CULTURE & TRANSFORMATION: Championing the Catalytic Change at GSK Vaccines
The Healthcare sector has long been seen as a complex and multi-faceted labyrinth, where innovation and agility regularly battle government regulations and a dizzying market complexity. For those working in the sector, particularly during the pandemic, the need to increase the agility and adaptability of these organizations has never been more urgent. For society at large but also for the long-term commercial viability of these companies. However strong the impetus for change, creating positive change inside an organization, and nurturing that momentum, remains one of the toughest challenges facing any Executive Group. I recently had the opportunity to chat with one of the most passionate and progressive Change leaders in my network Nicolas Petit, Senior Director Culture Transformation at GSK Vaccines about the journey that his business has been on for the past three years to change the organization from the inside. And how, by leveraging the enormous power and credibility of informal organizational networks, GSK Vaccines have accelerated a leadership Renaissance and deepened the buy-in around change. Nico’s passion (and perseverance) for culture change is without equal and his insights are brilliant. Enjoy the chat.
HB: Nico, always great to see you, my friend. You look rested from your recent vacation.
NP: <Laughs> Rested indeed but, as you know, within 72 hours of getting back your vacation can quickly feel like a distant memory.
HB: I get that. Perhaps the best place to start is by giving us some background on you and your role at GSK Vaccines.
NP: So usually when I get this question, I tend to make jokes saying I’m the classic example of someone whose career has not been linear at all. My greatest passion comes from launching stuff. I enjoy exploring new territory. So, if there’s a thread that would be it. I’ve worked almost 25 years in the pharma industry and had very diverse roles in sales, in marketing, in R&D, in Manufacturing. Then three years ago, I joined the global culture team. My boss at the time asked me why I wanted to join this new, untested group when I had a stable job and was doing well. My honest answer was this was something incredibly close to my heart and what the culture team were embarking on was so fascinating I needed to be part of it. Thankfully she blessed my move to the team, and I’ve been here ever since.
For some added context, I should give you some background on GSK Vaccines too. We’re about 17,000 employees worldwide with sites in Europe, Asia, America, and these include both R&D as well as manufacturing sites. We’re a world leading vaccines company with a broad portfolio of vaccines. Most of the doses that are manufactured in our sites around 80% are shipped to low- and middle-income countries. I’m incredibly proud of that.
HB: We’ve spoken at length about the Culture Transformation initiative you’re involved in at GSK. Before we get into the specifics, I’m also intrigued to understand what initiated this Culture work? What was it the organization was trying to solve that they were prepared to invest resources like your team to tackle?
NP: There are two important sides to my answer. One side is the business reality we face as an organization. The other is the people and talent realities we also face.
The last 18 months of COVID has thrust the vaccine business into the spotlight and I’ve been incredibly proud to see how our industry has responded to save lives globally. What might not be so obvious to an outsider is just how incredibly fast the pace of innovation has been to come up with so many vaccines in such a relatively short period. This was not the case historically, even though — of course — we have always worked on getting vaccines to people as fast as possible. Creating new vaccines is still labour, time and capital intensive but we’re all seeing that there are new ways and technologies to speed up vaccine development. GSK, as a world leader, was acutely aware of this transformation the industry is going through at the moment and we’ve been making enormous strides to make ourselves more nimble, more agile, and faster as an organization. However, tackling a changing business reality was something that we at GSK started before the pandemic, it was only intensified by the impact that COVID-19 had on us and the industry more broadly.
And, of course, if you’re increasing the desire to be faster, more innovative, more creative then there’s an impact on your teams and talent. That means looking hard at your culture and seeing where the opportunities and hurdles lay. We had several debates about calling this initiative a culture change internally but finally agreed on naming our project culture shaping (versus change) initiative. You can’t change a culture because all cultures, all organizations, have a certain trajectory. But you can shape and impact that trajectory which is where the people dimension of this initiative formed.
In simple terms we wanted to release more energy from within our people. Energy to be creative but, equally, energy to keep enjoying their work and enjoy the challenges we were posing them. Energy to tackle these complex business challenges and the energy to keep persisting in solving them, no matter how hard.
A critical part was the acceptance that we needed to genuinely empower our people, make them the captain of their own boats.
Not lip-service but genuine and complete empowerment.
So, it was both the external business reality and the internal people and talent opportunity this initiative had to tackle.
HB: That sounds incredible but, for many of our readers, the inevitable question is where do you start something like this?
NP: You’re right, there can be a lot of moving parts and orchestrating where and how the parts fit and when to use them has been one of my biggest learnings. I’m sure we’ll get to that in more detail. Firstly, we’ve been aided by some brilliant thinkers in this space who’ve given us great counsel. I must acknowledge Leandro Herrero and the The Chalfont Projectfor their guidance, inspiration, leadership, and partnership through this fantastic initiative.
A core element of this initiative was recognizing — and deliberately working with — the two distinct worlds that operate inside every organization and culture.
World One is the formal structure of reporting lines and organizational design.
Its currency is Information.
World Two is the informal world of networks, relationships not bounded by lines on a chart.
Its currency is Behaviours.
Understanding that both exist and that they operate differently, but concurrently, has been fundamental to our success.
So, with that baseline we set out to work World One and World Two to help bring about the change. Just using World One would’ve repeated classic failures like commanding and demanding change. Only using World Two would’ve meant too much happening out of sight of the organization so we needed to use both.
Pinpointing the colleagues, we needed for World Two required an exercise called ONA or Organizational Network Analysis which, remarkably, identified around 7% who were seen as highly influential by their colleagues. The fascinating, but not surprising, piece is that many of them weren’t the loud, extroverted people we’ve traditionally characterized as “leaders”. Many in this group were introverted, reserved, considered and contemplative thinkers. The types who would sit quietly through a meeting and then say something deeply insightful at the end. It was those individuals, broadly speaking, that had earned the admiration and trust of their colleagues.
Importantly, we didn’t go to this group and ask them to be evangelists, to deliver presentations on our behalf. We asked them to be active, visible change champions by looking at their own behaviours, actions and even biases and then trying to model different behaviours. And, as Catalysts, to also ask their colleagues to do the same. By empowering them to be the change example and actively engaging their team and peers, we believed their influence would accelerate our transformation. Wonderfully, that’s exactly what’s happened.
We also, very deliberately, named them as “catalysts” because a catalyst is an element in a chemical reaction that accelerates the reaction yet leaves unchanged. It seemed a very fitting metaphor these important people.
It was also a way to respect the authenticity of these catalysts. If they’d been changed by this, then we’d lose all the trust and influence they’d built up with their network.
That was obviously a risk we weren’t prepared to take.
HB: I’m fascinated by the idea of Network Mapping. Can you explain what it is for those unfamiliar with it?
NP: Absolutely. As the name suggests it’s a process — that then gets visualized or mapped — to determine the connections between people in an organization. You can draw these powerful visualizations based on email traffic and where and between whom it flows (passive ONA), or simply by asking questions like “Who do you ask for assistance when you’re stuck?” (active ONA). Active ONA is more suitable to the GDPR regulations where you ask people for their consent, so this was the approach we took here in Europe.
The maps are fascinating because they allow you to see the strengths of informal networks inside your company. You can for instance see the difference in networks between genders or seniority to give you some idea of how diversity and inclusion is really happening. Mapping this for departments, business units and even between geographies can show if collaboration is really happening or who are the real collaborators. Or following a merger to see if the teams are actually “merging” or still staying to themselves.
HB: Brilliant synopsis mate because it seems such an obvious exercise to do inside any remote-based culture right now. Also, as you say, we understand this from our lives outside of work and the people we place our trust in. You’ve mentioned “trust” several times, why is that so important in this particular exercise?
NP: Not to sound hyperbolic but managing the “trust” component was pivotal in ensuring the success of this program. Building that started almost from the beginning when we told these catalysts that we’d not share their names and identities with their bosses. And, trust me, there was significant pressure to share those names with our leaders. By protecting their identities, we were able to ensure no pressure was exerted on them by their bosses and they could keep operating informally as they’d always done. That was a Trust moment, but it was important that the culture team built up our own trust with these catalysts. For an organization that places tremendous emphasis on Trust, that was an early test for us all.
HB: Fascinating. Can you talk about the impact this “informal” network of catalysts had on the formal leadership structure inside GSK? Was there a tension or sense of competition between the two groups?
NP: The first thing I want to say is that there’s no such thing as leaders on one side and catalysts on the other. Many of them are/were the same. Remember we are all operating in both worlds, the more formal world, and the informal world, all of us, including VPs and most senior VPs.
But, as you can imagine over a 3-year program, there was much we learned. Several things we’d probably do differently based on hindsight. For example, I think we were a bit presumptuous to think that everything could be done through informal networks and informality. We quickly saw that we did not pay enough attention to those who didn’t have enough information to get going. That meant resorting to more formal info sessions but that was a good lesson to learn early.
The other lesson was to avoid falling into “formal” World One behaviours when dealing with informal situations. A classic example was reporting and formal status and check-ins…just like you’d do in a World One project. That wasn’t going to fly in this scenario. We had leaders expecting (hoping) to get regular status reports on this initiative in the form of KPIs or simple measurement, so we had to quickly, and delicately, reset those expectations.
So, I would say we helped the leaders to look at things in a different way. And at least ask themselves a few direct questions about their legitimacy as a leader. Rather than just use “power” as their legitimacy, what else could they do to support their teams and to be more efficient? It was an interesting foot in the door for our leaders to reflect on how “good” a leader they were being and, in several ways, could they let go of behaviours that were holding the team and them back?
HB: I love the fluid way this project evolved but, inevitably, some Executive is going to ask for real, tangible results. Are there results of this catalyst change you can share?
NP: <Laughs> You’re right about results. Before we’d even started, we were asked how we would measure, track, evaluate this program and, the classic, how would we know if it was a success. Those were fair questions because we had a number of people working on this who could’ve been quickly absorbed into other efforts. Showing results was important for all of us.
The classic conundrum is that you can’t boil culture down to a single digit, a one number metric. But people need metrics because they show success, and momentum.
And results can be hugely motivating, which is really what you want in a transformation.
On the metrics front I can say we also faced that age-old business maxim of “measure what matters” and “what gets measured gets done”. This pervasive idea has driven so much energy and focus for decades. And, in a results-driven organization like GSK, that attitude is understandably prevalent. So when we had those debates with Executives, we pushed back by asking this simple question — if what you measure matters so much, do you measure love in your home? On the surface it’s a ridiculous question but it quite profoundly changed our internal conversation around measurement and the “what and how” of it all.
What we ultimately agreed on with our Executives was to report evidence — or proofs — that this initiative was having the desired behavioural changes we wanted. Not only numbers but also real-life stories and proof points.
I’ll give you an example. We developed a set of 8 core questions that we wanted employees to use as a personal gauge, and also across their peers and teams, that this change was happening.
These questions were deliberately to provoke and prod. To drive genuine behavioural change.
The questions were the stimuli, but the changed behaviours was our objective.
Not surprisingly when we asked people if they were using these questions to evolve we got a universal “yes” — which surprised no-one because employees knew instinctively that this was an evaluation of some sort. Then we asked people if they saw others using the same questions to evolve their behaviours. That score was lower. However, we looked at that second number — not the first — as one benchmark for progress. And we saw that score go up which told us that people were seeing more widespread adoption across their colleagues and other teams of these methods and changes.
So that progress score was great and encouraging. The looming question was what business impact were we having? We’d certainly seen innovation, as we defined it inside GSK, was definitely improving
HB: Deftly handled using the “do you measure love at home?”. I must use that myself. Were there other ways you showed — and shared progress to your Executive Group?
NP: Stories became a powerful way of showing the impact of this change. Some organizations are masterful at telling stories — legends and myths of the corporate world — as a vibrant part of their culture. We became obsessed with capturing our own set of powerful, inspiring and deeply personal stories.
The emotions that you can capture — and then share — with a personal story are infinitely more motivating than any hard metric. Collecting stories of personal success, personal growth allowed us to show that this was taking hold.
These stories connected with our people, and had more impact, than any other method we could’ve used to show progress.
The beauty is that those stories are one of the most powerful engines to accelerate the movement, because they spread quickly. From our experience, if you communicate stories instead of pie charts and scores, not only do you better reflect the reality of what is happening, but you also contribute to accelerating the movement.
One story I personally treasure is from one of our Italian catalyst colleagues who came back after maternity leave and her story was about how she barely recognized the team and the organization when she returned. In a good way of course <Laughs> but it was such a heart-felt story it really struck a chord with me.
HB: So, looking across all you’ve learned in the past three-years of this project, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned? What is your advice to peers considering how they might activate their informal networks to transform their companies?
NP: Where do I start? It feels like every month we’re learning something new and causes us to look at our plans and how we’re delivering them.
Here’s one. We talk about informality, but our initiative was very structured. Just because it’s based on the principles of informality, that doesn’t mean that we just let things happen. Not at all. We are really, really dedicated and we have well-structured, disciplined workstreams that are orchestrated. So, my first advice would be, if you want to do this, please do, but don’t just jump into it. It has rules and you need to understand those rules. Don’t jump into it without preparation and structure and plan. And reach out to professionals who have experience deploying this. Having experts working with us ensured we didn’t trip up because of our naivety.
The second thing I would say is be prepared to unlearn. Don’t be afraid to let go, lose control and go with the flow. Be prepared to be surprised and learn a lot about yourself, about others, about how to lead about, and what makes people change about behaviors in general. It can be very hard, especially if you’ve been doing this type of work for several years, to bring your rules, your expertise to bear. Resist that temptation.
I would say we made more progress across our team when we were prepared to let the situation unfold than when we tried to control every single moment and outcome.
The third, and this was a bit of a shock for me, was to not look at change from an individual level but to try see the large-scale change instead. Change practitioners are often told to move an individual or a small group forward and those small efforts cumulatively make an impact. What we found is that the pace of change, like that hockey stick curve you always see, happens when people see changes happening all around them. That people are motivated to change themselves when they see — or hear stories of — different behaviours taking off. They quickly recognize what’s safe to do inside the environment, perhaps it’s something that wasn’t safe 6 months ago but it is now and they start to feel like they’re the minority for not acting in this new way.
The last piece is perhaps counter-intuitive but it is to focus on the positive, not the negative. We’re taught in business to find the problems, the hurdles, the blocks and put all our attention toward that. What I’ve seen is that approach puts all the energy into exactly the wrong spot. Particularly when you’re trying to advance and celebrate new behaviours. New behaviours that were probably hard and courageous for the person doing those for the 1st time. Shine your light there, on those examples. I use the metaphor of a BBQ fire. You don’t fan the cold coals. There’s no heat or energy there. You fan the small glowing embers where the fire has just caught. This was something that we saw time and again. Fan the glowing embers and you’ll get a raging fire way faster.
HB: One thing you’ve not mentioned is patience. For our colleagues reading this who face impatient CEO’s who say “I don’t have three years”, what do you say to them?
NP: Oh yes, executives aren’t a very patient group. I get it. Firstly, I admit that we are very fortunate to have a visionary president of the business who took the long view on the type of transformation we were undertaking. He knew that holding us to success after just 6-months was unrealistic. That didn’t mean he wasn’t relentless about seeing what progress we were making. Back to my earlier advice about being structured and deliberate about how you plan these programs. Build in a regular process of communications with your executives. A regular forum gave us, the culture team, an opportunity to hear the concerns of the Executives and remind them of the successes we’d had and what we’d already learned. Often that reminder was enough to continue and renew their commitment to the program.
HB: So much great stuff here Nico. As always its great spending time listening to this program. This idea of leveraging both World One and World Two is so insightful and motivating. Thanks for this.
NP: My pleasure Hilton. Look forward to chatting again real soon.
If you enjoyed this interview, feel free to download the FREE ebook compilations of previous interviews from organizations such as IKEA, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, GE Health, and Roche. You can find those on my website here