Stacey Kennedy is a small town farm girl from Mississippi, who since starting at the age of 22, has risen through the ranks at one of the biggest global companies.\nAt 32 years old, she was the youngest vice-president ever appointed, and since then has become the first-ever female president of Asia Pacific operations for Philip Morris International (PMI).\nShe now joins just a small handful of women who lead Fortune 100 companies across the world.\nA self proclaimed \u2018student of the world\u2019, Kennedy, who\u2019s now based in Hong Kong credits her successful career to a passion for learning and understanding different cultures.\nShe checked in with CIO Australia to discuss her rise to the top, how the company is on a mission to promote \u2018alternative technologies,\u2019 and what leadership skills are crucial in today\u2019s fast-paced business environment.\nCIO: Did you always envision this type of role for yourself?\nSK: I didn\u2019t envision something exactly like this way back then, but I knew that I liked running businesses and I knew that I liked being entrepreneurial - and I liked making decisions.\nI don\u2019t think I had any particular aspirations way back when about what exactly that would look like, but I\u2019m pretty pleased with the way it worked out. It\u2019s been a fun ride.\nCIO: What\u2019s your vision for your role? Where do you want to take things?\nSK: I have a very clear vision that\u2019s obviously aligned with the PMI vision, which is all about designing and delivering a smoke-free future.\nEverything that we\u2019re doing and where I spend the vast amounts of my time is working with government and the scientific community, the medical community, and our own organisation, to transform and decide how to best bring alternatives to smokers, who would otherwise continue smoking.\nWe have an obligation to pave the right way to bring smokers alternatives that really meet their needs in a way that they can understand and that governments can support.\nCIO: How is the push towards digital transforming the PMI business?\nSK: We not only have to keep pace, but we need to lead in terms of how we lead our business. Today, we have many more possibilities using digital means to be able to communicate with adult smokers, to be able to make sure they\u2019re aware there are new products that would be a better choice for them than continued smoking.\nWe also have to be able to leverage that in terms of having deeper engagement with each and every one of our consumers to understand how they\u2019re thinking about our products, how they\u2019re using our products, what improvements we can make, and how it\u2019s meeting their lifestyle needs, and connecting the broader community with this.\nCIO: What are you working on with the scientific community?\nSK: We\u2019re focused on a number of things. First, we\u2019re making sure that the scientific community is aware of the robust science that we\u2019re developing, and that we\u2019re getting third-party validation of our science. We have independent reviews that are really critical for us.\nThe scientific community plays an enormous role in helping to make sure that as governments design regulation, they are advising them on the correct standards. Because not all reduced products are alike. Many different companies share the same vision, but standards are super important when you talk about products that people inhale and put in their bodies, and they have various health impacts.\nSo having standards of those products - that governments can believe in (that they can test and validate independently themselves) and have the backing of the scientific community (with scientific rigour) is really important - and technology plays a vast role in that too.\nCIO: What are your top plans for the rest of the year?\nSK: We\u2019re preparing the final stages before commercialisation in a couple of our markets, to be able to commercialise our smoke-free alternative. That has been a tremendous journey so far and will hopefully come to fruition in the near future. We\u2019re also working to prepare our organisation on the skills front. We\u2019ve spent a lot of time working with employees in order to increase their skills and expertise in various areas that are important to that mission.\nCIO: What kind of skills are necessary in your role as a leader?\nSK: Obviously, there are technical skills, but I think the leadership skills - the software skills - that are really important in today\u2019s environment is intellectual curiosity. We don\u2019t know what we don\u2019t know - and what we don\u2019t know is what we need to learn. This is super critical in both fast-paced and super complex environments. Always staying curious and being able to engage in a productive dialogue with those from very different backgrounds and points of view is critical because that\u2019s how we\u2019re able to connect and shift the pace, not just incrementally, but from a quantum leap perspective.\nAnother leadership trait that\u2019s very important is the ability to engage in dialogue, not just with those with whom you agree. The ability to engage in productive dialogue with people, even with people from very different points of view, with the expected outcome that you find greater points of agreement and that you further understand their perspective on, is important.\nDisagreement is also really critical. Because that\u2019s how we move the pace forward - otherwise you find divisions occur, and divisions are the enemy of movement. The more we can engage in those dialogues and be very outward facing - not just internally driven - is critically important.\nThe last one is to unleash the power of people. Ideas can come from anywhere, particularly when you have a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in markets like mine. It\u2019s important to engage employees at all levels and inspire them and motivate them to share their ideas. That may change the way we engage with consumers in a different country, or help us make a quantum leap in a different area, rather than just incremental progress. It\u2019s important to tap into the diverse talent pool.\nCIO: How do you fare in this traditionally male dominated industry?\nSK: Personally, I\u2019m very passionate about the topic. It doesn\u2019t mean that I don\u2019t get frustrated sometimes too. I recently stomped my feet a little bit among my male colleagues. I said, \u2018I\u2019m going to stop being the woman that does all the women\u2019s talks. I\u2019m dragging each and every one of you guys on a rotating basis with me in future to take part in these talks.\u2019 I think men should. I meant it. It wasn\u2019t just lip service. I\u2019m taking them to join me on every speaking engagement that I have around women\u2019s topics.\nIt\u2019s important I do it. Women want to hear from female leaders. I\u2019ve benefited over the years from hearing how other women leaders, more senior to me at the time, dealt with various challenges. So I think women deserve that from other women. I want to give it.\nI also think that men have a role to play squarely in the conversation, so to exclude them is not right either. Also women need to be put into the position about talking about business because female business leaders, and male business leaders, should hear women talking about their business perspective as well.\nCIO: What are some of the things PMI is doing on the diversity front?\nSK: PMI is making enormous strides forward in terms of the gender balance at the more senior level of our company. We\u2019re on track to hit 40 per cent women in management by 2022, and we\u2019ve been making great progress with a lot of significant initiatives like our global equal salary certification.\nWe\u2019re the first multinational in the world to achieve such certification globally. Those things are helping us position ourselves as an employer of choice, and we\u2019re leading from the front in terms of the way we\u2019re transforming from the inside out. And we have to put men squarely as part of this conversation, otherwise it doesn\u2019t move.\nCIO: How do you overcome some of the negative connotations associated with working in the tobacco industry?\nSK: The most productive way to overcome it is engaging people in dialogue. I can\u2019t tell you how many people are shocked when I do. They have an image of an executive of a tobacco company. I will leave to the imagination what most people conjure up. After engaging in dialogue, and understanding what it is that drives me - that drives us - to be a leader in this company and to strive for a smoke-free transformation, people say, \u2018Wow, you\u2019re not at all what I pictured an executive at a tobacco company to be.\u2019\nI think simply by engaging more people externally and letting people understand that the real motivation of why I work for Philip Morris International is because I have a huge compassion for the more than one billion men and women who smoke today. And unless the world does something, we\u2019ll still be smoking by 2030, when we know that there are better alternatives that are far better choices for their health, those around them, for society. Why would we not commit to taking action on that?\nI love driving business, and I love seeing business flourish and prosper and create employment for people. So I think when those that I\u2019ve engaged in dialogue with see that there\u2019s a really different side to what is the stereotype of a tobacco executive, it creates a much more human side and a much more well rounded and balanced perspective. Those are some of the things I personally use to get around those hurdles and obstacles.\nThat said, it doesn\u2019t always work. But it never hurts to invite someone to a conversation.