In Conversation with Narmeen Khan - CEO Mondelez

Assuming a key leadership position in a multinational company demands a unique blend of grit, passion, and charisma. Narmeen embodies all these qualities and more. Her portfolio reflects a narrative of remarkable achievements and an unwavering pursuit of excellence.

Engaging in a detailed conversation with her, I found myself not just impressed, but genuinely inspired. Narmeen exudes a charismatic personality that effortlessly paints the portrait of a progressive Pakistani woman. Her strong connection to her family and her deep-rooted patriotism reflects a profound commitment to both personal and professional spheres.

Here is a gist of my conversation with her for you to read and get inspired:

Enlighten us about your career journey and professional experience

With over 25 years in the corporate world, my journey began after graduating from IBA, initially joining Paktel for a short period and transitioning to HSBC considering banking as the most attractive option at that time. While consumer banking didn’t resonate with me, a shift to Unilever ignited my passion for brands and marketing. Unilever is an amazing training ground for young marketeers, and I found my years at Unilever truly rewarding. In 2005, I joined Cadbury, then an emerging organization, providing an opportunity to create chocolate category in Pakistan. During my years there 2005-2013 Chocolate business grew by 25% CAGR and  Cadbury Dairy Milk became with its current market leader status of one of the most loved brands within the country.

I enjoyed doing that while balancing married life with young kids. in 2014 I got an opportunity to relocate to Dubai in a regional role that marked a new chapter in my career where I looked after Cadbury chocolate business for MEA region overseeing markets like GCC, Egypt , South Africa, and my beloved Pakistan .I moved back to Pakistan in Oct 2018 as Managing Director for Pakistan .This was a leap of faith for me as I had no prior experience in general management, and it totally changed my career trajectory. I learned fast by travelling all over the country understanding the landscape, meeting retailers, distributors, and my teams to understand the business dynamics and get first-hand information of what is required to set the right goals and strategies for growth.

I also build up my leadership team with the right talent and diversity that helped navigate us during the tough and unprecedented times of Covid. Our tireless efforts were recognized globally as Pakistan emerged as the fastest-growing country in 2020 and won the 2021 Chairmans growth award for consistently delivering 20%+ growth across 2 years. Winning the growth award at Mondelez was a moment of immense pride for me, showcasing Pakistan’s prominence in the Mondelēz world map. In January 2022, I embraced a new chapter in my career and life as I moved to Malaysia to take up the MD role for Malaysia Singapore Cluster.

How do you describe yourself as a leader?

I look at myself as an adaptive leader constantly evolving with the changing circumstances. I have strong belief in my abilities, coupled with a genuine openness to learning. My strength lies in building and leading effective teams, that want to realize their true potential. I harbor no insecurities and firmly believe that we need highly capable and diverse individuals to build a high-performing team to face the challenges. This philosophy drives me to seek out and cultivate talent, fostering a collaborative culture where innovation and growth thrive.

What specific personal trait do you believe played a crucial role in guiding you through your various personal and professional achievements?

I have unwavering faith and a steadfast belief that bigger and better opportunities await me as far as I give my very best. I have consistently made decisions that may have seemed challenging to others, such as relocating to the UAE with my family while my children were young, and my husband had his work commitments. This decision, however, proved to be immensely beneficial for our entire family, opening new avenues and transforming our perspectives. There was also a time when my role was becoming redundant in the UAE, and I found myself uncertain about what lay ahead.

However, I did not lose hope and was well-prepared to embrace any changes in my life with open arms. When the opportunity to become Managing Director arose, I quickly raised my hand for the role even though it scared me as it was a step out of my comfort zone, but I knew this was also a unique opportunity for me to grow and expand my learning as a leader. I reached out to the HR department to express my interest in the role and was surprised to learn that while I was on their radar, but they hesitated to approach me assuming I might not want to move back to Pakistan.

I learned a very important lesson that day which was to speak up for yourself, ask for what you want. This new move was a pivotal moment as it led to a significant and positive shift in my professional journey. Moving to Malaysia represents yet another significant change in my life. I approach this new chapter with a sense of optimism and determination, fully prepared to achieve yet another milestone in my personal and professional journey. I consider myself fortunate to have navigated these changes successfully and to have continually found opportunities for development and enrichment.

Which type of leaders in your career journey have been a source of inspiration for you

I’ve had the privilege of working under excellent leaders, both male and female. These leaders have not only empowered me but also placed complete trust in my abilities. I hold them in high regard, as they have provided me with the opportunities and challenges to develop and grow as a leader myself. I am truly grateful for the guidance and support I’ve received from my seniors who have played a significant role in my professional journey.

How does your normal day look like?

I usually kick start my day around 8:00 am, giving myself an hour’s head start before the official day starts. This early window allows me to ease into the day, do my emails, review my to-do list, and set my priorities. Once the day gets rolling, it’s a whirlwind, and finding reflective moments becomes a luxury. I’m not big on tea breaks or lunch breaks as I want to power through the day utilizing my time efficiently as I can step away from work at a decent evening hour. That’s when I join my family, take a breather, and unwind. Late evenings might see me revisiting work-related tasks if needed. With the changes brought about by Covid, work isn’t confined to the usual office hours anymore, but I’ve adapted to this new normal and ensure I am able to spend quality time on work and with family.

In what ways do you believe family support contributes to your success?

I feel incredibly blessed to have the unwavering support of my family. My husband and both my daughters are my biggest cheerleaders and take immense pride in my achievements and hold my contributions in high regard. What makes our family dynamic truly special is the absence of rigid gender-specific roles – my husband seamlessly shares responsibilities around the house, fostering a sense of partnership. My daughters, driven by self-motivation, excel in their studies, alleviating any concerns I might have about their academic progress. We relish our family time, breaking the mold of typical weekend gatherings with spontaneous dinners whenever we feel like it. This fluidity in our interactions and the commitment to gender equality not only enrich our family life but also fortify our bonds, creating a supportive and nurturing environment.

How would you describe your experience in Malaysia so far, highlighting any standout aspects or notable moments?

My professional engagements in Malaysia have significantly broadened my perspective. This captivating country, with natural beauty, has left a lasting impression on me. Through work-related trips, I’ve had the opportunity to explore various parts of Malaysia, including north, south , east coast as well as East Malaysia , and I am truly amazed by its well-developed infrastructure and beautiful landscapes. One aspect that captivates me is the distinctive local cuisine. Exploring the rich culinary offerings has been a delightful experience, and I’ve developed a particular fondness for many local dishes. The diverse array of local flavors truly suits my palate. Beyond the scenic beauty and delicious food, what strikes me most is the warmth and diversity of the people. Malaysia’s residents are not just friendly but also possess skill and talent. However, I’ve observed a contented mindset, as they seem to have all they need. It appears that a little more drive and ambition could further elevate their already impressive achievements. Malaysia is not just beautiful; it has a fascinating blend of culture, cuisine, and diversity.

What is your perspective on female leadership, both in the context of Pakistan and globally?

I am very confident that female leaders have a promising future, despite the tendency for many of us to downplay our capabilities and hesitate to assert that we can reach greater heights. It is crucial to spotlight, on a broader scale, the remarkable success of Pakistani women who are actively leading various organizations and achieving significant milestones. There is a need to amplify the narratives of these progressive Pakistani women, highlighting their accomplishments to inspire and motivate others. The society is evolving, and we can see the change though I would like it to be more accelerated. We certainly need more progressive men and women who can think beyond stereotype roles and empower more women to achieve their true potential.

What unique potential do you see in the new generation to adapt and thrive in our fast-changing world?

I observe that the new generation is very clear about their goals and aspirations in life; however, there is a need for them to recognize the significance of the journey and its challenges as it helps shape us as individuals and leaders. Educational institutions play a crucial role in guiding and mentoring the new generation to set ambitious goals aligned with their desired lifestyles but also to learn how to navigate failures. Unlike the past, where setbacks were often an inherent part of the learning process, the current generation needs to be equipped with resilience and the ability to step up after encountering challenges. The emphasis should not only be on achieving success but also on developing a mindset that can cope with and learn from failures. This combination of ambition, hard work ethic, and resilience will prepare them to tackle the complexities of the modern world.

What is your message for aspiring female leaders?

I want to tell them to

  1. Be passionate about what you do; you should love what you do; your career should be fulfilling and rewarding.
  2. Don’t hold yourself back; raise your hand; speak your mind. Have confidence in yourself. be courageous to step out of your comfort zone. Push through the scary!!
  3. Never underestimate the value of strong and meaningful relationship with colleagues in the organization as you need strong support group rallying behind you as you navigate your career.
  4. Carve out your own journey; don’t compare ourselves with others; we have so many roles that’s we play everyday in our lives so we should be comfortable with what works for us best at that time. we should nurture and guide your career according to what works for you and suits you best. Your journey is uniquely yours. Be proud of it.

Lastly to never Quit!!

Their resilience, intelligence, and leadership has not only broken barriers but also paved the way for others to follow. The impact is felt in every sector, and their ability to lead with compassion and strength is truly commendable. Cheers to their continued success!

On this positive note, we concluded this meeting with a reassurance of our shared responsibility to mentor budding leaders.

Mamoona Hassan, member MPBC