Article: Leading without being "the boss": Novartis SG's Kevin Zou


Leading without being "the boss": Novartis SG's Kevin Zou

The un-bossed culture, an alternative to traditional top-down leadership, drives trust, responsibility, and better solutions to business issues. Kevin Zou, Country President for Novartis Singapore, shares how it works from the inside.
Leading without being "the boss": Novartis SG's Kevin Zou

Back in 2018, pharmaceutical giant Novartis introduced the concept of an "un-bossed" culture across its global operations. That culture was firmly in place when the COVID-19 crisis began. People Matters asked Kevin Zou, the Head of Asia Pacific and Country President, Singapore, for Novartis, about the unbossed culture and how it is helping him and his leadership team navigate through the crisis.

Could you share a bit more about the “un-bossed” culture? How has it changed the way you lead?

At Novartis, “unboss” to us means flipping the conventional pyramid where leaders are on the top, to now developing “servant leaders”. In this sense, you no longer have a team in support of a boss, but you have a boss in support of a team.

With unbossed, leaders, including myself, had to undergo a mindset shift and move away from the traditional, top-down leadership. The goal was to galvanize a new generation of leaders to lead differently and with a difference. We leaders had to switch our focus to nurturing an environment where people could express their thoughts freely and bring their diverse experiences, skills and perspectives to the table.

For example, instead of telling my team what to do, I would involve my team in important decisions that impact their work. Once we align on objectives and directions, the team is given full autonomy to develop and implement solutions. One of my other responsibilities is to support the team by removing obstacles for them, so that they can be more effective.

Today, the value creation process is collaborative and no individual person has all the answers anymore. The unbossed culture has made me more self-aware as a leader – I constantly reflect on what else can I do to empower and inspire my team for them to leverage on their collective knowledge and curiosity to create innovative solutions. When people are empowered to deliver, they take charge and feel responsible for the results.

I believe this unbossed culture truly helps unleash the power of our people and has become a driver of innovation, performance and a source of sustainable competitive advantage for our business.

When the severity of the present crisis began to unfold, how did the “un-boss” culture impact your ability and the ability of your team to respond?

This pandemic has been a major crisis for businesses globally, and one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my career to date. As the crisis began to unfold, it was important for us to quickly set clear directions for the organization and communicate our top priorities: (1) ensuring the health and safety of our associates and (2) the supply of our vital medicines to patients.

In Singapore, we have approximately 1,000 associates across several diverse business units including: local commercial operations, Asia Pacific regional headquarters, two manufacturing plants, and clinical research and development. With so many entities, the culture of unbossed allowed us to align the organization quickly with our top priorities and empower each business units to make their own decisions and act responsibly.

For example, during the time when masks were hard to secure and wearing masks outdoors was not mandated by the government yet, we made the decision to distribute a box of masks to all our associates to ensure their health and safety. To complicate matters, this was during the Circuit Breaker period where our offices were already closed and our office-based associates were working from home. However, with a clear goal in mind, we rallied an internal taskforce and empowered the team to find creative solutions to this challenge. In less than a week, the team quickly sourced and managed all aspects of the project – from communications to logistics, delivering masks to over 300 individual home addresses.

The culture of unboss also gives rise to recognizing the team instead of just the leader as solutions are co-created and work becomes naturally more collaborative. To unboss also means putting the success of my team above my own success and giving recognition when it’s due.

How have you been managing the responses and reactions of your people, especially with the situation changing so quickly?

We believe remaining connected and transparent is key especially during these unprecedented times. Associates are looking to leaders for guidance and clarity on how to act and react to the evolving situation. To remain connected, we established clear communication channels and leveraged on digital tools that allow us to facilitate open two-way conversations with our workforce. During this period, our leaders did frequent check-ins to understand our associates’ concerns and gathered ideas on how we can better support one another.

Since we transitioned to the unbossed culture two years ago, we have also seen an increase in trust between leaders and their team members. This has been especially helpful during this fast evolving situation. We recognize as leaders, we may not always have the immediate answers to everyone’s concerns. We also trust that our associates feel comfortable surfacing concerns and empowered to identify solutions instead of waiting on leaders to fix it all.

Initiatives such as the early suspension of sales visits to healthcare professionals and institutions and the use of digital engagement tools were suggestions from our field force. As a result, we were one of the first pharmaceutical companies in Singapore to temporarily suspend all face-to-face work visits to healthcare professionals which later inspired other companies to follow suit.

Have you found your personal leadership style changing further in order to adapt to the crisis and support your team better?

The unbossed leadership style has made me more self-aware as a leader. During times of crisis, it is important to drive clarity and find the best way to empower and motivate our team to deliver their best.

As a leader, I never assume I have the best idea in the room. I always welcome open discussions, encourage feedback and ask my team how can I help achieve their goal. Being present for my team and guiding them to transform ideas into actionable measures is how I feel I can best support my team.

Novartis Singapore recently made the headlines for returning the Jobs Support Scheme payout offered by the government. What are some other ways you have been able to support the community?

We have returned the full JSS payout for April 2020 which amounts to SGD $3.7 million and we will continue to decline future payout reliefs in May, July, and October 2020 to demonstrate our integrity, our shared community spirit and ability to support employment during this period. This is a critical time for us to stand together with the community and we hope these funds will be re-distributed to help others in need.

Globally, we have committed to no COVID-19 related job losses for our associates. We are in a financially strong position to support our associates without government relief during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We recognize our role in supporting the society we live in. To date, Novartis has donated SGD $200,000 to The Courage Fund to help support vulnerable individuals and families, including healthcare workers, frontline workers, and volunteers, affected by COVID-19. In a joint-industry effort, we have supported the Singapore Association of Pharmaceutical Industries (SAPI) to purchase masks, medical equipment and other essential items to hospitals during this pandemic. In addition, at a time when healthcare professionals and health system resources are being diverted to address the pandemic, we are offering online resources and financial assistance to support patient organisations who are stepping forward to provide crucial educational, psycho-social and health navigation support to other patients in need.

Could you share where you’re getting your own support during this period?

I have a good support system at Novartis. My fellow leaders have been providing great support in navigating these uncertain times. Our associates continue to inspire me with their resilience, focus, and innovative solutions.

I’m also reminded every day that we are never alone in this journey. Collaboration and supporting one another are essential in helping us all achieve our greatest potential.

As the Country President of Novartis Singapore, I feel a strong sense of responsibility over all our associates. Our 1,000 associates rely on our leadership’s guidance to navigate this crisis. They have put their trust in me and the Country Leadership Team which I take very seriously. It is our responsibility to ensure we continue to keep our people safe and achieve our business objectives to fulfill our purpose of reimagining medicines to improve and extend people’s lives.

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Topics: Leadership, #LeadTheWay

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