Kate O’Dowd never imagined herself working for a tobacco company. Find out how the culture, vision and people at Philip Morris International have made it the best decision she ever made.
Kate O’Dowd loves food. Whether it’s pub-grub or fine-dining, she absolutely loves trying new foods and the whole experience of dining out with family or friends.
So, with this passion for food and eating clear in your mind, imagine the shock and surprise it took to stop the fork halfway to her mouth while she was out for lunch with an ex-colleague three years ago. What did he say to leave her so gobsmacked?
He offered her a job with Philip Morris International (PMI) one of the world’s leading tobacco companies. Kate remembers rebuffing the offer pretty quickly.
However, Kate is now the Head of Commercial Planning at PMI, and thinks joining the organization was possibly one of the best decisions she’s ever made. She shares with us the three ways working with PMI has helped her succeed and thrive in ways she never could have imagined as the fork hung half-way between her plate and mouth that day three years ago.
It gave her a clear and driving purpose
Before she took the job at PMI, Kate was quite content working in a people lead role for a marketing agency. She loved the culture and the people but, looking back, remembers finding it difficult to grasp and internalize the company vision.
Fast forward then to that lunch she was first offered the opportunity to work for PMI.
“Our vision is to stop selling cigarettes,” her ex-colleague replied, and this intrigued Kate. She did her research, read the website, watched CEO speeches, followed the media stories. And the more she dug into it, the more she realized how serious they were about this mission for a smoke-free future.
“They were spending billions of pounds on research and development, towards this ambition of a smoke-free future.”
This struck a chord with Kate. She empathized as an ex-smoker herself. Here was a tobacco company boldly announcing that they intend to stop selling cigarettes and offer adult smokers who don’t quit better choices. Since joining PMI, Kate says there has not been one day she and her team have not been dedicated to this purpose.
“Don’t get me wrong, there have been lots of challenges and things that aren’t easy – but this clear purpose gets me out of bed every day.”
Fantastic people and culture
Kate admits she witnessed some challenges as the company transitioned to developing and commercializing new reduced risk technology, such as vaping and tobacco heating devices. But remarks on her amazement as she watched the culture morph and transform to one now completely collaborative and ‘all rowing in the same direction’.
She loves the way the company fosters a ‘fail fast’ ideology where individuals are encouraged to test and try new ideas and even failures offer an opportunity to learn something. There’s also a culture of feedback where people feel listened to, and really take feedback into account for the future.
Even through the dramas of 2020, the people and culture of PMI held strong. Leadership teams held weekly online townhalls to answer any and all questions their employees had.
“Some of them would last for hours. But the leadership just kept answering everyone’s questions with as much honesty and clarity as they could. Sometimes their answer was ‘we don’t know’ – it may not be what we hoped to hear, but it was honest, and we appreciated that.”
Given the space and flexibility to deliver results
When Kate first started with PMI, her son was just six months old, and her commute to the office took three hours! She remembers feeling like she needed to apologize all the time for needing to leave early to pick up her son from daycare, or take him to appointments, or to make certain trains to get home before dark. It wasn’t until her line manager sat her down to explain that PMI didn’t track or dictate the number of hours she sat at her desk, they just care about the outputs.
“Now I’m the one telling people to stop apologizing. The business invests in long-term outcomes and helped me gain confidence in my role.”
Having previously worked for other businesses where the pressure to meet unrealistic expectations was punctuated with micromanagement, Kate relishes the trust, support, and time she’s given to do what she was hired to do.
“No one is looking over your shoulder. There’s a clear plan of objectives and deliverables. Don’t get me wrong, the pace in this business is phenomenal – but there’s realistic expectations between teams and management and then it’s up to you to manage what you need to deliver to achieve that.”
PMI was the best decision she ever made
There have been many doubters along the way. People who called Kate a hypocrite for working for a tobacco company. Even her own husband questioned her reasoning behind working anywhere that involved a three-hour commute.
But the driving mission of truly helping smokers make better and more educated choices, and the amazing culture of trust, honesty, and flexibility continue to inspire Kate every day.
“Without a doubt, the best choice any smoker can make it to quit smoking altogether, but for those who don’t want to or can’t, we aim to offer them better alternatives than continuing to smoke. I’m so anchored to this purpose it overcame any doubt in my mind about joining PMI. My husband now says it was the best decision I ever made – I find it hard to argue, although find it funny he doesn’t rank my choice to marry him above it.”