Interview Transcript

What are the most valuable things companies can do to help first-time leaders?

From my own experience, the most valuable thing was to recognise there’s an issue and deal with it. At Novartis, we were surprised initially in the new organisation. We put in a lot of new processes that just weren’t gaining traction, so we did some investigation. We discovered 70% of our first-line managers — and at that time, there were a thousand first-line managers — had never had any formal training in how you act as a manager. So, over a year, we put in place a three-module first-line manager training programme; everyone had to go through it. That’s a huge investment, a huge commitment, but that was the commitment the firm was making, having understood what the issue is, to then address it.

Many, many, many managers — in this case, some 70%. And by the way, I’ve tested that in other companies, and they say, “Yeah, I’m sure that’ll be about where we are too.” Never given any proper training, so it’s a bit like swimming; taking someone who’s never swam before and throwing them in the pool. “Hope they’ll be able to figure it out; if not, well, they’ll bobble around and gasp a bit, but hopefully, they’ll reach the side of the pool,” versus, “Let’s learn how to swim.” What are we teaching? The fundamentals of people management, be it setting goals, holding people accountable to goals, how you build a team, how you coach, how you give feedback, when you give feedback.

These basic things, for some people, come very naturally. For most of us, they are not natural. We haven’t necessarily been educated in that way. And so, when you’re asked to do it for the first time, it’s quite nerve-wracking for most first-line managers. They’re really unsure — more unsure than the person sitting across the desk from them when they first give their bit of feedback. Overcoming that, supporting people is the first thing and probably, the most important thing.

So, we’ve got development of leadership skills, feedback processes, coaching — can we talk a little about boss coaching?

You mean coaching from your boss? Very important. If you go back to one of the characteristics that differentiates the distinctive good leaders, the fact they focus on people; I will guarantee you, they will be giving feedback.

A guy I taught, Thomas Ebeling, fascinating guy. Psychologist by training, he’s German, hired by PepsiCo. He was country general manager for PepsiCo in Germany. He was then hired by Novartis into consumer health, which made sense; that’s a consumer-facing business. Danial Vasella, my boss and his, appointed him head of the pharmaceutical business in 2000. He’d been in the company two or three years. Sometimes, we talk about risk appointments; that was a seriously high-risk appointment. Thomas was not a scientist. It’s a business that is science-driven. It’s also a business that has very significant statutory requirements that have to be adhered to.

So, not a scientist, not a lawyer, and no pharmaceutical experience. If you jump to the end of the story, he mastered that business. He led it for ten years, top and bottom, double-digit, both lines, and he built a cadre of people which today, we could look at all the pharma companies around the world, and you will find some of Thomas’ guys running those businesses. A terrific cadre of people that he built because of this intense focus on people.

Sign up to test our content quality with a free sample of 50+ interviews