Reinventing Pharma

Novartis Pharma's new Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Miriam Donaldson reveals her ambitions, values and leadership tips.



After 12 years with Novartis Pharma, most recently as Head of Operations & Planning, Miriam Donaldson has just been appointed as their Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion. It’s a role she’s relishing and one she believes will drive the company’s core values, exemplify their commitment to diversity and inclusivity, mold a brighter future and help expand Pharma’s horizons. 

Tell us about your new role as the Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion for Novartis Pharma.

As the Head of D&I for Pharma, my goal is to continue to drive the evolution of our company culture and talent pool to maximize our opportunities to innovate for patients. I think we can achieve this by creating a unique environment that spurs innovation and is founded upon diversity, inclusivity and Novartis’ six core values of Innovation, Quality, Collaboration, Performance, Courage and Integrity (see Fig.1).

 

Why is diversity and inclusivity so important?

I see diversity and inclusivity as critical components of our success going forward because diversity, in teams, is well documented as a key element in innovation and team performance. We need to continue to bring people with different backgrounds and perspectives into our teams and provide them with an environment where their ideas and experiences can connect in new ways. Our goal is that this translates into innovative outcomes that meet the needs of patients. 

How do you plan to achieve these goals?

We need to continue to hire, develop and promote a diverse group of associates and leaders who can thrive in - and drive - this culture. Consequently, one area of focus for us, as we try to move our organization towards a more inclusive culture, is addressing unconscious bias which can hinder our ability to maximize the diversity of our teams. This affects all aspects of our work, from daily interactions, to talent management and succession planning. We’ve developed various programs to help leaders understand what unconscious bias is and what they can do to reduce its impact. In addition, the D&I team are proactively partnering with our drug development and commercialization teams to ensure we consider a diverse breadth of patient perspectives when we develop new products. This is a key element to better understanding the demographics and needs of our patients, in order to bring valuable new and relevant medicines to them. 

Do you have specific examples of how this strategy will help deliver better outcomes for patients?

One example is our medical affairs team in charge of Diabetes ran a study during periods of fasting and feasting to understand the efficacy and safety of vildagliptin (a DPPIV inhibitor), which treats Type 2 Diabetes. This was in response to patients, with diabetes, being advised to avoid fasting - even when it was part of their religious or cultural beliefs, such as during Ramadan. The team wanted to see if they could provide evidence to support medical guidance for patients facing this quandary. Another example is from our Respiratory team where they uncovered specific insights into how COPD impacts women differently and how individualized COPD care [plans] can help. We now aim to leverage these insights through an educational awareness initiative focused on women living with COPD. 

Are there any other considerations in terms of diversity?

As I was originally trained as a scientist, with a focus on genetics and genomics, I also believe it’s important for us to think about diversity ‘beneath the surface’ which, if better understood, could enable us to deliver more personalized products for patients, that get right to the disease-causing pathway or gene. This may also help us understand how different patients metabolize a drug. These are examples of how being wholly diverse and inclusive can ensure our future products bring tangible value to patients, which should help us build a sustainable business and allow more profits to be funneled back into our pipeline, so we can bring even more new solutions to patients.

Does your new role - and these studies - reflect a change in the company’s culture?

One of the things that I love about working at Novartis is that we are constantly changing and evolving in response to changes in the external environment. However, one mainstay has been our focus on performance. In recent years, we have been building on this aspect of our values and behaviors by putting the patient at the center of what we do. We know that this desire to serve patients, giving them more time and more memories and ideally a healthier, longer life is what brings most of our associates to work every day. So yes, I do think some of these trials and marketing approaches based on an understanding of patient diversity are a benefit of an evolving, more patient-oriented culture. My decision to move into Diversity and Inclusion was based on a desire to fully unleash the people power of our company towards this ambition to drive better outcomes for patients. And with the way our company’s culture has been evolving in the last few years, I can’t think of a better time to give this a try.

How did you end up in Pharma?

After working as a scientist in the lab and then doing research, at the John Hopkins Medical School, I ended up in a small biotech company with a job where I was a scientist sometimes, a lab director at other times and was also responsible for Business Development – the full gamut of Pharma! I loved it, but remember thinking; ‘if I really want to stay in this mixed field, at the intersection of science and business, then I need to give myself more of a background in business.’ So, I went to Harvard Business School, with the plan that afterwards, I’d go to a big Pharma company for a while to try and better understand the customer I had been trying to sell the [biotech] tools to. I then planned to return to biotech, but that never happened because I soon realized that in a big Pharma company, I’m much closer to having an impact on patients which, at the end of the day, is why I went into science to begin with. I also found myself in a company that has allowed me define my own career path across different elements of the company: Drug Development, New Products Marketing and now Human Resources. My own career is a great example of diversity in experience and I hope this will help me to continue leading innovation and inspiring others to do the same. Now I find it hard to imagine a better place to be!

Clay also challenged us as students to figure out how we will measure our success in life - would it be about the highest job we can hold, or would it be about the number of people whose lives you can make better? For me, it’s definitely the latter.

Is there an underlying link between the diverse roles you’ve had at Novartis?

Each role I’ve had has been different but there’s always been an underlying goal of connecting people and ideas in new ways, trying to ensure we have enough of a long-term focus and building a sustainable pipeline to innovate for patients.

Who do you admire within - or outside – the Pharma industry?

I’m inspired by Clay Christiansen, one of my Professors at Harvard Business School. He wrote the well-known book The Innovator’s Dilemma, about disruptive innovation, which outlines how businesses that try to maximize profitability are at risk of disruption. Essentially, what happens, is that companies choose investments that look most attractive based on their current (short-term) model/profitability and overlook other options that might unlock new, more sustainable (long-term) business. It’s a fascinating theory and one I think about a lot, in terms of how it potentially applies within Pharma. What inspires me most about Clay though is how he has applied this same theory to how to live a happy life. He points out that it’s easy for individuals to end up focusing all of their efforts on their professional successes because we tend to get feedback very quickly (in the short-term). Other things in life, like relationships and family, tend to payback over the long-term and we can have a tendency to de-prioritize them because of this. Having a happy, fulfilling life requires planning and priority-setting, including setting boundaries and sticking to them. He encourages his students to figure this out and communicate about it to family and colleagues and live by it. I’m a mom of two primary school-aged kids and this theory has inspired me since becoming a mother to make sure I find a way to integrate life and work that keeps me, my husband and my kids happy. It’s not always easy and no one moment feels perfectly in balance. But with my heart and with this theory in the back of my mind I’m consciously working each day to have the overall picture feel in balance. Clay also challenged us as students to figure out how we will measure our success in life - would it be about the highest job we can hold, or would it be about the number of people whose lives you can make better? For me, it’s definitely the latter. I’ve applied these theories to my personal life, making sure to set boundaries around quality time with my husband, my children and, most recently, myself. I also want to help other people to do the same, which is linked to diversity, inclusion and my passion for my new role.

What core business value do you live by?

For me, the core value around collaboration is one of the most important ones because I don’t think you can innovate without collaboration. This point was really brought home to me recently when a colleague suggested that, going forward, innovation will probably happen more often at the intersection of scientific disciplines rather than within those disciplines. I fully believe this too, but I also feel innovation will come at the interface of many other attributes, like cultural differences or diversity. So, if we truly want to change the game in the future, then we have to get people to collaborate across disciplines. Consequently, I think about what I can do to accelerate innovation and, for me, it’s all about connecting people and ideas, through collaboration. When diversity and inclusion are embedded in an organization, I think we will need less intervention to get these ideas connected to drive innovation. If you don’t look across boundaries - if you just focus on the task you’ve been given, rather than the broader vision - then you miss out on the opportunity to really do something completely new. So, what I try to do as a leader is to help others to reach across those boundaries which, hopefully, helps individuals to innovate, connect, have new ideas and then help our company to do more for patients.

Are there any other important values you live by?

Another core value for me is courage - of challenging the norm, accepting failure and learning from what doesn’t work. I think challenging the norm is really important. At Novartis, with the great pipeline that we have, I think we have an obligation to think about the future of the industry, not just the future of Novartis and how can we challenge the norm in such a way that we continue to innovate and lead. It may not just be in Pharma: it could be in broader healthcare - to improve health - because that’s why we’re all here. So, we have to have the courage to recognize that what has made us successful to this point is probably not what is going to make us successful going forward. Then we have to have the courage to look at building new business models to help us connect to other, external stakeholders so that we can continue to bring new products to patients.

Often companies or leaders try to solve for the ‘gap’ but, in the long run, if you only focus on that then you’re likely to make small, incremental changes because you’re just plugging a hole. If, instead, you connect all the strengths that you have across a team then usually you can solve a problem in a different way and make greater, game-changing progress.

What key things have you learned about leadership over the last few years?

I think that how you deal with paradoxes as a leader is something that’s incredibly powerful - especially in Pharma, where there are many paradoxes. For example, growing margins and patient centricity – that feels like a paradox. But, when you look at a paradox like that, if you reframe the question and turn it from an ‘either/ or’ situation to an ‘and’ situation, then you can achieve a win: win outcome (see Colin Price’s Beyond Performance). That’s also a way to spur innovation, because it requires you think about a situation in a different way and believe that more than just one outcome is possible. So, as a leader, if you embrace paradox then you can inspire other people to do the same which can then unlock another level of innovation. The impact you can have as a leader, by doing that, is much more profound because you show people what is possible which, in turn, dramatically increases the chances that you uncover something really new.

Secondly, that building off of strengths is a powerful tool to drive innovation. There’s a great quote from Peter Drucker, which is: ‘The task of organizational leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that makes the system’s weaknesses irrelevant.’ What that means, in a nutshell, is often companies or leaders try to solve for the ‘gap’ but, in the long run, if you only focus on that then you’re likely to make small, incremental changes because you’re just plugging a hole. If, instead, you connect all the strengths that you have across a team then usually you can solve a problem in a different way and make greater, game-changing progress. Also, I believe it’s much more engaging to get people to adopt an approach where you highlight what they’re good at, rather than focus on what they’re not good at.

What excites you about the future of Pharma?

What excites me is that the industry will have to reinvent itself in order to deliver what we want to deliver and keep our promises to patients. There are so many moving parts right now between Big Data, digital, pricing, and the payer environment, as well as disruptor companies lurking out there. A lot of things are bouncing around right now, so I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be here, trying to figure out how to put all the pieces together to try and make a valuable difference for patients and healthcare systems.

What personally motivates you?

At the end of the day, I’ve always wanted to help people and make a difference. I think in Pharma – especially as a leader in Pharma - you have an amazing opportunity to do that because, ultimately, the products we’re developing are geared towards helping individuals live better lives. If you think about the kind of impact you can have by extending somebody’s life by several years, or giving them a better quality of life so they can do more, who knows what that person will accomplish in their lifetime, as a result. For me, that’s really compelling. 


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