• Novartis’ David Epstein: A Diverse Team Can ‘Accomplish Feats Nobody Thought Possible’


    “David Epstein, Division Head of Novartis Pharmaceuticals, spoke with DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti aartis corporate headquarters in Basel, Switzerland, about how diversity impacts innovation, R&D and marketing. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation is No. 13 on the DiversityInc Top 50.”

    Here are some excerpts from the interview, as it appeared in DiversityInc.:

    VISCONTI: Can you connect the company’s focus on diversity and inclusion, cultural awareness and cultural competency with your philosophy on research and development?

    EPSTEIN: There are a couple of connections. One is we can recruit people, the best people, from anywhere in the world, which is a major advantage. And when you start to recruit these people, they bring in even more people from those regions or those backgrounds.

    Working with diverse cultures and backgrounds, you’re also more likely to design your clinical trials in a way that looks for subgroups or different patient characteristics

    It’s largely about talent. It’s about getting the very best people in the door and then making the investment to get them to work together in a high-performing team. That means training your leaders to be inclusive—and we do have inclusive leadership training. We just rolled out a program called Leaders as Coaches. It teaches people specific coaching skills as leaders—for example, how to have a conversation with your team members so challenges and options can be addressed openly and in a reflective manner. We also do high-performing team training where the leader and their direct team work together on a multitude of things.

    When you first explain to people that we are going to do this, you get the classic reaction: “I have to take two or three days out of my schedule to do this? I have to think differently?” After they’ve been through it, something interesting happens: They say, “This has made me a better leader and it’s had an immediate impact on how we all work together and what we can achieve.

    Our strategy is to win in primary care, specialty care and oncology. We want to become the best pharmaceutical company by 2016. There are four major pillars: growth, innovation, productivity and people. The people pillar is very clearly spelled out as becoming more diverse and inclusive, to invest heavily in high-performing team workshops and education so that we can bring out the best in people. We’re very explicit about it.

    That is a very broad statement to make. The diversity he is speaking of is a diversity of thought and educational experience. Most Americans when they think of diversity they first think race and then the thought is gender. I have have always told my technology clients that diversity comes in different forms and the true diversity they should look at is the diversity of educational backgrounds. In this country (the U.S.) you can not always attein diversity of race within your tech teams. That is because of the availability pool of qualified applicants.

    I have sat on 40+ engineering advisory boards at U.S. universities and the real paradigm shift is the continued rise of female and hispanic numbers in undergraduate engineering freshmen numbers. Unfortunately, African-American numbers are lacking in America’s top engineering school.
    Yes, it is a broad statement, but the cognitive diversity that many hold as a team-composition goal is directly connected to traditional “diversity” factors such as race, orientation, disability, age and gender. Those facets—particularly the ones around which discrimination occurs—shape experience, which in turn creates cognitive diversity. And although I agree with you about ongoing education disparities and progress, what you didn’t mention (and may agree with) is that progressive schools can bridge those gaps by providing exposure to underrepresented groups in areas in which there are gaps. For example, the dean of Rutgers’ School of Engineering recently established an engineering office on the women’s campus of Rutgers, and he was able to recruit 50 women from other majors.
    Novartis takes a proactive hand in shaping its own future—David Epstein is a Rutgers graduate and a key supporter of a very innovative program at our School of Pharmacy. I think it’s important to point out that a well-run university—and a well-run organization—will purposely and proactively develop pipeline programs that support opening the aperture to underrepresented groups to give them the experiences that lead to hiring people. That’s a far better way to shape your own future than relying on serendipity. And I think a well-run corporation that takes these steps will build the cognitive diversity to allow it to consistently beat its competition.
    Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc