Novartis U: Unbossed Leadership Experience
Novartis U: Unbossed Leadership Experience

Is it possible for the leaders of a big organisation to transform their mindsets and behaviours to lead the company’s culture transformation? It is, at least at Novartis, whose “Unbossed Leadership Experience” initiative is one of the boldest and most ambitious culture transformation projects in the corporate world.

The project was one of the highlights of the MERITS Awards, which were launched during the last MERIT summit in September in Lisbon and recognised high-impact initiatives in leadership, organisational development and personal development.

The Novartis team was the big winner in the Leadership Development Global category. Their project drew so much attention and interest that a MERIT webinar was organised as a follow-up to present and discuss the initiative in more depth.

No final destination for personal growth

At the core of the leadership development team at Novartis is the idea that an organisation cannot grow without individual growth from the beginning,” says Asja Hot, Strategy and Operations Lead at Novartis. The world is facing increasingly complex problems, so we need leaders who can adapt, challenge assumptions and be self-aware. That is why Novartis decided to create the right conditions for personal growth for everyone.

This involved moving away from the traditional view of a stand-alone programme, where you have an ideal final model and once you have reached it you are done. Instead, the team has sought to shift to a mindset of growth and vertical development, where growth is based on people’s own personal context. “There is no the final destination or any one correct pathway you can take. Growth is fuelled by individual motivation,” Asja said. The goal is to understand who you are, what is holding you back, where are your strengths and what you need to change in order to move to the next stage in your growth.

Personal growth –> team growth –> culture shift –> business results

If you think of companies on the scale of Novartis (130,000 employees), leadership development would usually focus on the most senior leaders. Novartis U, however, is designed to be more inclusive. The ambition of the programme is to reach every leader in the organisation and eventually each employee at the company. The project started two years ago and by the end of this year it will involve 10,000 leaders, with the ambition of including a further 20,000 by 2023.

The main leadership development hypothesis is that personal growth leads to company growth. This means that leaders undergoing continuous growth will inspire a culture that leads to better engagement and overall results.

As part of the project, leaders work on their capacity to manage complexity by discussing ideas like mind traps, polarities and the ability to listen. They are exposed to coaching, various sessions, immersions, 360s and engagement surveys, among other methods. They receive constant support as part of their journey within the programme.

So how does this actually work in practice? Irene Hornero Garrido, Global Leadership Insights & Innovation Lead at Novartis, presented a case study involving one of the company’s teams in Portugal. As part of the programme, the leader of the unit learned to say ‘no’ to external stakeholders more often. This resulted in more clarity for the leader and stakeholders and also led to her team being able to experiment and collaborate more. Irene said that there is also evidence that teams across the company exposed to the initiative are showing a shift towards a culture of curiosity and a better attitude to failure. For a pharma company, which inevitably experiences setbacks in the development of new drugs, this outcome is highly promising.

Being yourself in the workplace

According to sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, individuals develop their concept of self by observing how they are perceived by others, a concept Cooley coined as the “looking-glass self”. If we look into adult development theory, when it comes to work, we put armour on and are not our true selves in the workplace. Many leaders try too hard to meet expectations rather than being themselves.

Novartis tries to re-imagine medicine, which is an innovative and forward-looking ambition and in order to do so, we want everyone to be themselves,” said Martin Barner, the Head of People & Organisation in Global Product Development at Sandoz, a unit of Novartis.

So what does it mean to be yourself in the workplace? Martin pointed to the curious case of Rick Barry, the basketball Hall-of-Famer best known for his unorthodox free-throw technique. He preferred the underhand throw — sometimes known as the "granny" — as opposed to the more typical overhead technique. Barry is one of the best free throw shooters of all time and holds a free throw average over his career of 90%. However, to this day very few players use the granny technique for fear of looking stupid. Basketball great  Wilt Chamberlain famously said that using the granny shot made him "look silly" and "like a sissy", despite the technique significantly improving his accuracy.

Imagine how much more effective a company would be if leaders have the courage to think differently, act differently and have the courage to be themselves,” Martin concluded.

If you are interested in learning more about this initiative and watching the webinar video recording, please contact Militsa Sabeva at

By Valentin Vassilev