Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Joseph Jimenez, C.E.O. of Novartis, the pharmaceutical maker. He says he learned in a previous job that you can’t solve a problem if you can’t get to its roots.
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Fix the Problem, and Not Just the Symptoms
Bryant: What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
Jimenez: One occurred when I was a division president of another company. I was sent in to turn the division around after four years of underperformance. It was a declining business. And when I got there, I completely misdiagnosed the problem. I said: “Look. We’re missing our forecast every month. What’s wrong?” I brought in a consulting firm, and we looked at what was wrong. And the answer was that we had a bad sales and operations planning process, where salespeople, marketing people and operations people were supposed to come together and plan out the next 18 months and then forecast off of that. So I said: “O.K. We’re going to fix this. We’re going to have the consulting team come in and help us make that a better, more robust process, with more analytics.”
And it turned out it wasn’t at all about analytics. Because once we did that, and we put that new process in place, we still continued to miss forecasts. So I thought, “Something’s really wrong here.” I brought in a behavioral psychologist, and I said: “Look, either I’m misdiagnosing the problem or something’s fundamentally wrong in this organization. Come and help me figure it out.” She came in with her team and about four weeks later came back and said: “This isn’t about skills or about process. You have a fundamental behavioral issue in the organization. People aren’t telling the truth. So at all levels of the organization, they’ll come together, and they’ll say, ‘Here’s our forecast for the month.’ And they won’t believe it. They know they’re not going to hit it when they’re saying it.” The thing she taught me — and this sounds obvious — is that behavior is a function of consequence. We had to change the behavior in the organization so that people felt safe to bring bad news. And I looked in the mirror, and I realized I was part of the problem. I didn’t want to hear the bad news, either. So I had to change how I behaved, and start to thank people for bringing me bad news.
Bryant: That doesn’t mean letting them off the hook, though.
Jimenez: Right. It’s more a chance to say: “Hey, thank you for bringing me that news. Because you know what? There are nine months left in the year. Now we have time to do something about it. Let’s roll up our sleeves, and let’s figure out how we’re going to make it.” It was a total shift from where we had been previously. So after that experience, I always ask all of my people, and I always think to myself: “Are we really fixing the root cause of this problem, if there’s any problem? Or are we fixing the symptoms?”
Bryant: What else?
Jimenez: An important leadership lesson came in my early years. When I was at Stanford, I was a swimmer, and I was a captain in my senior year. The first thing I learned when I was captain is that you have a lot of people on a team who have different agendas, different objectives. We had to get everyone aligned around a common goal, and the one we set for ourselves was to break into the top five at the N.C.A.A.’s. In my freshman year, we were No. 20 in the U.S. By our senior year, we ended up third.
Bryant: And how do you apply that lesson in your current job?
Jimenez: When I first became C.E.O. of Novartis, I said: We have 120,000 people. That’s a lot of people to try to align. The first thing I have to do is to have people understand where I’m going to take the company. And it has to be crystal clear. And not only does it have to be crystal clear, but everybody in the organization has to understand it, they have to have line of sight to that goal, and they have to understand how what they’re doing is going to help us move into the future.
Bryant: How did you learn the importance of that?
Jimenez: Throughout my career, all my performance reviews had one thing in common, whether the results were good or the results were bad. They all said that I have the ability to look at very complex situations and make them simple. And I personally believe that if you can’t hold something in your head, then you’re not going to be able to internalize it and act on it. At Novartis, our business is very complicated. But you have to distill the strategy down to its essence for how we’re going to win, and what we’re really going to go after, so that people can hold it in their heads — so that the guy on the plant floor, who’s actually making the medicine, understands the three priorities that we have as a company.
Bryant: How has your leadership and management style evolved?
Jimenez: I’m more patient now. When I was younger, I was always trying to move faster than I probably should have moved. So sometimes what would happen is, I would move and the organization would stay behind. You learn the subtle elements of doing what it takes to communicate. So, for example, I have 120,000 employees. It’s very important for me to connect with as many of them as I can. So I blog once a week and I just talk about what I did the last week. About 20 people might comment, and then I always make sure I respond. And everybody sees it. Sometimes people will send me a private note, but 99 percent of it is public.
Bryant: So what are your three big priorities?
Jimenez: We are going to win through science-based innovation — that’s kind of the overriding theme. So the three priorities are, first, extending our lead in innovation. And we measure that across all divisions by the number of new compounds that we have approved. The second is called accelerating growth, and that’s turning that innovation into sales and profit growth. The way that we measure that is, what percent of our portfolio, in any division, is driven by products that have been introduced in the last three years? And for the company, it’s 25 percent. For a $55 billion company, that’s a huge number.
Driving productivity is No. 3. That’s about getting smarter about the way we’re spending our money. So we talk about those three things every quarter. How did we extend our lead in innovation? How did we accelerate growth? And how did we drive productivity?
Bryant: How do you make innovation a real part of your culture?
Jimenez: It’s about taking greater risks. And the culture in the company, deep down in the organization, has not always been one of risk-taking, because it’s been quite successful. Historically, if you tried something and it didn’t work, there was not a lot of reward for even trying. So when I started running the pharmaceutical division, I had to create a situation where people were unlocked from being afraid to fail. And I said: “Look. There’s a way to fail, and there’s a way not to fail. And if you can prevent the downside, then fail all you want. I want to see what you’re learning.” It was a totally different way of thinking. And there are all kinds of ways to prevent the downside, by being careful about how much you invest. That’s not hard to do. But people have to be given the license to try. That’s the first step. So it was really about trying to unlock this resistance to try and to maybe fail. And we gave people license to do it by saying, “Look, as long as you’re not creating a huge liability for the company, just go try a bunch of things, and then we can build on them.”
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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.
George is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School where he teaches leadership and leadership development. He is the author of two best-selling books, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership and Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. George is the former chairman and CEO of Medtronic and also serves as a director of Goldman Sachs, Novartis, ExxonMobil, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the World Economic Forum USA.
Note: I conducted this interview in 2007. George has since published Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis (2009) and is now in the process of completing a second interview.
Morris: First, please explain what you mean by “authentic” leadership.
George: Authentic leaders are genuine people who are true to what they believe in. They have a clear sense of the purpose of their leadership, they practice their values consistently, lead with their hearts as well as their heads, build long-term connected relationships, and lead integrated lives. More specifically, they are people who demonstrate the highest integrity, are committed to building enduring organizations, who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values. They have the courage to build their companies to meet the needs of all stakeholders, and are dedicated to serving society through their leadership.
We need to increase the prevalence of authentic leaders in all areas of our society, not just in business but in government, religion, and the military. We need more leaders who genuinely desire to serve others through their leadership. Authentic leaders are more interested in empowering people they lead to make a difference than they are in power, money, or prestige for themselves. They are as guided by qualities of the heart, by passion and compassion, as they are by qualities of the mind.
Morris: How can someone prepare to become an “authentic” leader?
George: To become an authentic leader, you must develop yourself, just as a great musician or athlete does. People are born with the gifts of leadership but must develop those gifts by:
1. Developing their self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
2. Testing their values under pressure.
3. Balancing their intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.
4. Building a support team.
5. Leading an integrated life.
6. Developing a clear sense of the purpose of their leadership.
7. Empowering other people to step up and lead.
Morris: Here’s what seems to be a “chicken or egg” question. Which comes first: authentic leadership at all levels and in all areas of any organization, or, a culture that nourishes such leadership?
George: Individuals must fervently want to be authentic leaders first, but their development can be greatly enhanced in a culture that nurtures authentic leaders. However, inauthentic leaders will not change or survive for long in an authentic culture. Far too many studies of “leadership” focus their attention on leaders on top – often “celebrity CEOs” — when, in fact, authentic leadership is needed at all levels and in all areas of organizations.
At twenty-three, Jonathan Doochin was the youngest leader interviewed; while a senior in college, he created Harvard’s Leadership Institute. Ninety-three-year old Zyg Nagorski was the “senior” leader” of those interviewed; after running the Aspen Institute’s Executive Programs for a decade, he stepped aside at seventy-five and then, with his wife, started the Center for International Leadership and continues to conduct values and ethics seminars eighteen years later. Obviously, authentic leaders come in “all shapes and sizes” (and ages!) but despite the differences between and among them, they are all committed to helping others to become authentic people, if not authentic leaders.
The importance of creating and then sustaining an authentic culture cannot be overestimated.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.