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Stay Grounded as a Leader

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

Learning outcomes

  • The role of career setbacks in keeping people grounded
  • The importance of 360 feedback

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

So, we’ve taken that journey that can culminate in some catastrophic outcomes. For young leaders, what have you noticed can be powerful as practice, as exercise, or maybe organisational policies that help young leaders?I think understanding how good they are — or not. I’m a great believer in 360 feedback. I think when that’s done well, that is a great source of balance to ensure you know what you’re really like, as opposed to what you think and would like yourself to be like.But it comes back to this self-awareness, which the 360 does for you. If you do get the appropriate feedback, you’ve got a boss that will give you the feedback — the good, bad, and indifferent — and keeps you grounded. And when the business is doing really well, enjoy it, but don’t assume it’s going to continue like that because it won’t. That’s just life. Your career will not progress in a straight line upwards. There will be setbacks, side paths, and I think those setbacks and occasional failures keep people honest; that realisation that it’s not all smooth sailing.I think if you have only enjoyed a straight line of success and always been told you’re phenomenal, when you do have a setback, it’s all the more so. I often think of private equity investment partners as a very good example of that. They were always top of every class they were ever in. They were selected, hand-picked to go to the business school or university or both. They were hand-picked for the investment bank they went to. They were always in the top decile, and they were certainly hand-picked by the private equity firm they’re in. They’ve never had a real failure. So, in 2008, when the big crash came and there were lots of failures overall, that was pretty traumatic for a lot of people.Healthy doses of realism injected by the boss, by 360, by a coach, by your board, by your guys who work for you, and the odd setback will keep most people on the straight and narrow.
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