Learning is the key to managing—and inspiring—change

18 Jan 2022 · 6 min read
An active commitment to learning throughout your career requires openness, trust, agility, adaptability, and continuity.
Charles Bendotti PMI’s Senior Vice President, People and Culture

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By Charles Bendotti, Senior Vice President, People & Culture, Philip Morris International

Learning and inspiring landscape

We’re all familiar with the old adage “the only constant is change.” We see it in the way we work, the way we use technology, and the way we interact. We see it in our governments, the way they lead, and the global actions they take. We even see it in our children as they grow into adults.

In short, the world is in constant flux.

To be successful, you have to make space for change in your long- and short-term plans. This is especially true when change is not gradual, but fast, as we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’ve discovered that one of the key elements to managing change is found in another adage: “always be learning.” That doesn’t just mean reading about the latest trends in your business, keeping up with the news, or owning a copy of the latest self-help bestseller.

Charles Bendotti
Senior Vice President, People & Culture, Philip Morris International

Learning—for a person or a company—is an active process made up of a few critical concepts:

  • Openness: Always start with yourself. Are you open to learning? Are you willing to listen to new ideas, even from unexpected or unfamiliar places? Can you admit when you’re wrong or, more importantly, when someone has a better idea? Yes, it can happen!
  • Trust: This is closely related to openness. Do you both earn and give trust in your personal and professional relationships? The information we take in is only as valuable as our belief in the source, and the information we share will find the most willing recipients when we’ve shown ourselves to be authentic and transparent in our efforts and motives.
  • Agility: This is a hard skill to master, and is more art than science. You must chart a course, and can’t give up when the wind changes direction. You should figure out both how to be steadfast, and how to deviate when the information and your trust network—be it family or colleagues—indicates that the time is right.
  • Adaptability: Simply put, don’t be stuck in your ways. Times change. Trends shift. Culture evolves. You are who you are, but that doesn’t have to dictate how you act.
  • Continuity: Learning is an endless process. If you stop, you lose. Lifelong learners never finish their journey of discovery; their natural curiosity prevents it.

Here’s an example: COVID-19 forced the business world—overnight—to find new ways of working. Organizations quickly reviewed, compared, and tested the technologies and methods for remote work and implemented solutions that worked for them. Practices that once seemed impossible became commonplace and, in some cases, led to positive results that hadn’t been considered before, like making the workforce more accessible to certain minority groups.

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Instead of being stuck in their ways, the most successful companies during the pandemic were open to new ideas and processes and adapted accordingly. Michelle Arieta of Domino Data Lab describes how she navigated her company through the intense period of change caused by the pandemic in her blog last December. By responding openly to the changing world of work around them and researching and employing new digital tools, the company created a new, entirely digital, and sophisticated recruitment process, which has helped them “obtain the customized human capital necessary to meet goals in a scalable way.”

Now, as it appears our battle with COVID is headed to a sequel, the demand for remote and flexible working is here to stay. Companies need to find a hybrid working model that works or risk losing talent to other workplaces that are more adaptable. Executives and those responsible for workplace culture need to recognize now that human capital is not an interchangeable cog in the machinery, but a renewable resource that, when managed correctly, fuels innovation, sharpens the brand, and strengthens the bottom line.

At PMI, I see the power of a learning culture at work every day. Being a company of learners has had a tangible impact on our ability to respond to the changing world around us. Moreover, it’s enabled us to change ourselves. In fact, a willingness to adapt to change, to see where change is necessary, and to lead the marketplace is a business asset that is invaluable for legacy corporations.

Without a steadfast commitment to learning, we would not have been able to upskill our workforce and create the new technologies which take us one step closer to a smoke-free future, and we would not have a deep understanding of human society’s ability to change. The optimism that gives us is crucial. We must believe that we can transform, even if others don’t, otherwise we cut off progress at the root.

As we enter 2022 and the third year of the pandemic, there is hope for the future. If we—ourselves, our companies, our governments—commit to always be learning, we can manage any change that comes our way. We can retain our best talent, and attract the next generation of leaders who aren’t interested in riding a dinosaur into the future. We will find balance between our home office and our home life. And we will find holistic solutions that are cognizant of the past, useful in the present, and flexible for the future.