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The phenom of Big Pharma says ‘self-disruption’ is key to success as a CEO

“It’s really important for CEOs and leaders in general to realize you’re always a work in progress.”

The phenom of Big Pharma says ‘self-disruption’ is key to success as a CEO

A lot of business leaders are terrified of disruption. That makes sense when you think about how long it can take to work your way up to a leadership position only to have the rug ripped out from under you by a younger, nimbler, more innovative operation.

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For Dr. Vas Narasimhan, MD, chief executive of the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, the key to surviving disruption is understanding that a leader needs to be prepared to embrace it—even if that means willfully disrupting yourself.

“It’s really important for CEOs and leaders in general to realize you’re always a work in progress,” he said at a panel discussion today during the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. “The moment you think you’ve arrived as a leader is the moment you become delusional.”

Narasimhan made the comment in response to a question from Stephanie Mehta, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, who asked the Big Pharma executive what he does to make sure he’s not getting too complacent in his role. He said being prepared not only to embrace disruption, but to be the one who initiates it, starts with looking inward and working your way out.

“Sleep, mindfulness, nutrition—all of these things I think help leaders get a sense of balance,” Narasimhan said. “In a sense, work on their inner self so that they can lead better outwardly. And I think it really matters a lot if you really want to disrupt.”

Narasimhan and Mehta discussed self-disruption—the panel’s topic—at the HCL Pavilion, where attendees braved frigid temperatures in the tiny mountain town that hosts the elite gathering of global leaders every January. C Vijayakumar, president and CEO of HCL Technologies; James M. Loree, president and CEO of Stanley Black & Decker; and Jennifer Morgan, co-CEO of SAP and a member of SAP SE’s executive board, also took part in the discussion.

Morgan added that disruption can also help companies extend into new areas of business, even areas beyond their own industries.

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“Look at a company like Mars, which is a candy company—now they’re in the pet business,” she said. “If they had only focused on, ‘Okay, how do we need to disrupt ourselves based on others in the original business we’re doing,’ they never would’ve been able to think differently about where they could go.”

Getting the board on board

Narasimhan joined Novartis in 2005 and was known for spearheading big cultural shifts within the company before taking on the CEO role in 2018. (Then 41, he was among the youngest people to head a Fortune 500 company.) It’s a strategy that’s been paying off, with the company reporting a 13% increase in net sales in October 2019.

But changing a company as big as Novartis doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Mindfulness and a good night’s sleep aside, Mehta asked Narasimhan the secret to convincing the board of directors and other power players to go along with big strategic changes, which often come with equally big risks.

“I think, one, you have to set a very ambitious vision,” he said. “When I [told them] the vision I set was to be the most valuable medicines company in the world, and doing the same things isn’t going to get us there . . . I think they went along, and rightfully challenged a lot. [It worked because] it all fits within an overall vision we set out on day one, and fits the best strategy.”

“The other thing I’d say is go fast,” he added, getting a chuckle from the early-morning crowd, “before people figure out exactly what you’re doing.”

Davos Dialogues, a series of editorial panels, videos, and news coverage, is produced in partnership with HCL Technologies.

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About the author

Christopher Zara is a senior staff news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine

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