Lynn Kleinsmith on driving cultural change in a global tobacco company


Philip Morris International HR director Lynn Kleinsmith shares how her diverse HR background prepared her to steer the organisation through a major transition.

Leading a multinational company is no easy feat. The task is even harder when that company is global tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI), whose footprint spans over 90 countries and is home to more than 80,000 staff worldwide.

When Lynn Kleinsmith joined the company as HR director about three years ago, it was in the midst of a major transition of embarking on a smoke-free future. This change needed strong, brave and experienced leaders who could come up with new and strategic solutions to take the company into its new era with ease.

As fate would have it, PMI had done extensive research before making an appointment, to ensure the right fit. Although the recruitment process, facilitated by a headhunter, took six months of intensive talks before there was consensus, Lynn’s experience and stature in the industry stood her in good stead, and she has since demonstrated she is just what the company needed. Earlier this year, she took on the more senior title of human resources director for sub-Saharan Africa to mark her promotion.

“For the last 100 years Phillip Morris was successful with a product that sells itself. Then, suddenly, there was this new and unknown category, which presented new challenges for the organisation. Finding people with the right skills for a changing organisation meant we had to work harder in order to attain the same level of success the company had seen before. Even for the local organisation, there were many challenges, cultural issues and resistance to transformation among others. Strong leadership was needed to change the culture,” Lynn explains.

Life before Philip Morris International

Lynn has been a trailblazer in the HR industry with a career spanning nearly 30 years. Before joining PMI, she held various positions ranking from junior to senior in retail, financial services, recruitment and IT among others. Her foray into HR began with a decision in the second year of university to make the change from law to the humanities. With the help of her mother, Lynn did a career assessment with a career psychologist, who confirmed that her strength was in working with people. In her third year of study, she switched to a different academic discipline – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Upon the completion of her studies, Lynn joined The Foschini Group as a trainee on their graduate programme. After 18 months, she was absorbed into the human resources department, where for six years, she learnt, observed and was exposed to the workings of the retail sector.

“I enjoyed working in the fast-paced environment. Recruitment was amazing because the business was expanding with the introduction of the @home stores. It was great exposure, because I was able to witness how a retail business is set up. The conversations we were having and moves we were making were shaping those businesses. From that point on, my career moved rather rapidly,” Lynn tells CHRO South Africa.

When she left the proverbial nest of her first job, she went into recruitment and joined Emmanuels Staffing Services. The business was focused on providing staffing solutions to various industries in the corporate playground. This business model, also known as business process outsourcing (BPOs), allows for a third party service provider like Emmanuels Staffing Services to provide recruitment services to a company that does not have the capacity. At the time, call centres were becoming popular and the recruitment of staff relied on BPOs. During her time in recruitment, Lynn was able to explore a different facet to HR that required her to tap into a different skill set.

Taking the bull by the horn

Always keen to try on a new challenge, Lynn was back on the market after a few years. The fast pace of a recruitment agency was no longer sustainable. She was newly married and the long hours were simply not working anymore. Another job search led Lynn to Task Administration Services – the administrative arm of Sanlam Investment Management. Not long after joining, the company was taken over by JP Morgan Chase.

“I found myself in the world of investment banking, where I had to become au fait with the financial sector, the terminology – it was daunting at first. I was still very junior in terms of my HR capability. My VP of HR at the time was very supportive and took me under her wing and groomed me,” Lynn says. In those eight years, Lynn’s family added two new members, a son and daughter.

Her career was rising steadily – but she was itching for more. So she joined VeriSign South Africa, a company with links to tech innovator Mark Shuttleworth. But, about two years after joining the company, it was sold to American multinational Symantec. This transition came with a new reporting line, new culture and retrenchments. The sales team was moved to Johannesburg and the rest of the workers were given severance packages.

After that experience, Lynn considered going into business. She was looking at buying a franchise of a popular beauty brand. She wanted to tap into another one of her passions, beauty. But, her family talked her out of it.

While studying full time towards her degree at university, Lynn was also reading toward a diploma in beauty therapy. She is a qualified beauty therapist with a lot of practice under her belt. In her student days, she would moonlight as a make-up artist at weddings and matric dance balls. To this day she is a beauty and fashion fundi. She keeps an eye on the new trends by tracking influencers, YouTubers and Instagrammers who specialise in beauty and fashion.

Back at PMI, Lynn has found her groove and is now working on growing her skills. She is reading for a master’s in human resources. The next phase of her journey is about understanding the various permutations of HR across the globe. She is using the experience obtained from working with international brands such as Red Bull, Adidas and Dimension Data, and the local brands that shaped the formative years of her career to contribute to the shape of the future workplace.

A short stint as an entrepreneur with US firm MRI has left Lynn considering a future as a business owner. The dream of conquering the beauty industry is merely deferred. The possibilities are endless.

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