Transformation comes from within to survive organisational change

Melissa Whiting shares how she has overcome her own impostor syndrome to embrace, sometimes daunting, organisational change

Without transformation and change, nothing moves forward. But change is often uncomfortable. Especially at the beginning, when we don’t know who we are or who we will be at the end of the process.

The discomfort of change can also lead to expansion, learning and growth. When you keep going, you expand what you are capable of—then you come back into your comfort zone for a while to recharge and recover … and then you try something new and expand and grow again. 

Earlier this month, I joined a group of courageous, caring and uplifting women at the Marie Claire Power Trip event, where I had the privilege of sharing my personal story of ongoing transformation and how it intersects with the disruption currently underway at PMI.

Agents of change

The event offered an opportunity to hear unique and powerful stories from incredible women working as agents of change to create a better world for all. And it got me thinking about the collective force of individuals when we step into our own power and use it.

Reflecting on my journey takes me back to when I was offered my first management role at Philip Morris International (PMI), many years ago now. My reaction was “No way.” I had no management experience. I didn’t like presenting or being in front of the room. I was afraid of not being good enough and failing. I actually turned it down.

Ask for what you need

Fortunately, my boss-to-be wouldn’t take no for an answer. His advice to me was: “Rather than focusing on what you don’t know or don’t think you can do, focus on what you can do and what it would take for you to succeed.” He told me to ask for the training, mentoring and support that I needed. He also told me he didn’t expect me to know how to do it from the start. It was okay for me to make mistakes.

In doing this, he gave me a safe space to step out of my comfort zone with encouragement to speak up and ask for what I needed. He made me feel valued and worth investing in, which empowered me to begin to grow my own sense of my value.

Listen to women

I was reminded of that when listening to Michelle William’s acceptance speech at the Emmy Awards a few weeks ago. She attributed her success to the support of the studio bosses who listened to her and said “yes” when she asked for what she needed in her job. And she made an impassioned plea for all bosses to listen to women when they ask for what they need to do their job. When women feel valued and supported they will plough that value back into their work—to the benefit of themselves and the bosses who supported them. 

Years later, I remembered my old boss’s advice, when I stepped out of my comfort zone again to change career direction and take on my current role as Head of Inclusion & Diversity at PMI.

A lawyer by training and experience, this opportunity was well outside what I knew I could do. This time, I also felt a gravitational pull to take this role because it aligned so closely with what I care deeply about: equality, fairness and helping others overcome barriers — including internal barriers like self-doubt, as well as external barriers like bias and exclusion. 

The job has challenged and stretched me more than any previous work I’ve done. As with any role leading change, my position requires patience, persistence, pragmatism and resilience (because we all know that things usually don’t change overnight).

Comfortable with the uncomfortable

I have to be comfortable enough to wait for the right time while also continuing to push forward, keeping actions supporting long-term inclusion goals on the table when it would be easy to let them slip behind other, more seemingly urgent business priorities.

My role requires asking tough questions, creating some disruption and expecting and respecting disagreement—those are not strong suits for an anxious people pleaser.

On the other hand, success in this job also requires active listening, showing empathy and coaching people to change — things for which my introversion and sensitivity often serve me well. 

At PMI we are in the midst of a massive business transformational change in pursuit of a vision of creating a smoke-free future. A future without cigarettes and in which no one smokes. We believe that a strategy of prevention and tobacco harm reduction is important for public health. And that we can play a key role in accelerating the decline in smoking by providing smokers who would otherwise continue using tobacco and nicotine products with smoke-free alternatives that are a better choice than continuing to smoke cigarettes. Our efforts are squarely focused on replacing cigarettes as fast as possible so we put an end to smoking for good.

It’s an exciting time to work at PMI—employees are energised and inspired by the company’s vision, the boldness and scale of change and the possibility of making a positive contribution to the world. What makes us unique is the fact that we are the only company in the tobacco industry—and perhaps in any industry—with a public commitment to cannibalize our existing business and replace it with one that is less harmful.

For 20 years, PMI has been working on developing smoke-free alternatives to cigarettes. Our focus is on ensuring that the harm-reduction potential of our smoke-free products is scientifically substantiated and that our product portfolio is acceptable to adult smokers who would otherwise continue smoking so they switch to these products completely and abandon cigarettes. Since 2008, PMI has invested more than $6 billion USD in research, product development, scientific substantiation and manufacturing capacity of our smoke-free products.

But we can’t do it alone: We need to work together with governments, the public health community and anyone who can help us to achieve a future without cigarettes. And this means that we must step out of our comfort zone, engage in open dialogue and new conversations—often tough ones—with our critics, doubters and haters. My hope is that they will meet us halfway, and step out of their own comfort zone, too, to talk to us, challenges us,and unite behind a common goal of creating a world that’s smoke-free by digging into our larger why and purpose.

About the Author

Melissa Whiting is the Head of Inclusion & Diversity at Philip Morris International (PMI).

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