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EF: What was NOVARTIS role this past year during the pandemic?

FC: Our main objective was (and is) to preserve the health of our associates and their families as well as their economic stability and to this end we made a commitment not to fire anyone as a consequence of the pandemic and this had a huge impact in terms of keeping people connected to our purpose. We were one of the first companies, at least in Mexico, to implement a remote working model, we already had a global service center with a lot of people providing service remotely to people from Argentina to Canada. We had policies and incentives in place so it was a relatively easy step for us. The pandemic started in China and then hit hard in Italy and in Spain, all countries where we have manufacturing facilities but even so we had made a commitment to guarantee access to our medicine supply. We launched a program “Estamos Contigo” in Mexico where we continued to supply medicines to people losing their jobs as a result of the pandemic so they would continue adhering to their treatments. We made several donations of protective equipment to healthcare professionals as part of our social commitment and donated 250 thousand dollars through the Mexican Foundation for Health FUNSALUD for hospitals attending Covid patients.  Back in May 2020 when hydroxychloroquine was being tested as one of the possible Covid treatments we donated medicines -a huge donation- to the Instituto Nacional de Nutrición Salvador Zubirán to treat 20 thousand patients, although later on we found out hydroxychloroquine was no effective treating Covid-19. Finally there is our role and commitment to deliver transformative innovation to the patients we serve, looking beyond the pandemic to address other health priorities present in Mexico, such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. 

EF: What were the lessons learnt during managing a pandemic? 

FC: I think the companies better remembered will be the ones that put their employees and their communities before the operational results, and I am happily aware that Novartis made a conscious decision to preserve health, guarantee access and keep its workforce. Historically in a big crisis the first thing companies do is let staff go, and not to do so was a lesson learnt. The second lesson is that leadership has changed; there is a new type of leader, a leader that recognizes not having all the answers, a leader that can feel comfortable with ambiguity, a leader that is only as strong as his collaboration with the team. Leaders today bring people together to face a common challenge and work on a co-creative process to tackle the challenges. The new leader admits he doesn’t know the answer but believes that together with his team they will figure it out. There are decreasing levels of predictability not only in Mexico and the region but across the world and to feel comfortable with ambiguity is an important lesson learnt and it is very exciting and a joy to see this happening. We were here before and we will be here after the pandemic and believe in our talent and capacity to navigate the storm and overcome it.

EF: What are the KPIs you consider important to follow closely? 

FC: The most important KPIs at the center of our organization are close to our culture: keeping people engaged with our purpose, connected with our organization and focused on the bigger picture despite the existing and obvious anxiety that can be felt due to the present circumstances. As a healthcare company we touch people’s lives in a way few industries are able to do. We have a very robust methodology to keep track of these indicators and the outcome has been great, people are excited about their purpose in the organization and have a clear idea of what we are doing and even more importantly why and how we do it. Work-life balance is a challenge, as people are working extra with back to back meetings but it is a working progress and we openly recognize the challenge and are looking for solutions. As a company with a work force in the field that has to interact with healthcare professionals we had to evolve, adapt and change our performance indicators for our workforce´s income not to be affected as a result of the pandemic. Changing to virtual affected the way of measuring the interactions between our field force and healthcare professionals to some extent and we had to concentrate on different areas. A third intangible indicator was our bold thinking designing projects in the middle of the pandemic, defining what sort of organization we wanted to be in three to five years down the road. As a result of our bold thinking we are moving from figure based indicators to a model based on impact.  

EF: How do you manage to bring resources to Mexico and deliver on the initiatives you mentioned above?

FC: Mexico is a country of opportunities on many levels, there is tremendous talent and a lot of very capable people in the country and across Latin America. I was recently reading an article of the head hunting firm Spencer Steward on how leaders in Latin America lead and their conclusion was that because Latin American leaders are forged in such a complex environment they privilege empathy, a sense of community and meaningful relationships. With the huge talent of the region I think Novartis is an example of this. Five years ago a decision was made to establish in Mexico one of the five global service centers we have worldwide. Secondly as a healthcare company we face certain challenges such as a fragmented system and challenges in access but there also are many opportunities. Mexico has the largest social security institution in Latin America  -perhaps the largest in the world- the Instituto Mexicano de Seguridad Social that covers almost 70 million patients. We have the scientists, trained and capable healthcare professionals for clinical trials, the patients and companies such as Novartis with a big appetite to capture them and recover the clinical trial´s investment. Mexico has a great ecosystem to drive clinical trials, innovative long term business models and manage agreements of value based propositions. We see massive potential here not to mention its privileged geographical location which makes it easy to sell Mexico to the world. The challenges are considerable when considering universal coverage and trying to deliver more affordable medicines, agility in terms of the country´s bureaucracy and in bringing more clinical trials to Mexico. On a positive note both the industry and the government share common ground and we must come together to tackle these challenges, focusing on the opportunities as stakeholders are always willing to invest in good opportunities. 

EF: Was there a change in the portfolio over this last year?

FC: We obviously saw a decrease in sales, but that was expected. We were fortunate enough to have a mild growth of 1% and which was aligned with the global growth of Novartis (3 or 4%), a building base for the future. In terms of our portfolio there weren’t great changes, we continued to look at our health priorities such as breast and stomach cancer, diabetes, heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases to ensure they are not left unattended especially because the system was fully focused and overwhelmed by Covid. Our therapeutic areas were impacted and we must partner with the system to ensure that chronic diseases get treatment without compromising the system. 

EF: Do you have any initiatives to bring back chronic disease diagnosis and so avoid later cost and life issues for the healthcare system? 

FC: We have a few initiatives, for example in cardiovascular diseases -the number one cause of death in Mexico- and we are trying to measure the efficiencies of having the right protocols to prevent, diagnose and treat patients correctly. We are finding ways for the system to reinvest or reallocate the resources for long term benefit for patients for example to be hospitalized less or controlling diabetic patients so they don’t get kidney disease. It is an attempt to move from a short term vision based mostly on price and cost to a long term vision based on value and outcomes and to achieve financial sustainability of the system in the long term rather than short term savings. Buying cheap medicines will give short term savings but the long term outcomes will be substandard and less effective so we are working with the authorities on a whole new paradigm. We also have a few initiatives connected to digital transformation; we launched our telemedicine platform last year called “Consultorio Movil” aiming to help the patients continue interacting with the doctor without the risk of having to leave their homes and get infected but it also happened to accelerate digitalization. The companies using technology at an early stage will be the ones that will be most successful in launching this kind of effort. We also launched an online store and we were the first company to launch a controlled medicine e-store, just another sample of what we are doing to facilitate access working alongside the medical healthcare system to effectively and affordably achieve universal coverage.  Because the penetration of private health is very low in Mexico we are in very advanced stages of conversations with insurance companies, in an attempt to cover more patients and get better results which means more savings -a virtuous cycle. 

EF: Do you have any advice for other business leaders wishing to introduce digital initiatives? 

FC: Just go for it! Based on my own experience back when we started our plans for our digital transformation some three or four years ago, when we started out we didn’t have a clear vision of where we were going, we just knew it was the right way to go. We brought in the talent and the people who had the digital knowledge, we partnered with companies that are fully dedicated to digital transformation, co-created a process and the results can be seen. We have made serious progress in many areas; we are using AI to have better interactions with our clients, to better understand the healthcare professional and how to approach them. It is OK not to have clarity when we begin, that will come talking to peers and as the project advances. We can learn a lot talking to our peers and our competitors, when navigating unchartered territory collaboration is needed; alliances with companies that originally were unthinkable are now possible. It is about taking small steps and being prepared to make mistakes: learn fast, recover and move forward. 

EF: A few years on when you look back at this period what would you like your tenure to be remembered for? 

FC: I would love it if people remembered what local organizations did for humanity when they made their decisions, the humanity with which we approached vulnerability, how some of our associates had to work, maybe in small crowded apartments on zoom with kids screaming in the background which was very challenging as was losing family or friends to Covid-19. So for me it all comes down to connecting as human beings, having a sense of empathy and compassion, understanding that this too shall pass and we will come out stronger. I have seen how we can make mistakes and learn from them and move forward with a stronger organization and a stronger sense of purpose. One of the few positive things the pandemic has left us is that health has reclaimed its position as a priority issue

June 2021