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Case study: How an "unbossed" leadership approach drives Novartis' employer branding journey

In this exclusive with Jerene Ang and Priya SunilJason Tan, Head of HR for People and Organisation, Novartis, sheds light on the firm's "unbossed" philosophy, and how this approach to employer branding led to a series of D&I and CSR initiatives for the greater good.

Switzerland-based global healthcare company, Novartis, recognises that a strong employer brand has a significant impact on how the organisation is perceived externally.

To manage this, it has put a number of initiatives in place, such as ensuring that employees understand how the company aspirations align with their individual purpose; and creating a safe environment for  associates to be curious, inspired, or what they call "unbossed" in their daily activities.

For Novartis, "unbossed" leaders are those who set clear goals, serve their teams and help remove obstacles to enable their associates to do their best work.

In this case study with Jason Tan, Head of HR for People and Organisation, Novartis, let's find out how this unbossed philosophy came about, and how this approach to employer branding led to a series of D&I and CSR initiatives for the greater good.

The “unbossed” leadership strategy, which forms the bedrock of Novartis' employer branding approach, was born when Vasant Narasimhan was appointed as the new CEO, bringing with him a fresh perspective on leadership.

"He believed that we do not need bosses, but servant leaders instead," Tan says, adding that this school of thought suggests that organisations should involve employees at all levels of the company: frontline, management and senior leadership.

"By involving everyone, full engagement beyond the leadership team is cultivated, resulting with a collaborative leadership style."

Following this transformation, the HR department also underwent a re-branding exercise and is now called People and Organisation (P&O) - a reflection of the emphasis placed on people to cultivate a culture of creativity, curiosity, self-awareness and inspiration.

A multi-tool medikit: D&I, CSR, and more

Among the several initiatives Novartis has in place to help attract and develop talented people, foremost are the programmes to promote the wellbeing of associates and continue making progress in diversity and inclusion (D&I).

Last year, the team celebrated “Diversity & Inclusion Week”, in conjunction with Singapore’s National Day. The celebratory week aimed to raise awareness across the various dimensions of diversity within our workforce.

"To achieve this, we created a ‘Super-NOVA Gallery’, displaying a superhero-themed poster exhibit to highlight the many aspects of diversity. Employees were encouraged to take a gallery tour and be inspired to continue building and supporting an inclusive environment that allows everyone to be themselves, to feel valued, respected and heard no matter what race, religion or gender they are."

He adds that the team had even received an overwhelming response to this exhibit.

The second key thing in Novartis' employer branding medikit is to continue to build trust with key stakeholders and the society at large.

This is done by actively supporting the local communities through the firm's community partnership and corporate volunteering programmes, an example of which is the annual MusicFest event held at Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

Since 2013, Novartis has enabled [email protected] on an annual basis, to bring live music to patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals, with a belief that music has the power to heal, uplift the spirit, and improve a patient's journey to recovery.

Tan proudly shares: "We have over 100 associates volunteering to serve, perform and engage with patients at the wards or even plan the event logistics. To us, this event cultivates team bonding and unity across departments and serves as a reminder that our work and service makes a difference to patients and their families."

After seven successful years of running [email protected], Novartis got inspired to take it community outreach to the next level through the #NovaKaki programme, an idea that was mooted more than a year ago together with SGH. With this collaboration, the team embedded volunteerism into Novartis Singapore for all existing associates, as well as piloted the programme as part of its local on-boarding curriculum for all new associates.

The #NovaKaki programme is an avenue where associates can befriend patients and engage them meaningfully during their time in the hospital. The senior management saw this as a great platform to bring the company’s purpose to life and contribute back to the local community.

Tan talks about the employee participation rates: "To garner interest from our associates, we ran an internal roadshow in our office and invited professionals from SGH to share what patients go through on a daily basis.  Partnering SGH gave our associates insights to how volunteers can make a difference in a patient’s well-being and recovery journey."

Overcoming hurdles and marking success factors

As a pharmaceutical company operating in a highly-regulated environment like Singapore, Novarits has to comply with various policies and regulations especially in its interactions with patients and healthcare professionals.

However, Tan and his team overcame the challenges this could lead to by working closely with the legal and compliance team, and has seen how [email protected] and the #NovaKaki programme came to fruition when everyone worked towards a common goal.  He adds :"To rally our employees and get them motivated to join in the events, we saw the positive results of a peer-to-peer approach and leaders actively promoting the cause."

As a result, through the implementation of these community driven initiatives, Novartis' employees understand how to better engage patients, play an active role in giving back to society, and work with healthcare professionals to achieve better patient outcomes.

Evidently, these initiatives have borne fruit, even as Tan believes the key to success always lies in communicating the right purpose of what is done as a company and the approach to attract and retain the right talents who believe in working together toward a common goal.

In his view, the one key indicator of success is achieving a diverse talent pool that works together toward the company’s goals, and owing to its emphasis on this, globally, Novartis is ranked number two in the 2018 Thomson Reuters D&I index and in Singapore.

Tan elaborates on the thought process behind this strategy: "We celebrate D&I, believing that it is our differences that make us great. They enable us to see and approach things with different perspectives. They enable us to be innovative. They enable us to deepen our understanding of our patients and customers.

"We consider D&I to encompass - but not be limited to - race, ethnicity, gender, thinking styles, religion and belief, sexual orientation, age, differential ability, education, nationality and life experiences."

Going forward, the team continues to work hard to ensure potential employees perceive the organisation the way the firm wants them to.

For this, Tan goes back to the key objective of building trust.

That means several things - "We must show that we are transparent, reliable and trustworthy, in that, we practise what we preach on our mission, vision, strategy, purpose and values. For example, employees must trust that the organisation makes decisions and roll out initiatives or programs that are beneficial for them, for the business and for external stakeholders."

He adds: "We must operate with the highest values, integrity and compliance, as well as the highest quality standards to return more to society than we take. This way, our actions will show that we continue to stay true to our strategy, purpose and values, and not deviate from what employees have initially signed up for when they first joined the organisation."

On top of all this, to ensure the team is in touch with how employees perceive the organisation, Novartis also conducts regularly check-in sessions and pulse surveys.

Photo / provided

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