Express Pharma

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

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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 wha