Cultivating curiosity: Novartis’ chief learning officer on why it matters more than ever
Organizational Culture

Cultivating curiosity: Novartis’ chief learning officer on why it matters more than ever

Simon Brown, chief learning officer at leading pharmaceutical company Novartis, explains how a culture of curiosity enables resilience, learning, and organizational effectiveness.

In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Adam Howe speaks with Simon Brown, chief learning officer at Switzerland-based Novartis, a leading pharmaceutical company. Brown discusses the importance of developing a culture of curiosity and how it benefits employees’ well-being, team effectiveness, and overall organizational success. Brown explains how, especially given today’s challenges and the rapid pace of change, the process of curiosity enables resilience, helping us to adapt to new environments by constantly learning and acquiring new skill sets.

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Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (2:21) In your book, The Curious Advantage, you state that curiosity is key for organizations, leaders, and individuals in order to thrive in a digital world. Could you explain to us why curiosity is so important now and how it connects to an executive’s success?
  • (8:24) Thinking about curiosity in your day job as the chief learning officer, how has the learning function developed in response to the COVID-19 crisis and what role has encouraging curiosity played at Novartis in response to the crisis, but more broadly in learning?
  • (12:20) Taking a broader look at talent retention and talent acquisitions, how has Novartis been attracting the right talent and developing people internally?
  • (15:07) In terms of nontechnical skills, besides curiosity, what other leadership traits do you believe are key to a future leader’s success?
  • (16:01) What is the single most important thing Novartis is doing to reset for resilience?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, the premier provider of leadership consulting, culture shaping, and senior-level executive search services. Every day, we’re privileged to talk with fascinating people who are shaping the future through their leadership and vision. In each episode, you’ll hear a different perspective from thought leaders and innovators. Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast.

Adam Howe: Hi, I'm Adam Howe, principle at Heidrick & Struggles and a member of Heidrick Consulting. In today’s podcast, I'm speaking to Simon Brown, chief learning officer at Novartis, one of the leading global pharmaceutical company, based in Switzerland. Simon is also a co-author of the book The Curious Advantage and co-host of the Curious Advantage Podcast. At Novartis, Simon leads the company’s strategy: going big on learning in support of the company-wide cultural transformation to become curious, inspired, and unbossed. Simon, welcome and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Simon Brown: Thank you Adam. It’s great to be here.

Adam Howe: In the current global situation, leaders have had a challenging job making their organizations thrive and being the driving force for organizational resilience. What have you personally learned about leadership during this time?

Simon Brown: It's been a tough year, and one of the big challenges has been how to balance all the different things we've been seeing—work commitments, remote working, family commitments, fear. For me, it was, how do I adapt to a new situation? So, seeing all these changes, almost throwing away some of the things that we’d learned from before, having to adapt to a situation no one had ever seen.

Adam Howe: And is your personal experience consistent with that of the leaders that you're interacting with every day?

Simon Brown: If I think back to the beginning of the pandemic, we were all figuring out the best way to deal with the situation. Within Novartis, we had 60,000 people move to remote working over the course of a weekend and we were trying to figure out how we could best support that. We had no prior experience to draw from and we were trying to do the best in the ambiguity that was there.

Adam Howe: Yes, no playbook for it.

Simon Brown: Exactly.

Adam Howe: Speaking of books, in your book, The Curious Advantage, you state that curiosity is key for organizations, leaders, and individuals in order to thrive in a digital world. Could you explain to us why curiosity is so important now and how it connects to an executive’s success?

Simon Brown: Yes, and I think this year is a prime example. The world is moving faster and there's acceleration through technology and other changes. I think it was Justin Trudeau who said that the pace of change has never been this fast but it will never be this slow again, and we all feel it every day. In that ambiguity, I think curiosity is one of the answers to how we can navigate through it: if we're curious, we're asking questions, we're looking to find different ways of doing things, we're experimenting, we're testing things out. For an organization, that's great because we can experiment, we can test, we can find answers, we can see what works and what doesn't, and, as an organization, navigate through that ambiguity.

From a leadership perspective, a key job for leaders is to create an environment where teams can be curious. Leaders have to create psychological safety—we can go into more detail around the importance of a leader in creating that safety. Through our research for the book, we found there are a lot of benefits to being curious at an individual level. There are some more obvious ones; curiosity helps you learn things and that's at a neurological level—it actually fires up the hippocampus and helps you retain knowledge better. But also, research in the Harvard Business Review talks about how curiosity actually helps communication skills, because when you are curious, you're interested to hear what others are saying. It helps reduce conflict within a team because you're curious: why would someone hold that opinion, tell me more, I’d like to understand why you have a different view. There was also research done by INSEAD [Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires] around how curiosity drives greater innovation. So, it helps at an individual level, but it helps at an organizational level as well.

Adam Howe: Great. And I think I'm right in saying the book project started way before this pandemic, but actually it feels like the lessons learned and the toolkit provided within the book, which we’ll come on to in a second, are even more relevant in times of such change.

Simon Brown: Yes, absolutely. The book came about from a couple of people in the span of two weeks telling us we should write a book about the story of what we were doing at Novartis around curiosity. It evolved from there and we sped up the launch of it because we saw it being so timely with what was going on with the pandemic. Curiosity is a way to help navigate through those uncertain times.

Adam Howe: Can you tell us a bit more about the model of the seven Cs in the book and perhaps a couple of tips on how people could apply them?

Simon Brown: The model came about because we were looking at a lot of the research around curiosity and trying to bucket it into different areas, and we suddenly realized that five of the different areas began with the letter C. That got us into playing the game of trying to find seven buckets that tied to the seven Cs. And then we had the idea of sailing the seven seas and a journey of curiosity, there was a nice pun there, but that was what brought it about.

But, what are the seven Cs? It’s really a model for how you can be more curious either at an individual level or at a team level. It starts with context: understanding the context you're in and what it is you want to be curious about. The second C is community. Once you know what you're curious about, you need to ask, who is the community that can help? Who are the guides, who are the people that you can learn from, who can challenge your thinking? You have to find that community. The third C is curation. When you've found your community, you get a whole load of information, so you have to filter through that information, curating it down to what's going to be relevant to help you. The fourth, then, is creativity—bringing your own ideas, asking your own questions to explore that curiosity. And this happens in conjunction with the fifth one, which is construction—actually putting your ideas into action, because just sitting there and wondering about something isn't enough; you need to test it out, you need to experiment. We talk about creativity and construction as our curiosity engine because those two go in partnership. So, with construction, you've tried something, you've experimented, you've tested, and then you get some results, and that brings you to the sixth C, which is criticality. You must apply a critical lens to your results, being aware of any biases that you bring with you. Is it a confirmation bias that is actually just confirming what you thought you would find? Or are there other biases there? You have to be truly critical to see what the results are actually telling you, what you can learn, and what you can take away. And, through our research, that brought us to the seventh C, which is confidence. We found that the process of being curious actually builds confidence. And, arguably, that takes you back to the start and could almost the first of the seven Cs, because with that confidence you can be bolder to be more curious, ask bigger questions, and do bigger experiments. So, in terms of how you apply it at an individual or team level, you can take a model like the seven Cs and figure out what it is that you're curious about and then work through finding your community, the information that's relevant for you, and your own creative ideas, and then putting the information into action through construction, checking what the results actually tell you, and building your confidence.

Adam Howe: Yes, I can see how it’s kind of perpetual and it becomes self-fulfilling.

Simon Brown: Exactly—a sort of virtuous circle, yes.

Adam Howe: If we were to think about curiosity in your day job as the chief learning officer at Novartis, I’d be curious to understand how the learning function has developed in response to the COVID-19 crisis and also what role encouraging curiosity has played at Novartis in response to the crisis, but more broadly in learning.

Simon Brown: Curiosity is a key part of the culture within Novartis. As you mentioned at the start, we have a culture of inspired, curious, and unbossed. Behind curiosity is learning, but also experimentation, asking questions, and so on. And so, as a learning function, over the last couple of years we've been looking at how we can support that culture of curiosity, considering how we should encourage people to take the time to learn, make sure there are great learning opportunities available, and encourage that constant questioning and experimentation. When we looked at what the barriers were to learning, we found that one of the most common barriers is a lack of time. What that really means is that learning is being prioritized behind all of the other things people also need to do. We also saw there were barriers of managers not supporting learning. So, one of the things we did as a company was set was an aspiration that people spend 5% of their time—or a hundred hours a year—learning and building their skills and being curious. For the past couple of years, we’ve been working toward that aspiration, to create space so our people can actually learn.

When the pandemic hit, it was helpful that we’d already put a lot of resources into supporting curiosity because we could then use those to support what was needed for remote working. The week after a significant chunk of our workforce moved to remote working, we were able to very quickly curate and point them toward learning interventions—things like how to use Microsoft Teams and how to manage time when working from home. Over time, we were also able to point them toward resources for resilience and work with some of the partners across the business to support people with apps around resilience and mindfulness and so forth. So, there was a range of things we did in order to be able to support our people until the pandemic, but then we were able to adapt those things for the new needs that came about post-COVID, as well as extending our learning beyond the company. We were able to support friends and family of Novartis associates through access to Corsair—more than 12,000 friends and family members took advantage of that, as well as the Khan Academy, which is a not-for-profit that provides schooling that I would recommend for your listeners who have children at home or who aren't getting distance learning through school. Khan Academy is a fantastic free site that has amazing learning opportunities not just for school kids but for all of us.

Adam Howe: Thinking about the pharma industry, it’s been in the spotlight during this pandemic and it’s going to be more front and center in this new normal that we're living in. Looking forward, what plans does Novartis have to stay at the forefront of learning and development?

Simon Brown: One of the areas we’re focused on is how we can further develop a curiosity culture, how we can work toward that aspiration around time spent learning new skills and also studying how we learn more informally, in terms of learning from what works, and, in particular, learning from what doesn't work. Something I think many organizations can improve upon is how they learn from failure, from the things that maybe don't go exactly to plan. How can they capture that learning and share that with other parts of the organization? So that's one of the areas we're looking at—better sharing of both positive and negative learning from things that happen across the organization.

Adam Howe: Taking a broader look at talent—talent retention and talent acquisitions—I’d be interested to understand how Novartis has been attracting the right talent and developing people internally.

Simon Brown: I go into this in a bit more detail in the book, why we made the decision back in February 2019 to go big on learning, and it supports that talent attraction question you raised. We made two cases for why, as a company, we made the decision to go big on learning in support of that goal around curiosity, or culture around curiosity. The first case was the attraction and retention of the best talent and the second was supporting the skills needed to deliver on the company strategy.

A lot of external research shows that learning is either the top or one of the top reasons people join an organization. We had a lot of internal data points as well that showed that learning is something people find very important. So, there was demand from both within and outside the company, and to retain talent we needed to get greater learning capabilities. And then, on the skills side, in order to deliver against the company strategy, going big on data and digital and operational excellence required new skills.

There's also a lot of research out there from the likes of Gartner that shows that a third of people have learned a new-to-world skill in the past three years—that is, a skill that previously didn’t exist, maybe something like blockchain or even data science in some of its current forms. And then, nearly 20% of the skills that we all use today will expire in three years’ time as well. So, you've got new skills coming and the skills we’re relying on are expiring; we need to get great at building new skills. So, that was the rationale behind why we invested in learning—we want to attract and retain the right people and have the skills to deliver against the strategy.

Adam Howe: I’m assuming, in this kind of VUCA [volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity] world we’re living in, that trend isn’t going to go away, so there's a need to continue to acquire new skill sets through learning and development. Capability building is going to become increasingly important.

Simon Brown: Yes. There’s a great example: Gartner did an investigation into organizations that were using blockchain in 2018, and only 1% of CIOs said they were doing anything with blockchain. Two years later, a LinkedIn learning survey of top skills in 2020 showed that blockchain was the number one in-demand skill. That's the pace at which some of these technical skills are changing.

Adam Howe: In terms of nontechnical skills, besides curiosity, what other leadership traits do you believe are key to a future leader’s success?

Simon Brown: I think there are many. Personally, I think humility is one, not needing to know all of the answers and being confident in not knowing, not having to project a view that you do know all the answers. And that ties a little into our unbossed principle that we have within Novartis—creating a great team, a diverse team, with safety and encouragement for that team so that they can share ideas and come up with better solutions than any one person could. And I think the ability to inspire and, in particular, to create a sense of purpose in the team to motivate us through the hard times that so many of us experienced over the past months.

Adam Howe: A final question—we’ll end where we started, around resilience. What is the single most important thing Novartis is doing to reset for resilience?

Simon Brown: One of the biggest things is just recognizing how hard it is for people at the moment, recognizing the difficulties people are going through, whether they're in a lockdown situation, whether they're juggling young children that may be at home without space to actually work, whether their loved ones are suffering or at high risk from the pandemic. I think just recognizing what everyone is experiencing at the moment and then providing the flexibility and support so that people can manage in a way that works best for them. I think that's one of the biggest pieces, whether that means supporting with learning or access to resilience and mindfulness apps, whether it’s flexible working and people being able to work from a location that works for them—all those pieces go into making sure that we're supporting our associates.

Adam Howe: Simon, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today. Can you let people know where they can find the book?

Simon Brown: Yes, absolutely. The Curious Advantage is available on Amazon, and also, if you're interested in podcasts, there's a podcast that goes with it, accessible through Spotify or iTunes—just search for the Curious Advantage. Thanks for having me, Adam.

Adam Howe: Thanks Simon, talk soon.

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