How This Company's "Unbossed Culture" Has Been A Stimulus For Innovation

In the past three years, we have certainly started witnessing encouraging signs wherein our employees are becoming more self-aware. This has accelerated fruitful dialogues, an entrepreneurial mindset, and the rise of young leaders.


As per Glassdoor’s employee sentiment analysis, Novartis’ 2021 average of 63.1 per cent of reviews coming from the current employees is better than the overall Glassdoor’s average, when compared to not just its peers but also large tech organisations, according to Novartis.

The global healthcare company gives credit for this to its shift towards the “unbossed” culture. Let's hear it out from the horse's mouth himself, Niccolò Nitti, Country P&O Head, Novartis India as to how did this culture come into being at Novartis and what positive results has this concept yielded within their organisation's framework.

  1. What does an “unbossed” culture mean? How do you explain "unbossed" at Novartis in India? 

At Novartis, we work to improve and extend people’s lives by reimagining medicine. To this end, we want to galvanize a new generation of leaders who will continue our journey to build an inspired, curious and unbossed organisation, as we seek to unleash the power of our people.

Now let us understand what we mean by being ‘unbossed’. We unboss by flipping the pyramid and developing “servant leaders”. So, you no longer have a team in support of a boss; you have a boss in support of a team. We want our leaders to focus on nurturing a psychologically safe environment in which people are willing to speak their mind and bring diverse experiences, skills and perspectives to the table. The best leaders are those who are comfortable hiring people who think differently than they do; who listen more and talk less!

In India, just like the rest of the world, our leaders serve and coach their teams, giving them the tools to reach their full potential, instead of simply approving or rejecting ideas. We have moved away from top to bottom approach and have embraced the art of co-creating and learning from everyone in the team. For example, our leaders including the CXOs, don’t sit in cabins but alongside the teams; we have a robust 360-degree feedback mechanism for leaders to get regular honest feedback from colleagues and team members; we have steered clear of performance ratings and moved towards measuring impact. We believe that our people are at their most creative and productive when they are “unbossed” – empowered and enabled to take accountability for their work and their choices. 

2. How has Novartis' unbossed culture been a stimulus for innovation?
 At Novartis, we are driven by data and digital and this forms the backbone of our innovations. Scientific advancements are unfolding faster than ever before, and the emerging workforce has vastly different expectations on how work gets done in the 21st century. We need to be constantly transforming to meet the demands and to set Novartis up to thrive and deliver transformative medicines for decades to come. 

The unbossed culture has evoked creative thinking and, in doing so, generated new and improved products, services, and processes. People who want to excel at innovation must be willing to take risks, share their finest ideas, collaborate extensively, and be given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Our goal is to encourage innovative thinking that results in real solutions to healthcare and business challenges.

3. How has this strategy helped in achieving your HR priorities, and what role has the leadership played in helping make this initiative a reality?

This is an evolving journey that is never complete. However, so far in our journey we have been able to nurture inclusivity and provide an environment that fuels personal purpose connected to a larger purpose in society.  It has also helped us be in the spotlight for brand recognition and performance. It’s been just three years since we transitioned to the unbossed culture and this has been a fruitful journey. We have certainly started witnessing encouraging signs.

When our people see leaders, who are demonstrating humility and courage in the face of personal risk, who are OK with imperfection and failure as a necessary part of growth, then this cultivates an environment of trust, safety and learning, which in turn leads to greater engagement, innovation and productivity. 

4. Has this initiative yielded the anticipated outcomes? What was your game plan for measuring ROI? What are some proud achievements you can share with us on this front?

As I mentioned above, this journey that we have embarked on of embedding ‘Unbossed’ in our way of working is ever evolving. In the past three years, we have certainly started witnessing encouraging signs wherein our employees are becoming more self-aware. This has accelerated fruitful dialogues, an entrepreneurial mindset, and the rise of young leaders.

Our leaders now act as mentors and instead of telling the team what to do and how to accomplish it, they involve them in decision-making that has a huge positive impact on their work. The team works independently to design and implement solutions once they have agreed on objectives and orientations. We also conduct internal surveys on a regular basis, in which teams submit feedback of their supervisors. This has given rise to a new generation of leaders who are unconventional in their thinking.

We are also unbossing our people to recognize peers and colleagues throughout the year - for their contribution, collaboration and behaviors that spark success. We have put impact front and center as the basis for reward, placing greater emphasis on how we collaborate and achieve together.

In addition to this, Novartis’ 2021 average of 63.1% reviews on Glassdoor coming from Current Employees was better than Glassdoor’s average and compares favorably to not just peers but also large tech organizations.

5. Have you noticed that your own leadership style is evolving to adapt to the ongoing pandemic and provide better support to the people?

The only way to survive this multifold change is through continuous evolution. I've become more self-aware as a result of the unbossed leadership culture. During a crisis, it is critical to maintain focus and find the best way to empower and motivate teams to perform their best. I never presume I have the best idea in the group as a leader and rather always encourage open discussions, promote feedback, and ask my team how I can help achieve their objectives. 

The current crisis is replete with complexity and requires us to grow out of the normalcy bias to address immediate concerns. Things are changing at a fast pace and demand immediate choices and decisive actions. As we navigate this crisis, our foremost task is to have a positive bent of mind to ensure our people’s safety and well-being. 

6. In a digital world, Novartis believes that curiosity is essential for organizations, leaders, and individuals to grow. Could you tell us why curiosity is so important these days, and how it relates to executive success?

A critical part of our strategy at Novartis is to leverage the power of data and digital technologies to bring innovative medicines to patients. The nature of digital requires people to upgrade and learn new skills constantly. At the heart of this upskilling and learning development is to foster curious minds to help people build the capabilities that allow us to stay at the forefront of innovation. 

If we are curious, we will ask questions, explore new ways to do things, experiment, and test things out. For an organization like ours, this curiosity is great since it allows us to answer many unanswered questions and see what works and what does not. It is a known fact that most of the breakthrough discoveries and remarkable inventions throughout history are the results of curiosity!

7. How has Novartis been attracting the right talent and developing people internally?

It is no secret that recruiting and retaining talent is critical to an organization’s success as an organization is only as strong as the collective talent of the people who work there. In most cases, the reason behind an employee exiting an organisation is the same as the most common reason someone joins an organization: career development, or lack thereof. As a result, giving meaningful learning opportunities to people which enables their professional growth, is an important aspect of recruiting and retaining talent.

And talent is at the heart of Novartis. To develop and manage talent, we foster a culture of curiosity and experimentation. We enable our associates to build upon their core capabilities in their areas of expertise and encourage them to expand their skill set through cross-functional collaboration as well as cross-functional career moves. We also encourage our associates to gain exposure to diverse functions and therapeutic areas so that they accumulate a breadth of experience and gain perspective towards delivering greater impact. 

We are also one of the first organizations to extend the 26-week parental leave to all our employees- both men and women. 

Most importantly, our people policies provide great flexibility. Flexibility of working – we call it Choice with Responsibility. We believe that increased well-being and performance go hand-in-hand. Our people are embracing the Unbossed behaviour by taking complete responsibility for finding better ways of working – continually reflecting upon and adapting how they work together. 

Today, with this initiative, our people have greater choice and agency in how they work. This enhances their performance, impact, and experience. We are on a journey to unboss our workplace and it’s given us a unique opportunity to examine old assumptions, test new ideas, and explore working models that offer greater flexibility for our people. 

Lastly, our rewards policy in terms of compensation and benchmarking are quite competitive and fair. All these factors, combined with our people-centric culture, make us the employer of choice.

8. What plans does Novartis have in place to ensure that it remains at the forefront of learning and development?

There are many studies that show that learning is either the top or one of the top reasons people join an organization. We have lot of survey results too that show that learning is something that people find important. So, there is a continuous demand from within as well outside to support learning and thus, we are making significant investments in this area. We believe supporting our employees in lifelong learning and professional development can help us in delivering.

Under our learning and development initiatives, we have set up a Novartis Learning Institute that assists with personal goals, digital capability, and language programs, as well as talent acceleration and leadership programs. This offers employees virtual access to vocational training for all associates regardless of role, level, or location across leading universities. Our associates have free access to 3,500 courses via Coursera, through which associates can learn from 190 top universities worldwide. They also have access to LinkedIn Learning, providing 14,500 courses in seven languages in short format, bite-sized learning covering hot topics in business and IT/digital from leading experts. We aspire to provide minimum of 100 hours of learning to each of our associates. 

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