Novartis talks about revamping career development programs to expand in Latin America, China and beyond

Identifying and preparing key talent for leadership roles remains a key concern for companies with operations around globe, and particularly those looking to grow in Latin America markets like Russia, India and China.

Marcelo Fumasoni, vice president and head of human resource for Novartis Pharmaceuticals in Latin America and Canada, described how the company overhauled its human resources and career development strategy in recent years and what it’s doing today at WorldCity’s HR Connections on Nov. 4.


Marcelo Fumasoni, who runs Novartis’ human resources in Latin America and Canada, said he needed to make a business pitch to get the go ahead with revamping the company’s policies.

“One of the things we discovered is that we needed to create that career development path for our people,” he said, the “second was the kind of capabilities that we needed were particular to our industry and our company dynamics.”

As one of the world’s largest healthcare companies, Novartis has a hand in everything from generic medicines to over-the-counter products to eye care to oncology, requiring employees have diverse, specialized skill set requiring everything from sales to science.

The company has a “performance management program and talent development programs” for all its subsidiaries, and as a rule won’t promote any employee who has less than two years of experience in a particular role.

The company looks at employees’ learning agility, sustained performance and other measures along with experience in primary care, growing developing market, expertise in markets dominated by the public or private sectors and a host of other factors.

For a promising 100 or so employees, Novartis provides academic programs, commercial projects and other learning programs related to the company’s strategic goals. The group is sent to the company’s offices around the world to develop business plans for a specific product line or country. Afterward, they work in teams on a virtual basis and in three months present their ideas to management.

“We promote based on the quality of the programs,” Fumasoni said, while also noting the program is a valuable, no-risk learning experience for employees. “It’s a great opportunity for our executive directors to get to get to know the people in a safe environment, there’s no social cost of making a mistake.”

What about those employees that aren’t selected, noted Marjorie Kean, managing director for Diversified Search.

“How do you motivate them and make them feel that they’re valuable, but they’ve been told indirectly that they’re not high potential?” she asked.

Fumasoni said Novartis, for example, could send them to China to train employees on a specific production line, but it’s always a challenge.

“Sometimes a conversation really helps. I will have a conversation with business unit managers who think they’re going to become general managers, and we have to tell them it’s not happening,” he said. “It’s kind of an evolution, and you probably need to have a company that’s mature enough to really handle these conversations.”

However looking back to the beginning of the talent pipeline, just telling employees they’re being eyed for future leadership is a double-edged sword.

“If you don’t tell these people they’re high potential, the market will and they’ll be contacted by headhunters,” said Hernan Valcarce, human resources manager for Danone Americas. But “if they don’t understand that being high potential doesn’t mean they’re going to get a 50 percent increase maybe they’re not high potential”

Furthermore Fumasoni said telling employees they’re being targeted for potential advancement needs to be done face-to-face, which was a challenge when Novartis revamped its human resources strategy about five years ago, but has since become “institutionalized. After all that “sometimes you have to downgrade that person, [because] in the new role they’re not as fast-growing,” he added.

As all of this is happening, Novartis is also working to increase the ratio of women in management to 35 percent and has four female executives working in Latin America.

“I saw the indicator yesterday and it was 33.5 percent,” Fumasoni said. “We still need to move the needle.”

Moving the needle, however, is no simple task. Statistics still show disparities in pay between men and women as well as a higher concentration of men in management position in many industries. To help women develop their careers, Fumasoni, said companies need to understand the dynamics of family planning, and that sometimes “you cannot observe results immediately.”

Taking a long-term, strategic approach to keeping and developing talent may be challenging, particularly during the current economic climate, but the key to making it work is to make the case.

These programs “come from the top and are something our executive board is really convinced about,” Fumasoni said, but “when I presented these kinds of programs it was in the middle of the first worldwide economic crisis, and I was asking these guys for six zeroes in my bank account but we made the business case for it.”

HR Connections is one of seven event series organized by WorldCity to bring together executives on international business topics. The HR series is sponsored by the University of Miami School of Business Administration and Diversified Search. The next meeting is set for Jan. 13.