Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
November 19, 2020

'The People Side of the Equation' as a Key to Success

When Charles Bendotti took over in 2008 as the vice president of human resources for Latin America and Canada at Philip Morris International (PMI), it was his first HR role. More than 12 years later, Bendotti now oversees the global function for PMI as senior vice president of people and culture.

This summer, we spoke with Bendotti about his unique path to the top HR post, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, and the elements of strong leadership required during the pandemic. His was the latest in a series of interviews we conducted this year with CHROs to learn about their path to the position and the skills that guided them. The interview has been shortened for brevity.

What changes did the COVID crisis bring for your role?

This is maybe counterintuitive, but after three years of massive transformation at PMI in terms of how people work at our organization — cross-functional, project-based, more visible leadership — it all became very natural in 2020. The crisis helped us crystallize what we wanted the organization to do. It helped bring about real change, not just cosmetic changes.

This is the best time for you to explain why you exist and to demonstrate the importance of HR in your organization. The challenge is understanding what your opportunities are, and making sure you seize the right ones now, and figure out which to hold for tomorrow.

What capabilities or characteristics are most important for leaders managing this crisis?

The first and most important by far is learning agility. The people who make it through a crisis or a transformation are avid learners — willing to build on their knowledge to improve. Second is impact. It’s nice to have theories and programs, but if you can’t show the impact of what you’re doing, then it won’t matter. This has become far more important today. The third one is empathy. People are stressed — not just employees, but their families, their loved ones, even our own parents. If you are not empathic, human and caring right now, you can’t lead effectively.

What in your background best prepared you for HR leadership? What inspired you to stay in HR after your first role?

I studied international relations and politics, so my master's was absolutely not linked to business at all, and even less linked to HR. The only motto I had in my life is how can I make a change in the world, and in life.

My pedigree as a managing director had always been to make sure that we have the right people in the organization, because if you do, the rest will come naturally — you’ll have the brand, the marketing, the cash flow you need. Even though I was not an HR specialist, it just crystallized to me that the people side of the equation held the levers of a company’s success. If you’ve got the right people in the right place with the right organization and the right ways of working, you can really move the business like there's no tomorrow, even more than what you could do in marketing and sales.

So, I became convinced by HR’s strategic role. And I have a personal conviction that with the rise of digital, HR is the most important function of the 21st century. As a function if you benchmark HR worldwide to what I see in digital, in marketing, in finance, I don't think we have the same level of maturity. So there’s a challenge here for me, and for PMI, to design and implement the HR function of the 21st century.

What makes up the HR function of the 21st century?

It will be an agent of change. This has grown even more important during the COVID crisis, although this evolution has been going on for some time now. With artificial intelligence, robotics and new ways of working entering the workplace, the world is changing completely. And the role of this function is to prepare people, companies and society to be ready for that.

My goal is to make people successful, it’s as simple as that. It's to make the boss successful, make my peers successful, make my team successful, make all other teams successful, and make the organization successful. I'm paid for that. The rest is just irrelevant.