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Fail Fast

Norman Walker
Former Executive Committee Member and Head of HR, Novartis

Learning outcomes

  • The importance of communication channels where individuals can share information upwards from junior to more senior leaders
  • The role of examining past failure or setbacks with a constructive mindset

Executive Bio

Norman Walker

Former Executive Committee Member and Head of HR, Novartis

Norman started his professional career with Ford Motor Co. in London, where he held a number of positions in human resources management. From these early years at Ford Motor Company, Norman moved on to increasingly important regional and then global HR roles at Grand Met and Kraft Jacobs Suchard, culminating in the ultimate strategic role as HR leader (1998-2003) in the (at the time) world’s largest merger that became Novartis. Here he was stretched to become a consummate leader, working on integrating and developing companies, cultures, individuals and teams into the giant success the healthcare company has become. In 2003, Norman established his company Ardfern AG which focuses on the nexus of the strategic and the human. He has served on public and private Boards, and for 15 years has been a senior advisor to global Private Equity firms. He co-wrote an important book called “Leadership Passages” and established a retreat for CEOs in 2010. Read more

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Interview Transcript

If I’m a recently appointed leader of an organisation getting to grips with the culture, what steps could I take to ensure or promote an environment in which failure is discussed and where people are more likely to learn from setbacks?

Any leader does not want to be discussing this, fundamentally. We want to be focusing on success, rightly. So, I wouldn’t be starting my conversation in a new organisation saying, “I really want to discuss failure with you.” Let’s be clear, that’s not the starting point. What I think allows a culture to discuss and openly talk about failure is where that culture already exists. It’s hard to move from A to Z in one step because people will not trust it. Organisations are cautious, careful, and conservative, generally speaking. So, if you announce, “Failure’s alright around here, we want to talk about it,” that’s going to be met with healthy scepticism, I would suggest.

You have to do this a little bit at a time, and it starts with conversations early on; ideally, before you get to a significant failure, but ensuring that there’s appropriate discussion about the direction of travel which could result in failure and getting in there early to ensure we prevent it. That means people need to be able to talk up the organisation. That, in many organisations, is clear, and it happens. Where it doesn’t happen, that’s where you have to bring this about. You have to change a top-down organisation into one where you can debate, discuss, and course correct, which will help you avoid significant failures. That’s at an individual and, therefore, a cultural level. That will take time because people have to trust; they’re not immediately going to trust.

The second thing I would do is where there has been some failure, do some deep dives on it. Make it absolutely clear, this is not about finding fault and who the people are [who made it] but, actually, to understand what we need to do differently to avoid future failures. That, I think, is very healthy, practical, and will reinforce the cultural shift because we’re talking about it. You’re not firing five people as a result. Life goes on, and hopefully, we’ve improved our practises, processes, and so on.

So, I think those will be two very tangible things to begin to build an organisation where you can debate and discuss these setbacks. You cannot separate out failure altogether because if someone does something catastrophic to the effectiveness or success of the firm, that has to be treated appropriately. It’s not about excusing failure; it’s about accountability. Holding people accountable is critical to both avoiding failure and, when there is failure, knowing what we have to deal with.

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