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Novartis’ Steven Baert: Diversity of Experience Leads to Stronger Business Decisions

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Novartis' Steven Baert

Growing up in Belgium, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation‘s  Steven Baert never really understood what it was like to be “different.” But when his employer sent him to work in the United Kingdom, he learned as many lessons on human behavior as he did on business strategies.

“It was my first time working in a different country and I experienced what it was like to be an outsider,” he recalls. “I was young and I felt all the pressures to have all the answers to be Superman. I hit a wall and there was real culture shock.”

What he learned was that he had a team of experienced people on hand “and all I had to do was bring them in the room and we got much stronger decisions.”

That experience has served him well as he has moved to increasingly important HR positions, from Unilever to Bristol-Myers Squibb to Novartis, where he recently was appointed global head, Human Resources, Oncology after three years heading HR in the United States and Canada for Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, No. 13 in The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.

The Value of Diversity

For Baert, diversity is critical to the business strategy of Novartis, and HR clearly plays a central role in recruiting, retaining and promoting diverse groups. “I have seen firsthand that a diversity of experience, cultures and individuals leads to innovation, engagement and stronger decision making,” he says.

Having worked globally, including heading the Emerging Growth Markets area, which includes China, Russia, India, Turkey, Thailand, Korea, Australia and New Zealand, he sees strong differences in U.S. and other approaches to diversity and inclusion.

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“There are ways the United States is ahead and ways it is behind,” he says. “In general, the focused attention on diversity and inclusion in businesses in the United States is ahead of the world. It seems every major U.S. corporation has a dedicated function on diversity, with many senior leaders understanding the importance of diversity as part of their strategy. You will not find that easily in other parts of the world.”

However, he notes that on some issues, such as same-sex marriage, the United States is not as progressive as some other countries, and this can be a detriment to hiring. He says that he has had trouble recruiting gay/lesbian scientists to the United States because they cannot get visas for their spouses since the federal government does not recognize their marriages.

“As an employer who likes to bring in the best people, this is disappointing,” he says.

Tying Business to HR

Baert is a rare HR leader whose strategic emphasis is always focused on business goals. He started his professional life as a lawyer, which he chose because “life is not expressed in black and white and the law is a good training ground to manage ambiguity. … I am by nature very solution-oriented and I didn’t like all the fighting in law.”

He moved into HR, thinking he would work in that field for two years and switch to a business role, “but I got so passionate about HR” and its impact on the business. He was recruited by Novartis in a global role and in 2009 was asked to head up HR North America, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation. In that job, he had many opportunities to drive the human-capital agenda.

In his new role, he believes the intersection of HR, diversity and innovation is crucial to the company’s success. “Our business is all about innovation,” he says. “The discoveries we make to fight diseases become ever more complex. It would be naïve to think one person singlehandedly could come up with a solution. You need to bring in many diverse backgrounds, insights and experience to work in an inclusive way because that is what will lead to a breakthrough.”

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