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Ask the White Guy: What Drove Novartis to Become No. 1

Luke Visconti is the founder and CEO of DiversityInc. Although the title of his column is meant to be humorous, the issues he addresses and the answers he gives to questions are serious—and based on his 16 years of experience publishing DiversityInc. Click here to send you own question to Luke.

What Drove Novartis to Become No. 1The companies on our 14th DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list have better demographics than last year’s list—and they’re FAR better than the average Fortune 500 company. However, we see an enormous difference in management, growth and results between companies at the top of our list and those toward the bottom.

Our No. 1 company this year, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation (NPC), is a case where successful diversity management grew dramatically because of the support and personal involvement of André Wyss, U.S. Country Head, President of Novartis Corporation and President of NPC. Novartis was always a contender, ranked in the middle of the pack for a number of years when it started competing in 2006, but it rose rapidly starting in 2011 as its diversity programs really started gaining traction.

Much like Sodexo and Coca-Cola, the impetus for the change in emphasis came from a lawsuit. In 2004, a group of women in the sales department at NPC filed a discrimination lawsuit. It was certified as a class action, and the company eventually lost the case in 2010. The lawsuit cost the company hundreds of millions in damages and expenses. The mistreatment of women was limited to that department—NPC’s human-capital data, including management representation and promotions within management, showed that it was always better than the DiversityInc Top 50 average for women. But, no doubt about it, Novartis lost this suit for good reasons.

Coincidentally, I was invited to speak at NPC the week the case was decided. I was surprised the company let me speak (given the timing), but I soon learned this is André Wyss’ style. I gave a general diversity presentation, but at the end I said, “Let’s address the elephant in the room,” and talked about how badly everyone must feel, but that what they do—develop one breakthrough pharmaceutical after another—is important to all human kind, and that they needed to pick themselves up and get back to work for everyone’s benefit.

André stepped up his emphasis on diversity management. He had me present to his executive committee—and asked me to be very specific, not to sugarcoat the advice. The data and attendant best practices were scrutinized and emphasis was placed on accountability and results. One by one, very powerful (and diverse) leaders, who were already advocates of diversity and inclusion, were promoted. Rhonda Crichlow became the Chief Diversity Officer; she is a serious-minded lawyer who does not suffer fools gladly. Perhaps the greatest indication of success is how pleased she is with NPC’s progress—and with the support of André.

Today, women make up more than 50 percent of André’s direct reports, including scientific positions. I’m pleased to say that André is a “real man” (he talks about his children) and the women reporting to him are “real women” (they talk about their families as well). It’s an amazingly gentle culture for one so driven for success. Like the other companies in our DiversityInc Top 10, I see the interaction with the senior executive to be human—warm, engaging and, at times, with humor.

I let André know about earning the No. 1 spot before our event, and we had lunch. Tellingly, he was primarily interested in discussing how to leverage NPC’s No. 1 status to recruit more diversity. And a word to the other very competitive companies: He also wants to remain in the No. 1 spot.

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