There was a saying in the banking sector at the time of the (last) financial crisis that “culture is what happens when nobody’s looking”.
It’s a salutary reminder to anyone with a mission to drive a specific “corporate culture”: cultures, be they corporate, national (or even biologic) have a life of their own. As leaders, we can steer, guide and advise our colleagues, but only to a certain extent: cultures are the sum of individual behaviors, and individuals are, well, individual...
I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few months, as our company (and much of the world) has come to terms with the Corona-driven virtual working environment, and as it morphs gradually into what many now call “the New Normal”.
In previous posts, I wrote about the potential longer-term implications of Covid-19 for global supply chains, the generics industry and healthcare in general, but today I’d like to focus on some initial learnings about culture and leadership in a “virtual world”. And, when I say “learnings”, I mean just that: things I have learned from other people, not least my colleagues at Sandoz.
My New Normal: Selfie from my "executive quarantine" in a Singapore hotel room
#1: Don’t be scared of the virtual world
This is the most obvious one, but it bears repeating: you can still build and nurture human relationships – and drive your business -- without regular face-to-face contact. Like any new skill, it takes practice, but it’s absolutely do-able.
Indeed, as part of the perils of international travel during the pandemic, I have spent several 14-day quarantine periods in hotel rooms without being able to leave the room – something that clearly tested my ability to stay in touch with people, but I can tell you: staying digitally connected makes all the difference!
There are even some advantages to the virtual world: I think we’ve all had the experience of getting to know people at a more “human” level in recent months, as kids suddenly pop up in the background of a video conference or somebody’s dog voices its opinion of your latest channel strategy!
It can also be a learning experience about individual working styles: virtual communications really drum home the point that different people work best in different ways, and certain types of meeting work well for some and less well for others. The key word here is flexibility – adapting both to changing circumstances (i.e. don’t just try to replicate your office working day at home) and to what brings out the best in others.
#2: Control is not about visibility
There’s also a “harder” lesson around effective leadership in a virtual organization: I at least have had to change my approach to defining the purpose of meetings, as well as managing the fact that everyone nowadays seems to have busier schedules than at any time in the past.
Most importantly, though, I believe many leaders have had to rethink their expectations around control and management – because the reality is that they just do have less “visibility” than in the past and have to rely more than ever on trust, judgment and the so-called “soft skills”.
It’s a change I welcome at Sandoz, because it forces all of us to deliver on our aspiration to create a truly “unbossed” organization, even if it sometimes takes us out of our comfort zone.
#3: Culture is driven by Purpose
Which brings me to the most important point: culture (and thus performance) today is driven increasingly by purpose, not by control. I firmly believe the successful organizations of the future will be those whose employees come to work every day driven by a clear vision of how they contribute to society, and where goals and strategies are aligned to that sense of purpose.
I’m lucky to lead a company with a clear sense of purpose: as a global leader in generic medicines, our “day job” is to drive access to affordable, high-quality medicines and to help keep healthcare sustainable.
But the lesson applies to all – as per the story of the cleaning lady at NASA who reportedly said her job was “to put a man on the moon”.
I’d love to know your thoughts on virtual working, culture and leadership – or any of the other topics I’ve engaged on recently...