Novo Nordisk’s New Social Responsibility Strategy Built on Innovation, Access and Prevention: Q&A with Camilla Sylvest

Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipLeadershipBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainability OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
min Interview
October 23, 2020
15 min
Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipLeadershipBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainability OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
RRA interview
Lessons from Leading Nordic Companies



Camilla Sylvest is Executive Vice President and Head of Commercial Strategy and Corporate Affairs at Novo Nordisk, a global pharmaceutical company based in Denmark specializing in treatments for diabetes and other serious chronic diseases.

Camilla joined Novo Nordisk in 1996, holding leadership roles across Europe and Asia. She was appointed to her current role in 2017. She also serves as member of the Board of Danish Crown A/S, and Vice Chairman and member of the Board of the World Diabetes Foundation, both in Denmark.

Recently, Camilla spoke with Diana Horn, Senior Consultant in the Leadership and Succession Practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, and Lars Rønn, Managing Director and Senior Consultant in Healthcare Nordics at Russell Reynolds Associates. She shared how Novo Nordisk’s new social responsibility strategy brings it closer to fulfilling its long-standing purpose to mitigate the effects of disease on people and society.

The interview presented below has been edited and abridged for clarity.


Lars Rønn: Creating shared value and sustainability is very much on the top of the agenda for companies today and has been particularly emphasized during the COVID-19 pandemic. How would you summarize Novo Nordisk’s journey toward social responsibility? Where did it start and where are you today?

Camilla Sylvest: If we talk about where social responsibility started in Novo Nordisk, we have to go back almost 100 years, because the company was founded for the purpose of bringing treatment to people with diabetes who had no treatment. Our founders brought the recipe for insulin from Canada to Denmark and started producing it. They were obsessed with helping people not die from diabetes. Today we are still trying to defeat diabetes, along with other serious chronic diseases.

For many years, the triple bottom line – a combination of environmental, social and financial responsibility – has been at the center of everything we do. It is included in our Articles of Association, which means that our owners expect that we look at all three dimensions when we do business. At the same time, for many years we have looked at how we can do integrated reporting; not only reporting on the financial numbers but also reporting on our impact on the environment and our social responsibility. We were among the first companies that engaged in this.

Even though this has been core to our business since its founding, over the years, the balance among the three has sometimes been a challenge. How do we make sure that it does not become either/or, but becomes an integrated effort? What we are now looking at is how we can drive a sustainable business, making sure that these three elements add value on top of each other in an integrated way.

The idea is that if we can add value to society, then we can also add value to our long-term business. These two things can go hand in hand. If we are able to apply our core capabilities to some of society’s biggest problems, then we can also have a good business. Rather than being focused on how we can solve our own problems, we should be obsessed with solving the problems of society.

One of the key insights from our stakeholders when we were preparing our new social responsibility strategy was around prevention. If we only focus on treating diseases after they have occurred, then the problem becomes bigger, and although our business may grow, it is not a sustainable situation. We need to look at how we can use our key capabilities to prevent the problem from growing bigger and bigger.

Our new social responsibility strategy which we launched in May this year is called Defeat Diabetes. It is built on our core contribution, which is innovation. We are looking at how we can support vulnerable patients, but we are also looking at how can we prevent the problem. Innovation, access and prevention are the core contributions from us to society. The integration of all three is an important part in defeating diabetes. And that is also why the Defeat Diabetes responsibility strategy, shares the same name as our purpose. Because it is the purpose of our company to defeat diabetes and other serious chronic diseases.

Lars Rønn: How will you measure and report on Defeat Diabetes?

Camilla Sylvest: It is a long-term ambition that needs to have some shorter-term milestones so that we can measure progress. Right now, we are looking at what the best measures are to accomplish this. We want to make sure that these measures are well-documented, but also that they show real progress. We will look at each of the dimensions – innovation, access and prevention – and report on the new activities and actions that we take, and the impact they have. It is important for us that every general manager in Novo Nordisk also contributes in implementing these initiatives as part of their daily business. Along with being measured on sales and business ethics, as they already are, they will also be measured on how they drive attention to sustainability. Not just for the Defeat Diabetes strategy but also for environmental efforts. A good strategy is great, but it needs to be implemented to have value.

More specifically, we recently set up dimensions for how we will report on Novo Nordisk’s strategic aspirations in the future at our November capital markets day. We used to measure ourselves on operating profit growth, now we have broadened that to four dimensions. We are looking at purpose and sustainability as the first dimension, then research and development, innovation as the second, commercial execution as the third, and then the financial targets. We are building on a much broader foundation than just operating profit growth for the future. And now when we report, even in our internal meetings, we start with our progress on purpose and sustainability and not just what the operating profit growth was last quarter. We have broadened our own agenda in the way we talk about this, and we will do the same externally.

Diana Horn: When you think about your own personal drive to take this more holistic perspective, where does that come from? When did that become a motivator for you?

Camilla Sylvest: Making a difference has always been a driver for me, and I have worked for this company for 24 years because of the values that we have. The purpose that we have is very meaningful to me. Driving that purpose by conducting business with a sustainable approach to solving society’s biggest problems seemed intuitive to me. That is also why it was important for us, when we developed our social responsibility strategy, to ensure that this was not “doing good on the side,” but that it is actually integrated into the core of what we do. And when we do what we do best, creating innovative medicines, we are so fortunate to be able to make a difference in addressing a significant problem in society. For me that is a good cause, that is a reason to go to work.

We are all proud when we see a new innovation that can bring better care to people living with diabetes or obesity, and it spurs a forward-looking mindset, to the day when we can even eradicate these diseases. If we have that as a purpose, then the organization will be motivated to work towards that. Now that I have spent 24 years here, I have witnessed our progress over time. We used to be able to only deal with glucose levels for people with diabetes; now we can also deal with their cardiovascular risk factors and their weight problems. Things are improving, and hopefully that means less burden to society and to the people suffering from these chronic diseases. For me, that is a good purpose to have.

Diana Horn: Staying on this personal theme, you have been with the company a long time. Tell us a little bit about your development journey, and how you have come to this point of leading the sustainability strategy.

Camilla Sylvest: I started at Novo Nordisk as a trainee and was always exposed to new challenges. We would solve one, and then another issue would come up that needed to be solved, and then suddenly a job was open for me, and it continued in that way. And it was inspiring to me to see that we could indeed solve some of these things, and that there was always a new and more exciting, more complicated, problem to solve. It is similar to how I see the company contributing to solving some of the problems of society, but for me it was in a more personal setting.

And that has been my journey. The common denominator has been having problems that are motivating to work on. And I say “problem,” because we can either see it as a problem or a challenge, but quite often it is the problem that seems unsolvable, that is very motivating for me.

That is also my definition of “leadership”, by the way: It is about elevating challenges to be interesting, so that everyone wants to work on them. I see how they bring out energy and creativity in people and how important it is to talk about solving them. It is important for leaders to keep that vision in mind, even if how we get there might differ. I learned a lot from working in China – in situations where there are many ways to solve the same problem, we may encounter some obstacles, but we must never give up.

Diana Horn: Given our current situation, do you think that perspective on leadership is changing with the way that the challenges for organizations are changing?

Camilla Sylvest: A lot of things change all the time, including the way we need to work, as COVID-19 shows us. But what is important to always keep in mind is where we are going, where we need to get to, and how to continue challenging ourselves, on whether or not we are getting closer to the destination. There are many ways to get there, but it is important to maintain the vision of the ultimate goal.

Lars Rønn: What have been the key barriers you have faced, and how have you overcome them from a leadership perspective?

Camilla Sylvest: A common barrier when we start something new that crosses the commercial space and the sustainability space is: How do we generate the funding to get started on it? That is always a problem. But that is also the problem if we want to launch a new product. We still need to support it with launch funding to make sure that things are going well.

How do we deal with this? We might need to drive some projects even if we do not understand exactly how they will pan out over time. There might be some pilots, we ask a local general manager to embark on it. We try and solve [sustainability initiatives] the same way that we solve bringing new pharmaceutical products to market. The financing part is always something that is important to discuss and clarify.

There is also an element of determining how big our scope should be at the beginning. The problem is very big and we cannot solve all of it at once, so where should we start? That is why in defining the Defeat Diabetes responsibility strategy, it has been important for us to outline three core elements and have a couple of items and actions under each that are really important to start with. Then we will elaborate appropriately over time, which is also how we have gotten everyone on board. A lot of people have volunteered to opt in and be part of this, simply because they think it is important. That has been so nice to see. I think it is in the DNA of our company.

Diana Horn: Your clarity of thought makes this almost sound easy, but I can only assume that there have been many uphill climbs along the way. What would you say to encourage and motivate others who are embarking on this sustainability pathway?

Camilla Sylvest: I would say it is important to treat this exactly the same way as you would treat any other opportunity or another problem that you are dealing with in your business. Prepare the same way, get the scoping right, get the ambition level right, then try and understand how you might start to move in the right direction, and what might follow later, so you do not do everything at once.

Also, try to be your own biggest challenger. Dare to have your biggest external challengers tell you what they think you need to do. They might not all be right, but you need to be able to listen to that. Otherwise, the escalation level will not be high enough. I would say that we spent time every week for six months with the project team engaging in this. It was extremely important to get to the right definitions of what it was that we wanted to do, so that it really felt right. It was important for the team to discuss every word, articulate the meaning, and understand why this was the goal.

Being a first mover might be a little challenging in the beginning, but after a while it will become part of the core business. The more an organization experiences this, the better they will become in the future. We had this experience with green power, fueling all our factories with green electricity. We took the first steps in 2014 to convert some of our factories to green electricity by buying electricity from windmills; it was a lot more expensive than traditional electricity. But over time, the more we bought, the more we sold, and the price equalized. Daring to be the first mover will benefit you over time – but someone has to dare to do it. It is the same now with contributing to society with the best of our core skills. Yes, it might be a little cumbersome in the beginning, but that is what we have to do. If we can do that, we will also have a very good business.

Lars Rønn: Camilla, you are part of the executive team leading this company and obviously also looking at the talent coming up. What are the three leadership attributes that you would be looking for in the next generation of sustainable leaders?

Camilla Sylvest: Being able to understand how we balance many dimensions, taking a holistic view on the situation, is extremely important for the future. People who can simultaneously drive a business agenda, but also take into consideration other dimensions – this ability is extremely important. Openness to diversity is also important, because there are many things to learn from listening to other points of view and being challenged by people who think differently from yourself.

Another quality is daring to have a vision, to have a standard of what is right and wrong, to understand what is the right thing to do. Because when we are done calculating, the only thing that is left is the ability to say, “I still think we should do this.” Trusting in this ability will be important for future leaders.

Lars Rønn: Camilla, this was truly inspiring. Diana and I thank you for speaking to us and to our audience about sustainable leadership and Novo Nordisk’s impact in this area. Thank you.