More and more organisations in India understand and have diversity, equity and inclusion as a key priority

Lene Hylling Axelsson, Corporate Vice President, Global Business Services, Novo Nordisk shares details about the milestones and experiences in her career journey, evolution and progress of pharma Global Business Operations, challenges faced by the PHL industry during the pandemic, diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and more, in an interview with Ashwini Prakash, Managing Partner India, Asia Pacific Lead – Pharma, Healthcare, Life Sciences and Consumer products, Stanton Chase India

You are a global leader today; tell us about your career journey?

I have been working with the same company for 25 years and recently celebrated my 25th work anniversary at Novo Nordisk. Such a long time in a single organisation might sound boring to many, but at Novo Nordisk, I have worked in different functions including sales, marketing, finance, and production across different geographies – North and South Europe, the US, Japan and now in India where I am heading the Global Shared Services in India for the last two years. I feel 25 years have flown away quickly but I also feel that I got a lot of opportunities during my career. I never imagined I would be here for this long. Whenever I tried to explore opportunities outside Novo Nordisk, I have always come back with the feeling that the opportunities at Novo Nordisk are much more challenging and exciting. The company has since been on a wonderful journey in 25 years, expanding its services and reaching out to many more patients across the world. Today, we are among the top 10 pharma companies in the world. I feel my journey is closely linked with Novo Nordisk which itself has been very inspirational and interesting.

How are the pharma Global Business Operations (GBO) disrupting the Pharma, Healthcare and Lifesciences (PHL) industry?

I think the pharma sector and the GBOs are undergoing a huge transformation and COVID-19 has been one of the determining factors along with price pressures and a lot of change in regulations. As we know pharma products have a long life cycle management and it takes forever to build up a new product in the pharma sector if we look aside from vaccines, which is an amazing innovation in itself. Right now, all of this is very data-driven and we see digitalisation of the whole life cycle and across the life span of the product in the pharma industry. Large investments are being made not only in Novo Nordisk but the entire pharma industry to drive data-driven decisions and moving towards digital technology, both in the sales force, to improve our customer interaction, and also in our research & development (R&D). It is amazing to see how COVID-19 has accelerated the pharma industry’s development and we took steps 10 years ahead within one year of the pandemic. It is also panning into the GBOs because, in our shared services, we see a lot of interest and approaching in digitalisation, innovation, and collaboration with start-ups. We are among the top pharma companies and we are placed in Bangalore which is a tech start-up and innovation hub in the world. GBOs are at different maturity levels in different locations, even within Novo Nordisk, and still, 70 per cent of the work we do is labour arbitrage. But a lot has been happening in getting the right competency in the field of IT, finance, and R&D. Our medical doctors here are some of the best in the world. With a focus on innovation and value addition, I see GBOs in India evolving and taking more prominent roles in the next 5 to 10 years.

What challenges have you faced and how companies are responding to meet the huge expectations from the PHL sector during the current pandemic?

The prime challenge that the pandemic posed to us was how to keep our employees safe and like everybody else, we remain focused on that. Secondly, we had to ensure the uninterrupted supply of our life-saving medicines to people who need them around the world. Coming originally from supply chain function myself, I know how stretched the supply chain has been, not only in pharma but across industries be it food, clothing or technology around the world. These days even procuring computers is getting difficult because the supply chain has been affected. We have people working round the clock to supply life-saving medicines to patients who are in dire need of them. So, in our company, we established a crisis response team and we continue to assess how our employees can work from home efficiently and also how do we help them with their health and wellness, both physical and psychological. With huge pressure on our employees, both personally and professionally, it can lead to stress and anxiety. We also continuously review our business continuity plan to see how we can remain resilient, and handle our business efficiently and provide more flexible ways of working once we resume working from the office. We are not only focusing on now but are looking ahead. As a leader, I believe it is about a lot about communication and I have spent a lot of time communicating with employees and our stakeholders during this crisis.

As an expat, did you observe any cultural difference in working style in the PHL industry across different geographies? What was your go-to strategy when you took over the mantle to manage Novo Nordisk Global Business Services (GBS)? How did you adapt and build?

As I mentioned earlier, I have worked in different geographies throughout my career and what I have learned is that all cultures are different. Our corporate culture is more or less the same across the globe. If I step into any of our Novo Nordisk offices across the world, it feels the same, like I am home, including in India. In my career journey, an important lesson that I have learnt is that in an organisation one must not only listen keenly but also ask questions. I have asked so many questions about culture, geography, gender, biases, about how we do work around here to understand how I fit in, and what do I want to keep and what do I want to change. I have made my share of mistakes and learned the hard way. This is something we encourage across the organisation and I appreciate that our colleagues in India are open to provide feedback and also step up to a senior to ask the right questions.

We have heard women talking about inequality in opportunities at the workplace. What are your views?

I grew up in a family of four daughters and our father was the only male till we got our male dog. Growing up as girls we never experienced a bias of not being sons. In school too, we saw both genders being treated equally. So, it was a huge shift for me stepping into corporate life realising there is so much difference in how we treat genders. Throughout my 25-year career, I always felt I had to work much harder and more diligently than my male peers. This might very well be my own perception, but I still feel especially with maternity leave and changing geographies in different parts of the organisation, I had to spend a really long time proving myself. Even though a lot of work has been happening in India to promote gender diversity, it is a tough environment. I felt while coming here that I needed to prove myself before people actually accepted me and I think there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in the diversity space.

At home, it is women who take the leading role but in office, if we look at the statistics, the higher we get at the rank, the fewer women we have. But there is another dilemma which I still believe is an issue in India and to some extent other countries, women have to take a huge burden at home, so they work at home with children, often with parents and in-laws, and manage housekeeping, which is a huge task and then they get to the office and then they have to work again. So, it is like they are running two careers at a time. I have a lot of respect for Indian women, and I think they still have a long way to go in fighting their way to ensure there is more sharing of the tasks.

How do you see India on the DE&I maturity curve?

I am seeing more and more organisations here in India understand and have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as one of their key strategic priorities. The topic is now a part of discussions among the top executives. Whenever I join any such meeting, no matter whether it’s a man or woman, I see a very serious discussion around how we keep improving and how do we ensure to become diverse and have equity because it is absolutely necessary to succeed as a company. I actually believe there is a very strong culture of diversity and inclusion in the corporates in India because the Indian society is very diverse and in order to succeed, we should mirror society and we even need to show the way forward to how do we become more modern in handling D&I discussion. I think it is very critical that we manage to have dialogue and see how we incorporate other factors in the whole ecosystem including socio-economic factors and government regulations and it’s also people we need to make sure come together and have a strong understanding of what still needs to be improved.

I see there is a persistent demand for organisations to walk the talk with these issues, not just being limited to training programs but translating into real action on the ground.

As a leader, what is your advice to the women who are entering the industry?

There are a lot of groups focussing on how we empower women more. In our GBO, we are still at a 43:57 ratio, where 43 per cent workforce being women. The ratio becomes more skewed as we move onto leadership position. So, I believe it is important that women must take ownership of themselves, take known risks from time to time and embrace the unknown. Take jobs that you might not be 100 per cent qualified for but can stand up with confidence to take it up and learn the process step by step.  Raise your hand for these difficult jobs and be aware of your own strengths and development areas are and understand how you can contribute to the organisation. Look out for role models and seek a mentor at the workplace. A mentor is very critical in developing and grooming ones corporate and leadership style.

How do you maintain your work-life balance and what you like to do to de-stress?

I am a mother of three teenagers and that takes up a lot of my energy and thinking and they are always the centre of my life together with my husband. I have a tendency to simply work too much if I am not careful because I want to get work done well with high quality and delivered on time. So, I need to focus on balancing all the time. In India, I have started yoga with my husband and it helps me to breathe better and focus on something else than work. I am deliberate about setting aside some “me” time, use it to read books and do gardening. I also like to run, cycle or take a brisk walk with my dog and my husband. Most importantly, I also ensure my diet is healthy and that I get a good amount of sleep.

Ashwini PrakashDE&I maturityHealthcareLene Hylling AxelssonLifesciencesNovo Nordiskpharmapharma Global Business OperationsStanton Chase India
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