Change management times three: Novartis HR leader’s big lessons in transformation

'As a leader, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable': Pharmaceutical HR head on driving change

Change management times three: Novartis HR leader’s big lessons in transformation

“You have to take care of yourself, first – physically and mentally – and only if you do that are you able to lead your organization and your team through a transformation of that magnitude.”

If anyone would know about how to manage big change in an organization, it’s Ashley Sardjoe, VP of Country and People, HR of multinational pharmaceutical giant Novartis. In 2021, not only was the company navigating the global pandemic, it had also begun an organizational restructuring with the goal of $1 billion in cost saving by 2024.

And just to make things even more interesting for Sardjoe, that same year he transferred from the Novartis Pharma Nederland to Canada, immersing himself and his family in a work culture that was challenging.

“An important element of HR is the culture of the country. The Netherlands is definitely a bit more of a direct country. I think Canadians tend to be a bit more polite and consensus driven,” said Sardjoe.

“Canada is a very comfortable country, things are going well here, so the need for change is not always evident. So if you want to do a change in an organization, the case for change, the ‘why’, is extremely important, and even if the why is very clear, making it happen is not easy. But that makes my job fun because that's what I'm all about. I'm really passionate about driving change – individual change, but also organizational change.”

Big transformation meant big cuts to workforce

The transformation involved the merging of two major business units, the integration of Pharmaceuticals and Oncology, into an “Innovative Medicines” business, creating two separate commercial organizations in the process, he said: Innovative Medicines US and Innovative Medicines International. 

The new operating model resulted in an FTE reduction of 30%. The biggest challenge in this scenario, Sardjoe said, was regaining employee trust after losing significant numbers of colleagues. It is not a process that can be forced, he said.

“From an HR perspective, how do you rebuild that trust? How do you create that sense of belonging? How do you create that sense of excitement about the future again? There is no magic switch, there is no button that you can push, so that is a journey,” Sardjoe said.

“We have associates that have been extremely successful in certain ways of working, and now basically we tell them that we have to work differently. How do you create an organization with people that can lead themselves and their teams to change? If you can do that, I think you have a bright future, not only as an organization, but also as an individual associate.”

HR leaders must manage their own wellbeing in the face of change

Sardjoe experienced the insecurity of the transformation as well, as he also had to re-apply for his own job during the restructuring, he said.

Learning to prioritize his own health and well-being throughout the transformation has been an invaluable lesson that he wants to impart to other HR leaders, who are often the main point of contact for employees who are angry or insecure and want answers.

“Even in my personal life, from being a husband and being a father, I learned a great deal,” Sardjoe said. “As you can imagine, during a transformation like that, where everybody is, including myself for a few months, insecure about their own job, being present in the organization means that you are feeding off all the energy and all the insecurity that people have, and being the head of HR, many people reach out to you because they hope they are able to get more clarity about their own future. And although I used to be very good at that, I think I dropped the ball there a little bit.”

When he realized that the stress at work was going home with him, Sardjoe got serious about his own physical and mental health by incorporating exercise and meditating into his daily routine. He encourages other HR leaders to do the same.

“I think HR leaders very much appreciate hearing from a colleague going through a challenging period like that, not only what it did in the professional space, but also how it would impact your personal life,” he said.

“I actually signed up for a marathon so that I just had a goal in my mind, so I could really get up every day and be very disciplined, do my meditation and my running, and this has not only helped me at home, but it has also helped me to lead the people around me in the organization.”

Change management: Let time do the work during organizational transformation

Even the best HR leaders can’t force employees to be happy about a change, or to make them trust the organization’s mission and its leaders, said Sardjoe; during change, employees will range along all areas of the “infamous change curve”.

This fact can be difficult for HR leaders who want to rush the process.

“As a leader, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable during these times, and just accepting the fact that you will not be able to reach each single associate with your message, that it didn't land with each associate,” Sardjoe said. “So I think you just have to accept that, and I think you have to learn to let time do the heavy lifting, there's only so much you can do. And then you just need to give the people time to process it, instead of you asking them to accelerate that process.”

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