Sustainability

Shifting from a ‘Me’ to a ‘We’ view: Q&A with Marie-France Tschudin

RRA Healthcare interview series “Healthcare Leading Forward: Sustainable Leadership in Action,” December 2020



Marie-France Tschudin has been President of Novartis Pharmaceuticals and a member of the Executive Committee of Novartis since June 2019. She joined Novartis in 2017 as Head of Region Europe for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, bringing more than 25 years of broad, multinational experience in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. Before joining Novartis, Marie-France spent 10 years at Celgene International in a variety of leadership positions. 

Recently, Marie-France spoke with Markus Hofer, Managing Director and Senior Consultant in Healthcare Switzerland, and Dana Krueger, Managing Director and Global Healthcare Sector Leader at Russell Reynolds Associates. She shared how Novartis brings to life its aspirations of bringing its medicines to more patients, faster.

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

Markus Hofer

Novartis’ purpose is “to reimagine medicine to improve and extend people’s lives”. How are you personally thinking and talking about purpose?

Marie-France Tschudin

Thank you, Markus and Dana, for asking about purpose. Purpose is very important to me personally, and to so many people across the organization. The way we think and talk about purpose at Novartis is making sure patients have better access to medicines faster. There are people who are sick and progressing in their disease – they cannot wait.

For me, it is the reason I have stayed in this industry. I am often reminded of a story that happened early in my career, when I was a sales rep in Lisbon waiting outside a physician's office. As he was saying goodbye to his patient, he called me over and said to her, “This is a person who talks to me about this medication that you are taking.”  At that point, she turned to me and started talking about how much better she felt, and how much more she could do. Fast forward to a year later, I received a package from that same physician with a note and a book. The note was from the physician saying that the lady who we spoke with had passed away. She was a writer, and had asked the physician to send me her book of short stories, which she was only able to finish thanks to the energy and the strength that the medicine had given her.

Now that lady has stayed with me for 25 years, because that is what we can do for people and their families. What my team and I want to do is to make that happen for twice as many patients, twice as fast. That is our aspiration. Today, the reality is that there are still too many people who are waiting too long for the right diagnosis and for the right care. If I could just give you an example, we know that a person suffering from ankylosing spondylitis – a really painful inflammatory disease that affects the spine and large joints – will wait nine years on average just to be correctly diagnosed. What that means to me is that we need to focus on bringing our amazing medicines to patients and customers in a way that is just as innovative as our science.

This is the ‘Why’. Then we get to the ‘How’: how do we achieve our aspiration? We need to be bold and we need to center our strategies around customers and their needs. We need to understand how the world is changing around us. If you look at healthcare systems today, there is a huge amount of strain and that is only going to get more acute, especially now after COVID-19. The evolution that we see is patients becoming healthcare consumers. Whether you are a patient waiting to be diagnosed or treated, whether you are a physician who wants to prescribe a better medicine, or a healthcare system that needs to find affordable solutions to deliver on patient outcomes, we can actually make a difference. If we focus on working with customers and creating partnerships that are not only focused on the short term, but also on the mid-to-long term, we can better understand, anticipate, create, and deliver solutions that are not only transformational but are also sustainable.

Dana Krueger

Thank you for giving us such a comprehensive view on how you are rallying teams around purpose and how you are impacting the world and guaranteeing access to medicines and advancing treatment. It is very inspirational, thank you for that. If we could ask you now to turn the spotlight back on yourself: as a very successful executive and leader in the pharmaceutical industry, with many notable achievements, in thinking about purpose on a very personal level, what might you tell us?

What is truly important to me is finding the right balance between the things that I have a passion for. We talked about the purpose of my job, and what I love doing. But it is also important to me to be a mom, a wife, a daughter, and a really good friend to people in my life outside of work. Where I take the most pride is balancing this demanding job that I have and my family. I am a mother of two young boys and I try to be a person that can be present in the moment, because I realize how important that is for the long term. I am always going to try to stay true to myself and grounded in what really matters to me, no matter what.

If I think about my professional life, there are two things that really drive me. One is clearly centered around the purpose that we have as a team. We talk about it all the time, transforming the standard of care for twice as many patients, twice as fast. Given our unique internal capabilities, we are positioned to help identify and solve inefficiencies in the system. But I also believe that we can only be successful if we are bold about the way we operate and that is my second work passion, which is around How do we create the most awesome teams? and How do we create enterprise leaders who are bold in their thinking and who have a collaborative, win-as-one mindset? Leaders who broaden their thinking, who take a long term perspective and are capable of understanding the importance of customer needs, who build partnerships, transform organizations, and develop people who think boldly, who collaborate to drive results and inspire beyond their own role – developing these leaders is a real passion of mine. If you asked me what I would like my legacy to be, this would be it.

That is very, very well said, Marie-France. We are talking about teams and how to create teams that perform not as individuals, but as a group, striving through a shared purpose and mission. That brings me to the topic of culture. Could you elaborate a little bit on how you create a culture that allows your team to get the best out of each other and fulfill the company purpose?

In my view, culture is absolutely, inextricably linked with business results. There is so much uncertainty in the things that we do. This year, this has never been more true. No one has the answers or the clarity on what the future will bring, so you need to be supporting the organization and finding those answers and taking the right bold decisions through the culture that you create. Many of you have heard that Novartis has embarked on this journey of “inspired, curious and unbossed.” This is really about creating a growth mindset, creating the curiosity of asking questions, being extremely focused on thinking about customers and competitors and other industries, and empowering people to take ownership for what they are doing. I feel like the biggest contribution I can make is to help the organization shift from a ‘Me’ view to a ‘We’ view and create a collaborative culture that brings in a diversity of thinking, which leads to making better decisions at the end of the day.

Let us pick up on that topic of diversity. At the end of the day, Novartis’ core purpose is about bringing new innovations to the world. What is your view on the link between diversity and innovation?

I believe that diversity does drive innovation, and it also drives better decisions and performance. That is why I am very deliberate about bringing diversity into building our teams. We believe we have to move away from this traditional thinking that is very focused on whether a person has had the right roles and characteristics, because it is just not going to bring us where we need to go. We need people who have different ideas and experiences and who are willing to experiment. In the past, if you did not have the sales rep experience, it was very difficult for you to get into a commercial role. I think those days are gone. It is crucial for us to bring in people from other industries like digital, and we need to have a much broader definition of diversity. Gender is important but there is so much more, such as cultural backgrounds and education experiences that ensure diversity of thinking. In my own experience, you create a much more inclusive culture this way, where people speak up, where they are encouraged to be curious, and where they listen to each other. You have the debate, and in the end, you walk away with much stronger alignment and better decisions.    

I am curious how you are implementing these ideas. Are you approaching talent management and development differently, for example?

Absolutely, I think we have to. It is a constant for us that we cannot just have one plan and then stick to that plan. We have to look at the slate of candidates and see whether we have different types of leaders. Do we have disruptors on our team? Do we have people who are more inspirational and take the team along? Do we have drivers, people who are actually going to focus on getting the work done? Having a good balance between these three profiles is key. 

Let us switch to think about the external side of the business and the perception of the healthcare industry. One of Novartis’ priorities is building trust with society. The public perception of healthcare may sometimes be quite mixed. As one of the world’s largest and most influential healthcare companies, what role do you hope to play in shaping the perception of the industry going forward?

Great question, thank you for asking that. As you know, building trust with society has been a strategic priority for us and I think it will become more and more important, particularly now that healthcare is in the spotlight. We have committed, for example, to broaden fast access to our latest medical innovation for people in lower-income countries, and we are making that happen. We are filing our regulatory files at the same time, regardless of geography. We are also delivering more affordable generics and biosimilars. We are committed to doing what is ethically right, and this year, even in the middle of a pandemic, we have launched our new code of ethics. There are many more examples that I could give you about what it is that we are trying to do internally from an ecological perspective to make sure that we are creating sustainability throughout our value chain. We take this extremely seriously.

More broadly, I have been incredibly impressed this year with the level of collaboration between industry, academia, and governments to find a solution around COVID-19. I truly hope that this becomes an example, not just for the healthcare industry, but for society as a whole. I believe that when people come together to try and solve major problems, we can actually do it. The speed with which things have happened this year is really incredible. We need to further expand this collaboration to fight other healthcare challenges together and societal needs that that may need to be addressed.

Where I think we are evolving to is focusing on our customers’ needs, whether they are patients, healthcare systems, or physicians. For example, how do we try to pursue precision medicine where it makes sense, ensuring that only those patients who can benefit from a treatment will receive it? We can go deeper in this space, while remembering to work comprehensively. How do we make broader access possible? In addition to having more affordable prices, it is also about working with systems on population health initiatives. For example, we are working very diligently in the cardiovascular disease space. This is an area where the costs are tremendou