once they truly understand the purpose and ambition of our smoke-free journey, they feel much more motivated, much more engaged with the organisation. And that's basically the life of our transformation.
Ai Rene: I’m sure such a transformation must have been massive for the entire PMI group. What attracted you then, Naeem, to join Philip Morris Malaysia as MD during this transformation and how has your experience been like so far?
Naeem: Well. Okay. I started my career almost 23, 24 years ago. And tobacco industry was definitely not one of the industries for my first choice of working at - let's be very honest and very frank. It's also very personal to me. I lost my father at a very young age due to excessive smoking.
And it has a profound effect on me personally, and as a person - primarily the choices I made in my life. And hence, when Phillip Morris approached me to join them, my first answer was, "No, I don't want to; I don't want to be part of that industry." And I think it was a gradual realisation. I was genuinely intrigued when I heard about this ''smoke-free' vision that this company is driving, and how they want to transform the organisation from silent cigarettes to smoke-free products, and eventually towards life sciences. Recently, we have acquired a couple of life sciences companies. As I found out more, I started to get interested. The more I read on 'pmiscience.com', and I would urge people to go at 'pmiscience.com' to the R&D portal, the more I was convinced that this is an opportunity for me to join a company that takes their transformation seriously, and my role is to help lead that transformation and growth here.
The tipping point was, frankly speaking, one of our interviews which our chairman gave, where he signalled that we might be a decade away or so from phasing out cigarettes in some of our markets. And that kind of is music to my ear because I think selling cigarettes also has a personal attachment to me because of my father. So I think that whole piece of working for a company, which is serious on their transformation journey, converting a very different type of company in a very different type of industry to a for-purpose organisation is probably a huge element for me to join this company. You know very well I came from Phillips, which has a significant presence in healthcare. But I understand how important it is that we leverage on technological advancement and science and innovative products that help to reduce harm.
At PMI, our smoke-free products do exactly that - to reduce harm to adult smokers who don't quit by providing them a better alternative to cigarette smoking. And joining PMI allows me to be part of the paradigm shift where we can work towards moving societal views on smoke-free products; starting meaningful conversations based on our science and lead the change in our industry. And as a consequence, 10 years down the road, I can see myself in a mirror that I have managed to phase out cigarettes in Malaysia and make Malaysia smoke-free.
It's two years for me in this journey - it's just the start. It's a very challenging journey. I underestimated some of the challenges which I had to work through. Part of that whole challenges comes from the pandemic. One of the primary anchor point, Ai Rene, for any transformation, by the way, and if a transformation is of this magnitude, is the trust. How do you create trust between you as a management and your employees, you as a management and regulator, or you as a management and most of the interest groups outside the organisation?
And some of this trust requires for you to connect with each other, to meet each other, to see each other eye-to-eye; to look at the face and to look at each other - nonverbal communication because we all know, we are all trained to say the right thing. But I think that whole interaction that you have, which we missed in the last two years, has made it extremely difficult.
In the beginning, we just don't know how to productively work in a remote work setting. There were blurry lines on personal and professional boundaries. We just don't know how to communicate with each other. So I think in that environment, building trust not only internally but also externally is probably one of my biggest challenge.
And that trust deficit is probably my number one thing to overcome between us and all the interest groups, and stakeholders in terms of regulators. So I think overall, if you ask me, one of the key angles and the element which helped me do this is basically the talent which I have.
And I always tell people that at the end of the day, if I operate in my personal capacity, I'm just one person. If I operate as an organisation, then I have 500 plus people with me. And I think that's what pandemic has told me that even though the situation is difficult, it is the team which makes the difference between average and great. I'm blessed with a great team who are committed to make a difference and ultimately to transform PMI for a for-purpose organisation. We've made amazing progress and market despite lockdowns, having converted more than 120,000 adult smokers to switch to IQOS, which is a heated tobacco device. I'm fortunate enough to work with such a bright-minded people coming from very diverse backgrounds, be able to share and understand one another, while also enhancing my knowledge and taking me through this journey of making Malaysia smoke-free.
Ai Rene: Delivering a smoke-free future to better the health of our communities – that is very much in line with companies’ growing emphasis on ESG. For the benefit of our audience, could you tell us what ESG means, and how does ESG play out for PMI?
Naeem: So, ESG, probably most of you already are well aware of - stands for (E) Environmental, (S) Social and Corporate (G) Governance. For the past few years, ESG has gained popularity and found itself in a spotlight - that society notably shifting towards sustainability. It's clear that environmental, social and other issues on everyone's agenda takes up a focal point, especially for investors. Many companies around the world have been doing their best in their own sustainability initiative. Larger companies that you are very well aware of - Amazon and Dell. Even consumer product companies have been working towards achieving their own sustainability goals to reduce the carbon footprint, as research have shown that not only do consumers prefer to purchase from a company that has made a CSR pledge, but this makes a difference in consumer experience and brand loyalty as well.
So for PMI specifically, sustainability is an opportunity for innovation, growth, and long-term value creation. It also means for us to minimise the negative externalities while maximising operational efficiency and resource allocation.
Now, to become a sustainable organisation, our priority is done through a four-fold approach. Number one is develop better and less harmful alternatives, that's the key of our sustainability drive.
Broadening access to the adult smokers to smoke-free products so that they can actually move away from harmful products and then have less harmful effects of tobacco smoking.
And working on phasing out of cigarettes. We probably would be the first company to phase out combustible cigarettes in one of the markets in the world, within probably next decade.
And development of products that go beyond Nicotine, which means moving away from classical Nicotine or tobacco products, moving into life sciences. Globally, we have quite a lot of initiatives - I would like to talk a bit more about Malaysia. We are pretty creative in our sustainability efforts. So given that we were on a lockdown for the past few months, with many of us stuck at home, we continuously encourage employees to participate in webinars for mental health or yoga or different competitions. We had an initiative where we installed cigarette butt canisters in the smoking hot spots across the country. Each canister is cleaned and emptied every month, which will, for the first time in ASEAN's history, provide us with a real time data on smoking hottest spots, data which we aim to share with local authorities and ministries. We coordinated the programme aimed at combating the global waste issue.
Internally, we had a contest - sharing our take on how we declutter and clear up litter in our workspaces, as well as our home. Lately, we introduce mindful yoga programme for our employees, where each practice session will lead to a tree pledge by the company. Within the next few months, we aim to plant over 2,000 trees with our local partners in Malaysia. Engaging with our investors has always been critical, so more than ever it is also a key for us to accelerating our transformation and bringing an end toward smoking as a habit as quickly as possible.
So I think generally, if you ask me, at the end of the day, I don't see the whole ESG piece as something which is outside; which we all do just for the right things and the right words and an optics perspective. My personal drive is that how can we bring all of these into our day-to-day normal work life? And build a sustainable business per se, and also a sustainable and more environmentally friendly ways of working in our day-to-day life. So that we don't have to talk about it; it becomes part and parcel of our DNA. And I think that's something that we are trying to do with those smaller initiatives.
Ai Rene: Indeed, how we seek to address ESG goals should be integrated into our daily operations and everyday decisions. Now, in a world where companies are taking ESG very seriously, what does this mean then for talent in the job market?
Naeem: I think from a talent standpoint, while there are plenty of jobs available out there, the hard fact is that many will not make it to the second round of interviews. And why is that so? For some of the jobs available, people don't have the right skills, or at least skills employers say they're looking for. And this is where soft skill plays a very important role. Personal traits, work habits, communication, is extremely critical today. To be successful in the long run, they need to be resilient. That's another huge challenge which I always see nowadays in some of the new talent just coming. And be able to reinvent themselves - constant learning, and able to adapt to different work environments. I strongly believe that working your way towards some special types of talent available online actually helps a lot. But predominantly, I think the few things which are happening in the job market and also with the whole pandemic thing, I think the onus of delivery and the onus of showing that you can do a job is going much more on the candidate and the talent themselves - how do they show that they are more resilient, they are more capable?
And a lot of the activities where in the previous time, you have a manager, you have everybody sitting in the office, and everybody knows that you are in the office from 9 to 5, or you are doing 3 hours extra work or 4 hours extra work. And then people will always start saying, "Oh, by the way, this is a very good person because he is working extra hours." And now you are in a hybrid environment, so there’s an office treated as a home, so you don't know. So actually, your work speaks louder than anything else, and that is coming very strongly. And personally also for me, I've become actually agnostic to the employees. I become much more focused on what is the delivery/comes out.
And I think that one thing is very important in the current environment that once that whole ownership of onus of this delivery goes to the employees, then they also have much more responsibility. And that talent needs to take the responsibility because with that responsibility, there is a reward attached to it. And how do you take that responsibility in moving forward is going to be a huge challenge for all of us because as a leadership, what we would like to do is to provide the right environment, the right culture, the right ecosystem that these talent can actually grow, and grow in their job but also be capable of delivering and contributing, not in one, two, or three years but probably 10, 12 and 15 years.
And that's one angle - how do we do that? How do we provide them the constant learning capabilities. At the same time, it also goes back to the talent as well. How do they show their willingness to know more? To learn more? To drive things smartly? And sharply as they call it. So I think coaching, mentoring programmes, interactive workshops - this is something which teach these skills.
So if you are looking for a specific job, I would suggest working your way around these trainings - online trainings. It's probably the best way to equip yourself. We know like today and I'm sure you are already well aware in Malaysia, digital marketing-related jobs are most difficult to fill, due to the shortage of skilled professionals in the area of expertise. While the industry is booming, there aren’t enough focused on the skills surrounding user experience, Artificial Intelligence, AI-driven marketing. The second skill set is around data analytics. This industry finds it harder to find clean data scientists. I mean, that's something which is very obvious for us.
Another angle is the university when they produced the talent - if that talent needs to somehow get reformed before they actually hit the industry. That's another one. So how do you build that ecosystem where universities and industry can actually work together and actually you get the talent really outside the university.
One of the great leadership skills personally, and that is something which I would really advise everybody in a leadership position to look at, is to have empowerment, give empowerment. And empowering build confidence in their capacity to execute collective missions and goals to establish essential purpose of the organisation.
True personal empowerment requires you to set meaningful goals to identify what you actually want from life. All of us do that. And then take action to achieve these goals. That's another part of it. Organisations which empower their employees actually deliver better results versus organisations which don’t.
I think one of the things which I always tell people is make sure that whatever work you do, you should keep having fun in that work. If you don't have fun, then it becomes a chore. So in order to enhance your knowledge, formal education, mentoring group, there are excellent ways to build a skillset. At the same time, build a fun element because you actually end up making friends. I found my wife from work setting. So I mean, it's something which happens to a lot of us here. So I think in terms of talent out there, whether they are fresh graduates or have been in the industry for several years, a diverse range of technical skills are definitely needed alongside creative problem-solving skills.
And if they're equipped with ESG knowledge, that's a bonus. It goes without saying that forward thinking, effective communication are also going to be an ideal candidate in the job market. And personally, I believe one must be passionate in driving things. And in order to succeed, passion is probably one of the most important things.
Ai Rene: That’s a good piece of advice for our audience. Personally, I agree with you in that we, as talent, need to stay relevant and continuously reinvent ourselves. Naeem, looking at your career history, you were in Philips for over 18 years. Is that the same place you met your wife?
Naeem: In Singapore, yes, it's the same place. I always share this example, I mean, while working for Philips, I basically visited 63 cities. And I’m extremely proud that in some of these cities even today when I go, I think I can always find friends to have one dinner with me and I don't have to dine alone. So I think this is part and parcel of work, and there's a lot of things around work-life balance. And at least personally for me, a work-life flexibility becomes a bit more important than just the work-life balance because I think that kind of add more value to the things which I like to do, which is having fun in what I do and making lifelong friendships.
Ai Rene: You're a classic living example of making work fun. Throughout your career journey, what is the most important professional and life lesson you've learnt?
Naeem: So some of the lessons I have learnt along this journey is that no matter who you are and what position you are at, you don't need to know all the answers. And I think a lot of the times that people noticed and they always sometimes point me out in big discussions that I should say less ‘I don't know’ because I have this habit of saying ‘I don't know but probably this could be the answer’. And I think you have to give yourself permission to not to have all the answers and trust the insights and leadership of the people around you. And this comes with not bashing statements by assumptions - you need to check the facts, you need to look at the figures, you need to ask five times ‘why’, and you probably will discover something, and in the process, you will learn and everybody else will learn, and you will get to achieve what you want to achieve. So that's a thing for me that is very important - learning. And a core part of my management style.
Ai Rene: 'Give yourself permission to not know everything,' that's a key takeaway that I think we should keep in mind, especially as we progress up the career ladder, where we often expect ourselves to have ready and correct answers. Thanks for that valuable point.
Now, Naeem, I don't know whether you've read this article by McKinsey before. As McKinsey puts it, the 'Great Attrition is upon us' – a record number of employees are quitting or thinking about quitting in the next 3 to 6 months. As someone who has only been employed with three companies over the past 23 years, what would you say to someone thinking of leaving?
Naeem: I don't know. I mean, I read this article and what I don't know is this a real great attrition upon us or is it simply a pent-up demand of job changing because nobody was changing their job over the last two years? And we have seen this in multiple industries like, oil price is the highest - does it mean that now there is more demand for oil, and hence the green energy is there? I don't know. There's a lot of interpretations of that.
What I can say around this one is that for anybody, a time can come when you just don't feel that you belong to that organisation, and it is not necessarily an organisation’s fault and it's not necessarily your fault. It's sometimes the function of what point in time in your life you are. A twelve-hour call center job when you are single might be a very interesting job, but when you have school-going kids and a young family, it might be a big chore. So I think that perspective needs to be there that not every job is fit for everybody, not every organisation is fit for everybody, but there is an organisation which fit what you feel for yourself.
I mean, I think the question which all of us at some point in time face is should I or should I not leave the company? So individuals who are having issues with this must ask themselves - whether they truly value the role they are playing in the organisation. There's always room for advancement and improvement, and that's on everyone. That's not on organisations, that's on everyone who's part of the organisation. For some company cultures, sustainability is utmost important aspect of the career for them. There are several factors that come to play when one considers leaving - the incentives, the benefits, the team mates, the name of the company, just to name a few.
And before one pulls the plug, I strongly suggest that you have a conversation with your manager first, or somebody higher up in the organisation, or to HR. And I think this is one of those decisions which you should take consciously and avoid rushing into it. That's one advice which I always give people. But don't work for a company who you feel that you don't belong to. That’s also a very candid advice I would like to give. Until my last day, in my 18 years in Phillips, I enjoyed working. And since then, I always felt positive about something because today, whoever I am, a lot of this is related to how leadership, and my managers and my mentors in that company groomed me.
But is it today I'm not enjoying in Phillip Morris? The answer is absolutely not. I mean, it's my dream job at this point in time, because I will try to create a history which probably no one has created in Malaysia where I will try to phase out combustible cigarettes in Malaysia. And that would be something which I would love to do.
So I think at different points in time in your life, there are different things that you like. And it's not a science; it's an art.
Ai Rene: Thank you very much Naeem. And with that, we have come to the end of this session. Thank you again for sharing your insights and personal advice with us. I’m very sure our listeners and viewers appreciate hearing how PMI is transforming to help deliver a smoke-free future and its push towards fulfilling its ESG goals.
Naeem: Pleasure is mine, Ai Rene. Talking to you is always a pleasure. And I wish you all the success in this podcast, and I'll be looking forward to hearing some other advices from other people so that I can make myself better. Thank you.
Ai Rene: To our listeners and viewers, don’t forget to stay tune for the next episode of our Robert Walters Talent Talk. Take care and stay safe – goodbye!