Novartis HR Head: Diversity Tools Aren’t Enough

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Caryn Parlavecchio is Vice President and Head of Human Resources, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, and US Country Head of HR

Q:  How did Novartis’ diversity effort change the culture of the company? You were here for it.

A:   I have been here for it – and that’s a really interesting question. When we first started our diversity efforts so many years ago, we were focused on creating a department which really comprised of perhaps two people, and we just starting to enter this space. I think that we were approaching D&I from a compliance perspective, and we wanted to demonstrate that we were focused on representation.

Over the course of many years, our D&I efforts have grown and changed from building awareness and then making sure that we were training people – and then raising that awareness and building competencies in people. It’s now to the point where we’re actually seeing D&I as business drivers that lead to innovation and are central to, and at the core of, really everything we do. At this point, we know that it’s going to help us achieve our vision as a company.

Our intention is to become the best pharmaceutical company in the world. In order to do that, we need to make sure that we’ve got the best people – who have diverse experiences and are from diverse backgrounds, have different mindsets and different ways of thinking. If we don’t have a collective like that, then we’re not going to achieve our goal of being the best.

Q:  In the years you’ve been at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation – and seen the evolution of your organization’s diversity efforts – what would you say has changed in the culture and how people relate to one and other and who gets developed and promoted?

A:   It’s certainly been an evolution. As I said, in the beginning it was about compliance and the things that we thought we needed to do. It also was around a little bit of nervousness. What can we talk about? What can’t we talk about? What’s appropriate – and what isn’t?

We’ve gotten to a point where we’re really willing to put the topic on the table and discuss D&I openly and talk about people’s beliefs and their thinking and their differences. And, as we’ve done that, people have become more comfortable, and we have become much more inclusive. Now people feel as though they can speak up, share their thoughts and share their mindsets. I’ve really seen us take a huge step forward and it’s gone beyond compliance, beyond training and awareness, and it’s become part of what we’re looking to achieve, how we’re going to do it, how we hold our leaders accountable and how we hold our organization accountable for what we’re going to benefit the diverse patients we serve. So, we need to make sure that we reflect many diverse backgrounds within our culture.

Q:  You used the word “comfort,” which I think is a really good one. Would you say that the diversity effort raised everybody’s ability to think of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation as their company and they had a stake in it? That they had – in essence – ownership and that working here wasn’t just transactional…that they felt part of the team because of the diversity effort.

A: I think we’re getting there. I’ve seen huge improvements in that area, and I think people feel so proud to work for this company for a couple of reasons. First, it’s because of the work that we do. We are improving people’s lives and saving people’s lives. Second, it’s because of the culture that we’ve created – and that they’re proud to work for company where people can really come and be their best selves.

Q:  Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation is uniquely successful in developing women for senior leadership. The president is a woman, and more than half of the people reporting to her are women, even in scientific functions. How would you say that the diversity effort facilitated that really unique – in our experience of measuring companies –accomplishment?

A:   I used to believe that if a company had the right processes and tools, that diversity would come, and I firmly believed that for a long period of time. What I’ve learned over the course of my experience, and specifically my tenure here at Novartis, is that processes and tools will only get you so far.

You really need to make sure that leaders are going to put stakes in the ground to make change happen and that’s what’s occurred at Novartis. People were willing to stand up and say we’re going to make change happen and that’s the only reason why we are where we are relative to the gender effort and to the whole D&I strategy.

Q:  I brought up gender mainly because you’re the most successful scientific or technologically oriented company when it comes to talent development of women that that we’ve ever measured and not by a small margin. It’s very impressive. You’ve been with Novartis more than a decade. How did the evolution and diversity management process better help you do your job?

A:   It’s helped me on several fronts. First and foremost, I am a woman leader at Novartis, and I used to think, as I mentioned, that processes and tools and sheer merit would really help advance things. However, it doesn’t happen without this culture of really looking to onboard, mentor, develop and ultimately sponsor people into senior level roles – and I am a product of that. I believe I have a responsibility to continue to foster that and to ensure that my leadership teams also foster, so it continues to happen.

That’s consistent with the evolution of the journey we’ve been on over the course of the last 14 years, certainly since I’ve been here. We’ve seen huge strides as we’ve already discussed – in terms of gender – and we need to make sure that we see that in other areas. We’re making progress, but we’re not quite there yet.

Q:  How does the more inclusive culture help you develop high potentials for underrepresented groups to full executive presence?

A:   I think that they have a seat at the table and a voice in a manner in which they might not have had before. They are starting to see people that look like them and sound like them that are in leadership ranks and that’s because of the efforts that we’ve already put into place. We have to make sure that we do this wrap-around – and continue to mentor, develop, and coach people – and then see that pull through in our succession planning and everything with it we do, to really drive the talent management process.

Q:  I mentioned to NPC’s president, Christi Shaw that she has in my opinion, a very feminine leadership style. I do see a huge difference between how women lead and how men lead. Would you say that the change or evolution inside NPC enabled you to lead more like a woman and be successful doing that?

A:   That’s a really good question. I have always felt that I have been able to be myself at Novartis, and I think that that’s a product of the leaders that have really surrounded me. I think that being in Human Resources – which is predominantly staffed with women – has always been a little bit of an advantage. As a result of that, I can in fact be myself. However, I think that it’s really important that we influence others to make sure that we allow them to bring their leadership style to the table in whatever manner really benefits them.

Q:  So what has been the greatest change in succession planning process to get more diversity to the top?

A:   I think that we’ve really honed our focus more than we had in the past. It used be a lot of closed door exercises around what we call the Organization and Talent Review – OTR – process. Now, we’ve made sure that our talent management head and our diversity head are both part of it.

We’re asking questions in a way that we didn’t before. And, we’re looking deeper into the organization to find and learn more about the diverse talent we have. What are we thinking about relative to their next steps to their development? How can we do succession planning most effectively? Are we sure that we’ve got people in succession candidate pools and are we doing what’s necessary to develop them to get to the next level.

I just feel as though we’re doing it in a more sophisticated way than we used to do it, and now we’re really trying to make sure that the pull-through happens. This will help ensure that we can organically grow our talent while also seeding the talent from the external market – so we can take it to the next level.

Q:  So when you’re looking at things inclusively in terms of an individual’s career path, are you able to intercede with people who are making perhaps bad decisions for their careers and help them?

A:   I think that happens through our mentorship and coaching and development discussions. People will always follow their own path, but if we create opportunities for them to have open discussions about available choices and options that can help people make the best decisions. At the end of the day, they always have to do what’s that’s right for them, which could be different than what the company might be suggesting. I think that we now have an opportunity to have those discussions in a more meaningful way than we have in the past.

Q:        I have one more question which you may or may not want to answer, but I see especially from a talent development standpoint, there’s a real conflict with dual professional couples, so if both spouses are in a professional career than eventually somebody has to make a choice as to which career is going to be supported more fully. So if you’re being asked to move or transfer or whatever and the spouses are working for different companies, somebody has to make a choice that might not be good for their career. How are you handling that here? Are you talking about it or are you thinking about it here?

A:   We talk about it extensively. I sometimes feel we have this challenge in the US more readily than some other countries do. Having said that, Novartis is a huge organization and because of that at times we’re able to accommodate couples who might want to move together and really have some different opportunities. It doesn’t mean they have to work in the same area, but we have multiple divisions.

We also have lots of opportunities here in the New Jersey area to get global experience – or different division experience outside of just NPC. That can really create new and different opportunities for people. It doesn’t work in every single case, but at least there are options to consider.

Q:  So, have you talked to women or men who have said, I’ve made this choice because I feel supported and we had a decision to make as a couple, and we’ve made this decision because I feel better here than I would or than my spouse does at their place of employment.

A:   I’ve heard it many times. I feel very fortunate to work for a company that tries to accommodate a situation for our talent whenever possible. I also appreciate the fact that people recognize that they have the opportunities here and they’re open to have the discussions.

I think it used to be – not too long ago – that people would have been afraid to have the conversation because of the consequences. We’ve created an environment where they can at least have the discussion without fear of potential fall-out. This is especially important because of the global world we live in now. There’s always a different way to get a similar experience. You don’t always have to go half-way around the world. And, not everyone has to take exactly the same path. We need to think about the paths that are best for individuals and ultimately could be better for the company.

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