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Employee Communications Council Blog

Insightful blog posts written by corporate communications professionals on ways to improve employee engagement, organizational change management and internal communication strategies

Novartis Oncology – A Case Study in Corporate Culture Change Management

19 June 2017
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An example of how a company completed its corporate culture change management mission effectively and efficiently.

Novartis Oncology had solid growth for the first fifteen years of this century, but by 2015, external factors (largely heightened competition and changes in payment structures) were forcing it to change. Internally, its main money-spinner Gleevec was going off patent. To address this revenue issue, management acquired GSK, an oncology business. Finally, corporate headquarters moved to Switzerland. The culture had to change to accommodate these developments, and the HR and communications departments brought that about with a detailed and long-term plan.

For the first six or seven months of the change management project, Dan Manea (the global head of human resources) led a change agenda discussion with top management to get their buy-in, which Manea maintains was crucial. However, even with that backing, the employee communications plan needed more support for the roll out. With management's backing, the human resources team brought the top 180 business leaders within the firm, the tier below the C-suite, into the process. Their mission was to develop leadership in three different levels: business, team and self.

Change Management at the Business, Team, and Self Levels

To address the issues at the business level, the 180 business leaders now hold monthly virtual meetings and twice yearly face-to-face discussions on employee engagement strategy, performance, and corporate culture. At the team level, the team leader and the team engage in discussions to align purpose and strategy, protocols within the team, and clarity of roles and responsibilities. Then at the level of the self, the Novartis Oncology focus is on personal well-being, authenticity and purpose – being the best you. When these three levels are integrated, people readily and easily deliver on the culture change's two performance pillars: simple, internal processes to focus on what matters most, and an external, patient-centric perspective.

A Successful Cultural Shift

Novartis has been engaged in making this cultural shift for a couple of years now, and the lessons learned apply beyond the oncology business. While corporate culture is seen as the purview of HR and communications, they can only support change initiatives. Top corporate leaders must be the owners of the culture and its changes. Not only do they have the power to make changes in terms of time, finances and other resources, but they also are the obvious role models to demonstrate the kinds of behaviors that the company wants. By definition, they are the successful employees by virtue of their positions – they were promoted to the jobs or were headhunted to fill them. If they don't display the behaviors the culture desires, the project is hamstrung, or worse.

While every leader in the corporation needs to be a role model, they are not all equally good as role models. HR and communications need to “amplify” the standing of those who are the best role models – shining a spotlight on the stars, if you will.

Above all, Novartis learned that the best approach is not to act too quickly. A few vital actions need to be driven through, and then an assessment of where things stand should follow. Reflecting on those experiences and making course corrections will, in the long run, work better than hurrying through a top-to-bottom plan.

How is it going? Novartis recently did a survey, and some of the highlights of the corporate culture stood out: focus on patients and purpose, passion, teamwork, and excellence. While the culture continues to evolve, the major shift has to be considered a success.

Jeff Myhre

Jeff is a writer and editor with 35 years’ experience in business, economics and politics. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and a BA from the University of Colorado.

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