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“Inspired by a sense of purpose”: Vas Narasimhan brings a passion for health care to Novartis’s top role

Eight months into his role as CEO, Vas talks about how he is placing AI at the heart of the company, why he thinks humility and kindness are essential leadership traits, and how the Firm continues to support him.
Eight months into his role as CEO, Vas talks about how he is placing AI at the heart of the company, why he thinks humility and kindness are essential leadership traits, and how the Firm continues to support him.  
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Vas and his wife, Srishti

In February, 41-year-old Vas Narasimhan (NJE 01-01, 03-05) became one of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs when he took over the top job at Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, where he has worked since leaving McKinsey.

Vas’s passion for health care is evident: in addition to his career at Novartis, he graduated from Harvard Medical School and worked on public health issues with a variety of NGOs in Africa, South America and India before joining the Firm, where he served both public- and private-sector clients on health care engagements. 

He recently sat down with us to talk about Novartis’s future, his McKinsey career, what the two companies have in common, and his ideas about what makes a successful leader.


Your education focused on medicine and health policy, and you have spent a lot of time working on public health issues in developing countries. How does that background influence your leadership at Novartis, and your vision for its future?

The experiences I've had give me a pretty strong sense of purpose, and a desire to dramatically improve human health. It’s that perspective that I take into leading Novartis. 

One of the things I have been thinking about is how Novartis fits into the broader health care ecosystem. For example, how do we build sustainable solutions with policymakers – governments and other health care actors – so that we build a sustainable environment for access to medical innovation around the world?

I also have a strong sense of wanting the company to give back more to society: to have a stronger role in terms of how we act from a pricing and access standpoint, how we engage with patients and physicians, and how we tackle major global health challenges. I was recently in Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa seeing how our businesses are engaged in trying to improve noncommunicable disease care. I'm also looking at our Novartis Foundation work, and our work in malaria. I feel like Novartis can have a bigger role to play on global public health issues.

You recently said that you saw Novartis’s future as a focused medicines company powered by data and digital technologies, and that machine learning and artificial intelligence will transform drug research. How do you see digital and analytics transforming Novartis?

We've been working to place artificial intelligence and predictive analytics in the heart of all of our operational areas. We just launched a tool at Novartis that was built with QuantumBlack, a McKinsey company, to enable us to look at all of our 500 clinical trials around the world in real time. We're now expanding that to other areas like manufacturing and regulatory affairs, amongst others.

There is also visionary, longer-term potential: for instance, can artificial intelligence help us identify new drugs, new patient populations, new biomarkers, or even new therapeutics? We've done a few things across the company. We recently started partnering with Pear Therapeutics, a digital therapeutics app that is paired with a drug and used as cognitive behavioral therapy to try to improve patient outcomes.

I really see artificial intelligence being at the heart of the company, but it's going to take time. This is a long journey. We recently hired a chief digital officer, and our goal is to systematically go across the company to see how we can use these technologies to transform our work.

Novartis has nearly 120,000 employees worldwide, structured in several diverse business lines. How important is it to you to have a unifying corporate culture?

My top priority is a cultural transformation at the company. In a sense, what I'd like to do is have us go from a hierarchical, high-performance-oriented culture to what I like to think of as an inspired, “unbossed,” empowered, and curious culture.

I've visited Novartis sites across 15 countries, and what I consistently see is we're increasingly a company of millennials. We have lots of smart people, and chances are that the best solutions for us to get our medicines to patients is going to be from that workforce.

The question is, how can you get the best ideas and have the ideas, and not the hierarchies, win? For a big industrial company like us, with a 200-year history, that is a real existential journey.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm to move to an unbossed culture, so I'm quite excited about that. I think it's going to take us several years to really get there, but my bet is that we will do our best work if we unleash the power of our people all around the world. 

Novartis is one of the largest employers of McKinsey alumni. Are there similarities between the two companies that make it a good fit?

We have a culture that's very analytical and data-driven, so I think in that sense there are a lot of alumni who are a good fit. Novartis is also a very performance-oriented organization. Compared to other large companies, you can progress in your career much more quickly if you perform well and if you lead well – because there isn’t a political element about building a career at the company. It's much more about the impact you deliver.

Your wife, Srishti Gupta, joined the Firm with you as a consultant and is now Director of Associate Programs. Are there ways in which McKinsey has been helpful in managing the demands of a dual-career couple?

I would not be where I am without Srishti's incredible support, both from her ability to drive her McKinsey career – which has spanned 15 years across a range of different roles – while also raising our boys, and being my most important coach from all perspectives.

She's an extraordinary person who's able to balance all of that successfully, and the Firm has been very supportive of her finding flexible ways of working. That's enabled us to continue to be very engaged in both of our boys growing up here in Switzerland, and for her to continue to be engaged in important global efforts at the Firm. We're both very grateful for the McKinsey’s flexibility in that regard.

How would you say your time at McKinsey prepared you for what you've done since?

McKinsey really helped me structure my thinking, and helped me learn fast. And, given that I am naturally very curious, McKinsey helped me figure out how I could engage my curiosity in constructive ways. It gave me a certain confidence that whatever the problem was, I could get to a reasonable understanding of the situation if I applied myself. 

What are the personality traits that have defined your career and how you lead?

I have found that for successful leadership, you have to be inspired by a sense of purpose. With a sincere sense of purpose, you can set a vision that people want to follow. 

Also important are a sense of humility and kindness. I try to live by this every day. I have always been inspired by my grandmother, who lived to age 95. She had a first-grade education, but she was somehow able to go from an Indian village to raising a very large family, all of whom were well-educated and successful, through a tremendous amount of self-sacrifice and humility. In the end, humility goes a long way in life and in leadership.

And finally, I’m intellectually curious. I am an avid reader of everything from The Economist to National Geographic. I read books, I listen to podcasts, I listen to TED talks. I have a relentless curiosity about lots of different things.

What would you 20-year-old self think about the work that you're doing now?

When I was 20 years old, I took time off from college and went to Gambia to work on malaria control with the Red Cross. I think that 20-year-old self would have never guessed I would become CEO of a major health care company. He would probably be shocked at first. But hopefully, after enough conversation, he would be convinced that this is a powerful way to impact human health around the world.