Few people know and understand the Novartis culture better than Virginia Lazala. The dynamic leader has developed a reputation for solving problems and driving growth. Time spent advising on strategy, managing litigation, creating training materials, and supporting human resources initiatives has given her an intimate look at all business units.
In the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Lazala is working behind the scenes to sustain, strengthen, and grow the culture that’s kept her at the $50 billion pharmaceutical company for more than twenty years.
Lazala, who now holds two leadership positions, can use her voice to make a difference. Not only does she lead legal strategy in Latin American and Canada (LACan), but she is also the head of legal for Novartis Oncology’s global people and organizations.
In LACan, Lazala helps her colleagues get oncology products to cancer patients in some of the most volatile parts of the world. The work matters, and Lazala is careful to remind those on her team that they are part of a company that cares about its patients. “Oncology patients have greater access to lifesaving medicines because of what our associates do, and I like to make sure they know it,” she says.
COVID-19 has brought a measure of instability to the roles and to the overall organization, but thankfully Lazala is accustomed to working through uncertain times. Many countries in her LACan region have fluctuating economies, erratic governments, and unpredictable futures. She and her colleagues have learned how to leverage partnerships and manage complex systems to take care of patients and execute business objectives.
“If you were an inflexible person or someone who is obsessed with everything going exactly as planned, this wouldn’t be the job for you,” she says, adding that she and others at Novartis are constantly restructuring and pivoting to accelerate performance and development.
In early 2020, leaders at Novartis monitored developments as known cases of COVID-19 spread across the world. While Lazala was concerned about the impact it would have on her team, her mind went to densely populated and underdeveloped countries in parts of LACan.
“We knew our region would be hit hard, and we knew we would have to fast-forward our response. Business had to go on as we moved to a fully remote culture,” she says. Lazala’s prediction came true. As the outbreak got worse, many individuals in LACan had limited access to the vaccine as their governments failed to order sufficient doses.
Early on, Lazala realized the ordeal could impact the teams and culture at Novartis. She also realized she had the unique opportunity to help people not only survive but also thrive. “We may never go back to where we were before the pandemic, and that means that we need to change our culture to be something new without totally giving up who we are,” she says.
For Lazala, that starts with communication and self-care. She asked her direct reports not to hold themselves to the same standard that was once appropriate. She encouraged everyone to prioritize their families and set boundaries. She told employees not to apologize if a screaming child interrupts a digital meeting.
While these measures may seem like simple steps, Lazala believes they are especially important at a company like Novartis. “The people I work with are top performers who come here because they are the best in their field,” she says. “That usually means they’re competitive, driven people who want to work hard at all times.”
People at Novartis are trained to prioritize the needs of the patient, and while that is still of critical importance, Lazala is giving them permission to prioritize their own needs too.
It’s been almost two years since the pandemic interrupted life and business, and Lazala has noticed something interesting—all the work is still getting done. She may occasionally hear a dog bark in a MSTeams meeting or have to wait for a spotty Wi-Fi signal to return, but her teams are performing as well as they ever have before.
She thinks that’s because everyone on her team has permission to be a less than perfect version of who they were in a pre-pandemic world. “Empathy and understanding have a calming effect,” she says. “Maybe we were actually doing too much before.”
As the Delta variant and other factors delay a full recovery in 2021, leaders at Novartis are rethinking how customers want to engage in a new world that might not be as conducive to a traditional sales model where reps call on doctors in person.
Lazala admits that she doesn’t know exactly what lies ahead, but she knows one thing—her team is strong, energized, and ready to move forward together.