Walking onto the INSEAD campus in 1984, André Calantzopoulos, MBA’84D, was ready for a challenge.
Although André had a degree in electrical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and experience as an automation engineer for the automotive industry, much of what he was about to learn was new.
One of those valuable lessons was learning how to take in and appreciate varying perspectives, André says. “It’s not enough to simply listen to different points of view — the key is to learn how to combine diverse opinions to reach conclusions and take action, which is exactly what conducting business is about.”
André would know. Today, he serves as chief executive officer of Philip Morris International (PMI) and is at the top of the list of FT500 CEOs, which ranks leaders at the most valuable companies in the world.
The Greek-born André says pursuing his MBA was difficult in the beginning. But he relished the diversity of the international environment he found at INSEAD, one of his primary motivators for choosing the school.
“INSEAD was highly multicultural, with people from very different backgrounds,” he remembers. “You had to work in groups with students who were different from you in all aspects.”
After completing his MBA, André received a number of offers for consulting jobs, but it was a PMI position in business development and planning that appealed to him most. Within a couple of years, he transitioned into operations and manufacturing, which he says gave him valuable experience and insight into how the product is made.
He then rose quickly through the company during a time of rapid growth, serving in a number of high-level positions throughout Europe, including general manager of Philip Morris Finland, area director of Central Europe, managing director of Philip Morris Poland and president of the Eastern European region. He played a pivotal role in the company’s acquisition of Tabak a.s. in Czechoslovakia and the Kraków-based tobacco company ZPT in Poland.
In 2002, he was named president and CEO of PMI, which at the time was part of Altria Group Inc. He went on to become chief operating officer when the company separated from its parent company in 2008. In the years since the spin-off, PMI achieved a total shareholder return of over 100%.
André was named CEO in 2013, succeeding close collaborator Louis Camilleri, who describes him as having “an intellect many, many cannot reach” and an incredible capacity for work.
André says that the knowledge he gained at INSEAD gave him a big push in his career by equipping him with the skills to change direction over the years.
He believes that problem-solving skills and the ability to collaborate are key to success in the fast-paced business world. For MBA students considering a career step, he advises to look for varied experiences and roles in order to build capacity for complex decision-making in different working environments.
“School-room learning can give you a lot,” he says, “but you have to apply it in real life. That’s what happened to me early on, and it has been a truly enriching experience.”
For executives to continue to succeed, it’s also essential to stay focused on “doing the job,” André says, rather than trying to manage a career. “I always concentrated at exceling in the job I was given to do,” he says. “I didn’t worry about the next step or plan to be CEO one day. You learn from experience and you grow as you go.”
To help bring PMI employees along that same path, André is leading a shift in talent management from position-oriented to project-oriented opportunities, an approach which he believes allows the company to create opportunities for cross-functional experience in people’s careers early on. This approach, he says, also helps integrate the new generation of employees who are looking for a more flexible and collaborative business environment where they can quickly learn and deliver.
“Companies constantly need to transform themselves and be highly flexible,” he says. “If you don’t adapt quickly in this evolving world, you risk losing your edge.”
He believes that driving change in an organisation needs to come from the top, but with participative management.
“It’s not enough to have a great idea. My job is to convince others to do their part in implementing change — and for that to happen, people need to understand why change is needed, they need to understand the context, and they need to see change happening.”
André and PMI take very seriously the commitment and responsibility that comes with being the industry leader in a time of dynamic change for the tobacco sector with the advent of products that have the potential to reduce the risks of smoking.
But a couple years ago, when asked at a conference what his biggest challenge was, the family man said he didn’t consider the weight of leadership to be the hardest thing he does. He joked, “I am able to convince many people in business, but it is more difficult for me to convince my nine-year-old to go to bed at 9 p.m.”
Although his two children are too young to consider INSEAD, he is aware of how different education will be for them with digital information always at their fingertips.
“It’s an interesting generation — they touch a lot of things, but not always in depth. But, if interested or needed, they can also access the in-depth information. Today, the career path is much faster than it used to be. Quick and broad knowledge must be acquired. The young generation needs to be given a much more important role much earlier than it happened to us for a company to succeed in the digital era.”