Talking culture transformation with Vas Narasimhan and Adam Grant

Talking culture transformation with Vas Narasimhan and Adam Grant


Hey Adam! Great to have you here at Novartis today. It’s been really fun to talking to you about culture, about leadership. Now, one of the things you highlighted is really about how you get people to accept or think about visionary ideas that aren’t their own. I was wondering if you could just give us some of the key concepts that you think people need to look at. Yeah. So, I think one of the mistakes we make which I see over and over again is you’re worried that other people aren’t going to buy it and so you feel like you have to sell extra hard. And so, you come up with a long list of reasons for why your vision makes sense and everyone should be excited about it, and people feel like they’re being sold to so they naturally push back, and you get this resistance that you wouldn’t have otherwise. I found in some of my research that it’s actually helpful just to have one or two core reasons for why your vision makes sense as opposed to four or five because if you give the four or five, not only do people resist, they also just pick the least compelling reason and then they’re like, “No! That doesn’t work for me.” And then we talked also about the value of even pointing out some of the reasons not to adopt your idea because then people recognize that you really want to make it work and you’re looking at it in a balanced way, you’re honest and candid about the strengths and weaknesses and then they can work with you a little bit on how to make your vision a reality. One of the other things you talked about as well is how do you close the gap between what you think your ideas sound like and what does somebody actually receive. It’s so hard to imagine what other people are hearing when you unfold a new vision, right? So, one of my favorite examples of this was Warby Parker. And when I was actually teaching my first class at Wharton, a student came in and said I want to start this company to sell glasses online and I wonder if you want to invest. And I said, “That’s ridiculous! There’s no way anyone could ever order glasses online, you have to get your eyes tested, then you have to go into a store and try them on. This is never going to work!” So, I declined the investment. Now Warby of course is a unicorn worth over a billion dollars and my wife is really unhappy with my decision making! But a lot of people had that reaction, so one of the things they learned to do was to build a bridge to similar ideas that had worked in other domains, and so they said, “We’re going to do for glasses what Zappos did for shoes” and it clicks, right? People say, “Oh, you know, five years ago, I never would’ve ordered shoes online, now I do it three times a week, so maybe glasses could go the same way!” You look at those examples and you say, “Ok, if it could work over here maybe it’s possible there too” and I think every leader has an opportunity to do that, right, to say that your brand-new idea is not totally original; there’s been some company, some country, some industry where something similar has worked. One of the favorite things I like to use in our organization when we talk about culture change is to point out to all of the research that actually shows that highly engaged, empowered cultures outperform. They outperform financially, they outperform from an innovation standpoint and that immediately gives reasons to believe, sort of along the lines. And you know you don’t have to invent that wheel internally, right? There’s no reason to believe why that would be different at Novartis, right? Absolutely. And one of the other things we’ve been trying to work on is your work on give and take, where you really describe the power of collaboration cultures. It’s one of the grand journeys a company like Novartis is on now, where we really try to make sure everyone’s thinking about the enterprise first, making the right decisions to get medicines to patients. What have been some of your insights on how to get organizations really on that journey? One of the biggest struggles that I see is what Steve Kerr called a long time ago, “The folly of rewarding A while hoping for B”, right? So, I work with so many companies that say, “We want people to be collaborative, we want them to be generous, we want them to help each other solve problems”. They measure individual performance and so what do you expect? That’s not to say, you know, that motivates people necessarily to become selfish takers, right? But it’s a real disincentive to think about “How can I add value to others?”. And so, I really like to see a reward system that’s roughly evenly split between individual results and then also, Ok what’s your contribution to the team or the company’s mission? And you’ve actually shifted in that direction. Yeah, we were making a grand experiment. We’ve moved to one bonus pool at Novartis. The other thing we’re testing now is team objectives this year. So, we’re going to move to an alternative performance management system and really test out can we make this work where we move away from individual contribution and talk about team goals. And it makes total sense when you’re trying to develop a new medicine, it takes a like decade. To start measuring on annual performance reviews is really not realistic. No, that doesn’t make sense at all. And what I also love about the team approach is I think one of the biggest challenges I’ve seen with company-level rewards, is people don’t feel like they have enough control over what the results are, right? So, did the company do well this year? How much does that depend on me? Maybe not that much, whereas my team’s success, I can really influence that on a local level. I think it’s totally right and we’ll see. I’m hopeful that, in a year from now, we’ll be able to take this to scale and really change, perhaps lead the industry and how we think about performance management. Now, I love your podcast. One of the ones I love to quote is about improvement and how we take feedback and how we learn to be self-aware and curious. What are some of the things you’ve seen and how organizations can get more open to feedback? You know it’s funny because as an organizational psychologist, this is probably the biggest problem I run into on a daily basis, right? I go into an organization where people already know how the culture needs to change and senior leaders don’t want to hear it and they don’t usually want to consider the feedback because it kind of points out that they have some problems or they have to look at a person in the mirror who is not quite the reflection that they want to see. And so, I’ve found a few different ways of getting leaders to be a little more open to criticism. The first one is to actually criticize yourself in front of them, right? And model it. When people see you saying, “Hey, here are my flaws, here’s what I’m working to improve on”, it gives them permission to say, I don’t have to focus so much on proving myself. I actually feel like around here, the best way to prove myself is actually to prove that I want to improve myself. I think another thing that really makes a difference is actually some degree of affirmation. So, you know when we go in to criticize leaders, we often forget that the reason they get defensive is because they’re going to think that people view them as incompetent or not qualified for their leadership roles and so, what the data on this suggests is that if you can praise them in one domain, then they’re less threatened by criticism in the other domain because they feel like, “Ok, you know, maybe … yes, I’ve made some bad decisions but you know I’m really creative and so, I feel like I still have something to offer here!” How have you actually seen that play out? With the top three hundred leaders, we launched something called ‘the Unbossed Leadership Experience’ where every one of those top leaders goes through a pretty rigorous 360 and then actually goes through team sessions where the team gives them feedback and they need to learn to take it and accept it and grow, and I did it with my own leadership team and it’s an important part of the growth cycle to actually just gain that self-awareness. What kind of feedback did you get? What was it like? So, the biggest feedback I got was I got to get better at coaching my team and so the feeling was that while I spent so much energy trying to inspire the organization on our culture change, I need to spend more time coaching my direct reports on how they can improve on their own individual leadership journey. And so, you’re basically focusing on the collective and … hey, wait a minute! These people that actually report to you, they need to spend more time with you. Yes, they felt like I was focusing a lot on the objectives but not enough on how they could grow as leaders and actually losing, therefore, a big leverage point to really improve the organization. Yes, because they have huge impact. Exactly. One of the interesting things I learned, though, in coaching them on each of their leadership challenges is how much I improve as a leader myself. My own kind of self-awareness increases as we start to work through this. That’s so interesting. It’s something I’ve seen in my career as well, when I started grad school. I felt like I don’t know this field very well and I want to get better at it, so what do I? I send my papers around to experts in the field and ask for their feedback. I learned a lot from that. I learned more from giving feedback to a bunch of colleagues. I saw some of the same mistakes that I was making but I had a little more distance from them and it was easier to understand, “Oh! That’s the point that other people are trying to make when they gave me that feedback!” So, it has actually left me wondering if we learn as much or more from giving feedback than we do from receiving it. I also think over time I wonder if you actually build up a capacity to take feedback. I love the concept of the growth mindset and the book but what I found over time is now I’m almost searching for it. You know, I’m hungering for it because it gives me something to work on. I think there’s probably a turning point that people get to over time and I think that’s something people can build. Yeah, you do start to crave it! Like, wait, if nobody is giving me any constructive criticism then I feel like I’m stagnating here! The other topic I wanted to cut over to is, one of the things that you talk a lot about in your podcast is around introverts and extroverts and how do introverts actually succeed in big organizations. You know too many people assume that leadership requires extroversion and it is true that extroverts are more drawn to leadership because it’s a chance to be naturally gregarious and kind of be in the spotlight. And they’re also significantly more likely to get chosen as leaders because, yeah, they kind of fit a prototype of what it means to be charismatic. And yet I’ve found empirically that extroverts are no more effective than introverts at leading and sometimes they’re less effective. So, if you have a really proactive group of employees who has lots of ideas and suggestions that they like to bring to you, extroverted leaders actually are less likely to listen to those ideas and suggestions, which then means their teams are less motivated and they get fewer good ideas and that hurts their collective performance, whereas introverted leaders are more likely to ask questions, they’re more likely to consider the different possibilities on the table, and that’s both motivating and a great source of innovation. One of the most important things I tell leaders who want to grow and learn is, “Learn how to stay quiet, learn how to ask questions, learn how to get the ideas from everyone else in the room.” So many people think the leader is supposed to sit in front of the room and talk but as soon as you start talking, you crowd out all of the other ideas in the room. I worry a lot about, you know, as soon as people know where you stand as the CEO, right, even if they know you’re open, there’s still this natural instinct to conform and so I really like to see leaders go into a meeting and maybe frame the strategic priorities of the discussion but then speak last and not share their opinion until they have heard everybody else’s views. And framing questions not statements, I think that’s a huge skill. Any last advice you’d have for Novartis as we take on this kind of big culture change journey that we’re on? I guess what I would ask is it always helpful to have one set of cultural values or do you need a series of subcultures that can work together to achieve maybe conflicting goals? It’s a great question. One of the things I’ve observed is that every part of our organization sort of takes curious, inspired, unbossed and has to adapt it to their context, whether it’s a manufacturing site, whether it’s a commercial organization, different cultures … so how somebody perceives unbossed in China or Japan is very different from somebody from Mexico and Argentina. I think we have to be comfortable with that flexibility. I think we can’t be monolithic to the point where we force-fitting this but I fundamentally believe as we’ve discussed, that people want to be inspired by a purpose, they want to feel like they’re growing through curiosity and they want to feel autonomy, regardless of which cultural context that they’re in. Yeah. And what I love about that is it’s actually baked into your value of curiosity, too. You know, if you’re not curious, you’re going to assume that everybody is going to want their values to be expressed in the exact same way but you go into a new culture and you ask, “What does it mean to be unbossed around here or what inspires you?” And then you’ve got something you can adapt to that. And then it just comes right up from the organization, it’s really great! Well, I appreciate you being here. It’s been a fun conversation. It’s been a delight, thank you! Thanks very much, Adam.

2 thoughts on “Talking culture transformation with Vas Narasimhan and Adam Grant

  1. At 9:40 there comes an important point. One which is decisive for a good leader in my opinion: a leader should stay quiet in a meeting so all the others can talk about their ideas – and the the leader should ask questions. If a leader starts talking, you are missing out on all the other ideas of the people in the room as they will stay quiet. Great talk

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