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Interview with Brigitte Nolet, General Manager Roche BeLux
Greet Verhaest

In our podcast series Beantalks, we talk with key figures from small and big organisations about their adaptive challenges. For those who prefer to read instead of listening, we provide you with the transcript of the interview. An interview with Brigitte Nolet, General Manager at Roche BeLux. As a company active in health care, they have not been idle the past year. Discover how she took me with her on her agile journey.

Hi Brigitte, I am so happy to have you behind our microphone today. Welcome.

Thank you so much, thank for the invitation, I'm glad to be here.

To start, can you tell is a bit more about Roche Belgium & Luxemburg and how the organisation looks like today?

Sure, first I want to give a little bit of context globally. Roche is a majority family owned company based out of Basel and we have a number of different divisions. In Belgium we find ourselves with a pharmaceutical division, a diagnostics division, and a diabetes care division. It's a really wonderful company that has this breath of perspective in terms of healthcare and we’ll be celebrating globally this year our 125 years as a company, which I think is amazing. It helps us keep in mind the change, the innovation that the company has seen in 125 years. What has made us successful as a company has been our ability to adapt, our ability to innovate, our ability to bring new healthcare solutions forward in all of our divisions. I think it's important to keep that in mind.

In Belgium we've had the pleasure of being here over 95 years as well, which is fantastic. I believe that one of the reasons you invited me to this conversation as well is that our innovation and our adaptation as a business is happening again and we are taking the time to really think about how we continue to evolve and adapt in our next 125 years. Not just our wonderful healthcare solutions but also the way that we work so that we can adapt to the new health care realities, particularly in a post-Covid environment.

I've got to say there's not many organisation that look 125 years ahead, Brigitte.

I have a lot of confidence (laughs).

As you should. The world of health care is changing very fast these days. Can you highlight what the biggest challenge is for you as a business?

It absolutely is. Especially in this time, where we are seeing a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic. I think healthcare was already going through a lot of and then we put the lens of a pandemic on top. I think what we are seeing now is a big question around how healthcare will evolve. We have seen that investing in healthcare really is the basis, even for economic health to happen. Health is wealth is the slogan we hear, and I think it's really true. To invest in health care, we saw it with the pandemic, is at the fundamental nature of everything else we are able to do as human beings and as a society.

There is a real opportunity for us right now to think of health care in a different way. To think of its importance in our society. To think about how we are investing in health care. At the same time, sustainability is an important element of healthcare. How do we ensure that it stays sustainable? That we, as a society, are able to manage through healthcare. And based on what we saw, not only from a budget perspective, but also from a human resourcing perspective, how do we work together to make sure that we support those extraordinary healthcare practitioners that we've seen on the frontlines for the past year and a half going beyond their limits?

The other opportunities I think we're seeing in health care are also around health data and the digitalisation we've seen in health care. How can we work together now to really invest in the places we see exponential impact and maybe take some pressure off some other health care areas? Throughout Covid, we learned how to think about health data differently. Sharing health data in order to be able to aggregate it safely and to make the right health decisions for an entire population. Are we investing in the right places in our health care systems? Are we making the right clinical decision for the patient? It is by sharing, pulling health data, and understanding it that we can make those choices. That whole digital component that came out of Covid showed us we could do it. Had we already been doing it, what could we have learned in Covid faster that might have helped prevent some waves? There's lots we've learned about healthcare. Sustainability is one, investing in health care as an economic importance is another, digital health and how we might think about that in the future. Think about digital consultations: how do we manage our own healthcare as individuals through digital means? How is that information brought forward? How do we make the right individual, patient decisions and then broader population based decisions?

I think healthcare is at a really interesting fork in the road. Which path we take, I hope, is one that's done all together with the different sectors around the table, able to bring their expertise forward to have that conversation.

If we then look at your organisation, I think it's around 160 people?

In Roche BeLux, we are roughly a 120 and we have our global pharma development group which has an organisation here that also runs clinical trials for Western Europe. So yes, your numbers are correct when you add both the local and our more global colleagues into the mix.

This is a group of people that is very loyal to Roche. It's like you said a family owned business and they have been doing things in a certain way for quite a long time. When you look at all these changes happening in the health care space, what do you think your team members should be doing differently from how they were doing this in the past?

To start off, in terms of health care, I think the other thing important to keep in mind is that the basis is also the extraordinary science coming. We are living in a time where science is moving quite quickly. New areas, new therapy areas, new health care solutions, and genomic profiling is giving us information we haven't seen before. We're going to see really interesting new types of medicines and a high unmet medical need. I say this because part of the reason that Roche is looking at itself and the way that we work is because we recognize the amount of science that's coming. We recognize a diversity in our portfolio that's taking shape where having one team on every single new medicine or disease area will not be sustainable for us as an organisation. At the same time, we're seeing all of this change in the external environment that also tells us that healthcare and healthcare funding and healthcare approaches are changing.

We've taken the decision to look at out organisation and organise ourselves much more around disease area thinking. Moving away from a sell-and-tell product approach to a partnership approach in disease areas with all stakeholders in the external environment. So really expanding our reach. During Covid we saw that even in our hospital system in BeLux, innovation managers are now being hired, digital managers being hired. There are new considerations, new roles, new people that are going to help shape healthcare in the future. It's our ambition to be part of that dialogue and to move into that kind of conversation. Much more of a partnership, much more of a future of health care-oriented state.

The changes that we're implementing, we would call around the agile methodologies. But they are all in line with the principles of flexibility for the teams, speed for the teams to be able to make decisions with their stakeholders, and still providing a level of stability for all of us to be able to work in.

This is a huge transition. Have you implemented a kind of a change plan for this?

We have. This is an important change, an exciting change, in many ways for many of us. It's going to be a once in a career kind of opportunity to see a business model shift this way and to be part of what that looks like and understand it at the ground and understand what it means. Sometimes, we might misunderstand agile to mean 'everybody does what they want’ and it gets a bad reputation as though it were chaos.

An agile approach is actually quite an organised one. Again, it has these principles. Stability is one of them, along with flexibility and speed. We have developed an approach which has been to shape, to architect, to implement, to practice and then to measure and embed the practices as we go. So it's been a very thoughtful approach, but it's also not one that happens overnight. It's not because we say ‘Voilà, we want to be agile’, that next week we are. It is something we've been working on globally since 2018. We've been looking at this and locally we've been practicing and trying different approaches in 2019 which have included certainly looking into our operating model, shifting some of our roles and how we work. To give a good example: we've abandoned the annual brand plan of a 100 slides that we would all work on for months. We would have so many internal presentations and then how much of that would we actually get a chance to implement? How much of it made a strong difference for the patients that ultimately are part of our purpose? Instead, we've taken a pragmatic approach which is to say: let's move into shorter cycles.

Now, we're working in 90 day cycles and looking at outcome based goals. The goals are: what impact will this tactic or activity have that will make a shift, that is meaningful in the external environment? The philosophy also comes with the idea that you may not just be on one team forever. In your work, you might get to shift between a few disease areas. You might actually get to try different roles and projects all together. To keep that diversity there, to keep that interest and career interest there.

It looks as if people have not only learned ways of looking at the work that needs to be done, but they also had to unlearn a few things.

That's a really good point. Everybody, including me, has to unlearn things. Not because there's anything wrong with these things, but simply because for us to move truly into these methodologies, you have to be able to shift your thinking. Big changes for me include: letting go of the hierarchy, letting go of making every single decision within an organisation, helping people feel that they don't need to bring every decision up a chain because there is no chain. How do we help people take accountability for decisions and how do I make sure I'm letting go of it? It's exciting and it's not always comfortable to do.

How do you and the other leaders in the organisation support this transition? Because a lot of the transition is within leadership as well and how you approach leadership.

Absolutely. The first thing that was the most important for us was: why are we doing this? Do we understand why? Do we understand why this is important and do we believe in the vision of the company in that way? We've spent a lot of time, like months, and we still continue to remind ourselves because it's a good anchor to have what we call the North Star in front of us: what are we looking at? Why do we do this? We do this because we know there are patients waiting out there and we can do a good, strong, better job in partnering and in shifting our business model towards partnerships. Towards really understanding the external environment and helping teams be able to make the right decisions, on the spot, within their own purview because they are the experts working with experts. It really has to do with: how do we get better outcomes for patients in a faster way? And how can we do that benefiting society?

With that purpose, when the purpose is clear, the breath starts to rally around it. You commit. You commit every day, and you recommit every day, to your work. And then you start to look at how we can then flex processes, flex policies. How can we get the roadblocks out of the way to make this purpose live? How do we look at the operating model? How do we look at our culture? How do we role model as leaders, as individual contributors and help each other get there?

And how are you doing that? That's the million dollar question of course.

It definitely is, and I can't say that there's one perfect solution, what I can say is it's a multifactorial kind of approach and we practice and we adjust and we adopt the philosophy that we are a learning organisation and that it is okay to be able to try different things, stop, really build in that retrospective concept, that concept of looking back, analyzing, giving each other feedback and adjusting again for the next steps and doing that in 90 day cycles.

We are considered an enabling team and that concept of enabling means that we are coaching much more than we ever have in the past, as leaders in our organisation. We have a coaching community set up in our organisation. We've done feedback workshops over the past year so that we're all comfortable giving and receiving feedback and know how to do it in a way that advances our work. Because it's not always easy to give feedback, it really is something that has to be practiced, tried, created, endorsed, and supported.

The concept of radical transparency is very important in the organisation. Both locally and globally. If we want teams to make quick decisions, they need to understand what's happening around them. Our goals are all available, all of our town halls, everything is available to everyone in terms of what we are driving towards. We have Trello boards. Everyone can get access to Trello boards and understand how teams are working. Before Covid, as supposed to annual brand plans, we had team rooms where people could just drop into a team room and see what the team was working on. What are their goals? What are they driving for in 90 days? Why? What did that look like? So we're really looking forward to eventually getting back to the building and being able to share some of that again. Because I think, the transparency element is really important, on top of the feedback, the role modelling, the coaching and that continuous flow of communication.

I have an image of Roche being an organisation that really wants to take care of their people. Are you doing special things for the wellbeing of the people?

That’s a really important question in big change. The change ahead but also Covid, both together, made it that wellbeing is a topic that's extremely important. It should be important to all of us, but it certainly is for us. I have to tell you, Belgium is the fourth country in which I work and no matter what country I am in, every Roche affiliate has that same feeling. It's like it's in our DNA to have that sentiment of a collaboration, of care for colleagues and a very clear purpose for patients. The BeLux organisation is no different in that way. We are a great place to work and in the top ten this year in terms of our support for our employees. We really understand that you can have the best operating model, you can have the best strategy, you can have the best policies but the only thing that's going to make that work is tremendous people around it that will believe in what you want to achieve and that work together towards that ambition. It's the people that make it live.

For us, culture is really important. That culture of feedback, that culture of openness, that culture of support and moving forward and moving towards the future. We understand as an organisation, globally as well, that those organisations that are going to be successful in the future are those that have a strong purpose, that are purpose oriented, that leave a legacy and a positive impact to our environment, society, and economy. It is that purpose-driven organisation that we seek and that we all want to be part of. That's what drives us.

When I look at our global employee surveys, our biggest score is our purpose score. The second biggest is `I love to work with my colleagues. Those are the ones that really stand out.

That is so great. We've come more or less to the end of our talk, Brigitte. My very last question is a question that I always find so inspiring to get the answers to from our guests. What do you personally do to be your best at work and to thrive and to be successful in what you do?

I'm an extravert, so Covid has been though that way (laughs). I’m also quite an instinctual and emotional person. So you need to know those two things. I thrive at work by discussions with people and I get my energy from others. I get my energy from spending time with people. As annoying as it could be for many employees, and I know they had to get used to it when I joined almost three years ago, I love walking the building. Being able to see people and talk to them and drop into these team rooms and understand where they're at. I carve out time in my agenda every week to spend time with employees. Be it at the virtual coffee chat or in a one-on-one hang out. Before Covid it was the same: walking the hall, sitting in the lunchroom, sharing opportunities. That's how I personally thrive.

I'm also a patient myself. I've suffered from arthritis since I was 25 years old and I'm much much older now. So for me, I've also seen the industry evolve and I've seen myself go from a situation where I was taking 47 pills a week to now one injection a month. I'm able to thrive and move and have a family and contribute and pay my taxes in four different countries and do all those things. But I also find that I thrive because I believe in what we do. I believe it because I feel it every morning when I wake up and stretch. I know what this industry has done to make my day better. So I also have that kind of daily reminder. But the people is how I get my energy. And bless them, because they are an amazing group of people.

Absolutely, and I think the keyword here is connection. It's connecting with the people, it's the connection between yourself and what your organisation does. When that makes sense to you, that's the best you can hope for.

I will make the offer official but we had talked about it before. Our agile journey, it's exactly that. It's a journey. It's not something that you start and finish. It's not something that you can turn a tab and say ‘Voilà, it's there’, as we said before.

Part of our journey also started by meeting other industries and other companies across Belgium to understand how they were doing the work. What were they learning? What was their advice for us as to what could work and what to avoid? What worked really well? What maybe didn't work and why?

I just wanted to offer the same in this context: if there are others who are interested and curious about how this transformation is underway and why we are taking it and how we might be thinking about it, we'd be happy to also be part of that conversation. Because I think that while we might be one of those first healthcare companies that's moving in this direction, we're certainly not going to be the last. This is the future and so the offer is there to also help others who want to move in the same direction.

That is so great and when you say stuff like that, I might just take you up on that and invite you as a keynote speaker. Thank you so much for this talk.


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Do you prefer to listen? Or curious to hear our previous episodes with, amongst others, Siska D'hoore from De Nationale Bank, Emma Braeye from In The Pocket, and Koen Damman from Decathlon? Check out our Beantalks podcast page.

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