In this week’s Success: The Insight Story column, SunBiz chats with snacks producer Mondelēz International’s managing director for Malaysia and Singapore Narmeen Khan (pix).

Take the leap, you can do it!

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I have always been passionate about growth, in the professional and the personal context. My experience with Mondelez over the past 17 years allowed me to learn from some of the best people in the snacking industry as we grew some of the world’s iconic brands across challenging markets in the Middle East, Africa and Pakistan.

This exposure to a diverse set of people, products, markets and experiences helped to shape my knowledge and understanding of these markets and drove me to be adaptable, resilient and always curious to land new perspective for growth.

How do you think the industry you are in will evolve?

The Covid-19 pandemic has redefined the role of snacking, and people today are more conscious of how, when, and why they snack. Our 2021 survey found that 74% of Malaysians turned to snacking to destress, unwind, and as a form of comfort. People globally are now snacking at least once for sustenance and once for indulgence daily, so it is not surprising that snacking has become an important lifestyle habit for many people.

The growth of digital consumers and online channels has accelerated the demand and expectation from consumers for snacks to be accessible at any time, in different sizes, and to serve different purposes.

During the lockdown, people were buying snacks in bulk for home-sharing and gifting to their friends and family.

These habits will continue even as people start going out again. We foresee an increase in outdoor and impulse consumption as restrictions are relaxed. Once this happens, home consumption will likely continue but the gap will reduce against outdoor consumption to find a balance, while there will be a rise of an omnichannel approach to shopping.

To meet the evolving tastes of Malaysian consumers, we will continue innovating to offer delicious, high-quality snacks made to meet local taste preferences and occasions.

What do you want to accomplish in the next five years?

Compared with Pakistan and Dubai, Malaysia and Singapore offer a new and unique experience for me. From the multicultural diversity of its people, advanced maturity in digital and e-commerce, and evolving consumption trends as the market moves towards an endemic phase, there are plenty of learning moments for me to take in here.

We have been growing steadily in line with market trends and I aim to keep us on top as category leaders in the chocolate and biscuit categories with our diverse portfolio of global and local brands, the best people, and winning growth culture. Building on these fundamentals, there is clear potential for us to drive sustainable growth and lead the future of snacking.

Best piece of advice you ever received during your career.

“Yes, you can do it!” is by far the best piece of advice I’ve ever received. This was told to me by my previous senior leader when I was contemplating a career move from marketing to a general management role.

I was fearful of the unknown, wondering whether I would be ready for a role that is different from my marketing background. However, that universal yet powerful statement encouraged me to set aside the self-doubt and embrace it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

That little push led me to taking a leap into the management role, putting my trust in the process and the support around me. Eventually, I found my passion in general management, which has led me to this position today.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional life?

I have been fortunate enough to have supportive senior leaders and peers that helped shape my view on good leadership, supporting one another for growth, and what makes a winning culture in the company.

We also recognise how employees are increasingly seeking an environment that provides continuous learning, great colleagues, clear career trajectory and a place where they can truly be themselves.

At Mondelez, we encourage our people to “make it” their own through their experience and time at Mondelez through the various programmes we have to help them learn, gain new perspectives and grow on the job. It is uplifting to hear from colleagues who joined the company for our brands, but stayed many years for our culture – me included!

How do you stay abreast of issues affecting your industry?

Today, information is available at our fingertips. I make a habit of catching up on industry news every morning, and we also receive regular updates internally to ensure we have good visibility into the industry, market, partners and the competition.

I also set aside time to engage with our stakeholders, industry peers and customers to get their feedback and insights that could help us to better serve the market, and regularly go on market visits into the trade to see not just how shopping is continuously evolving, but the evolving competitive environment as well.

If you could have an hour with any thought leader in the world, whom would it be and why?

Indra Nooyi, the former chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo.

I find her relatable as we have similar backgrounds, and I have great respect for the way she carved her career while taking care of her family and being authentic in articulating the struggles she faced. She tells things like it is – I recall her saying we can’t always have it all, and sometimes difficult choices have to be made in life.

What I’ve taken from this is that if you hold your ambition high with the right perspective of your future, you just need to keep pushing. It won’t be comfortable, and any senior leader you speak to – male or female – can attest that climbing the ladder is never an “easy” process, but with passion, persistence and purpose, it is possible.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced, and what did you learn from it?

The biggest challenge I have faced was stereotypical bias – some years back a management role came up, and I realised I wasn’t even being considered as it had been assumed I wouldn’t be interested due to not having a background in sales, or wouldn’t want to move countries due to my family. If I hadn’t spoken up for myself and asked for what I wanted, I would not be where I am today.

What I took from it is to be mindful of stereotypical bias and call it out when you see it. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. This is something I have continued to apply in my personal and my professional life.

How do you expect policies on climate change to impact businesses in the future?

Consumers today are aligning purchase decisions with their values and how they impact the people and the planet. Our 2021 State of Snacking report found that 85% of respondents would either buy or like to buy snacks from companies that are working to offset their environmental impact.

This rising expectation from stakeholders has also put a spotlight on businesses to take more accountability in driving environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices beyond their own value creation. This is especially true for the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry where growing consumer consumption means greater environmental costs – from sourcing for raw materials, to production and disposal of packaging. FMCG companies need to recognise their impact, develop a clear sustainability strategy, and commit to business practices that truly make a difference.

Guided by our ESG priorities, Mondelez aims to deliver lasting change at scale by prioritising where we can make the most impact, focusing on innovative and measurable solutions, and collaborating to drive sector-wide transformation.

In Malaysia, we continue to address climate change by reducing our absolute end-to-end greenhouse gas emissions. We are currently in the process of installing rooftop solar power systems at our manufacturing facilities in Prai and Shah Alam. This will allow us to use renewable energy for production, while helping us meet our goals of producing snacks with less energy, water, and waste. Both facilities reported a combined reduction of water consumption by 18.6% and waste by 11.3% in 2021 over the previous year.

What are the top three factors you would attribute your success to?

i) My strong desire to pursue growth and knowledge in whatever I do, and to be willing to step out of my comfort zone for learning.

ii) The support and understanding from my partner, family and leaders that have supported me along my journey and empowered me to chase my goals.

iii) Raising my hand and asking for a seat at the table, and an organisation such as Mondelez that has empowered me to take control of my career path.