Immersion in the Sub-Sahara

Novartis’ African Leadership Program is an off-site training program that brings participants to numerous regions to learn about and experience their cultures and societies.

This is the second of a three-part series of articles written exclusively for Training magazine on business challenges and opportunities in Africa and how Swiss-based pharmaceuticals and life sciences company Novartis’ learning and leadership development programs are helping address the myriad issues.

In Africa, there is an age-old learning tradition that is still practiced today: storytelling. Villagers learn about the values and behaviors that will be conducive to the success of the tribe by being together, sitting around a campfire at night, listening to the elders of the village talk. What has been true throughout the centuries is still true today.

To reinforce its commitment to growing business throughout the continent of Africa, Novartis recently launched a new employee “business school” of sorts called the Africa University. The student base consists of leaders and managers who live and work in the many countries of Africa. 

The university’s cornerstone offering is the African Leadership Program (ALP), created in partnership with the University of Stellenbosch Business School. It is an 18-month program for top Novartis leaders in the sub-Sahara region of the continent. The program features a leadership- and business-focused curriculum designed to build capabilities around company strategy. Participants devise and test strategies for growing business and increasing access to medicines in Africa. They work on shaping health-care systems, building product portfolios, and developing effective government partnerships.

By staging the African Leadership Program in multiple African countries, participants are immersed in each country’s culture. This off-site training allows them to fully experience the society, and to gain invaluable business acumen and insight that cannot be duplicated in a conference room.

Most importantly, this five-module ALP program takes participants to several African countries. Coursework requires participants to attend action learning workshops, coaching sessions, and lectures in the South Africa, East Africa, and West Africa regions.

“Immersion in a different environment fosters both social learning and social responsibility,” explains Wikus Van Vuuren, one of the co-developers of the program from the University of Stellenbosch Business School – Executive Development. “While the key responsibility of employees is to look after the growth of the business, it is also their responsibility to participate in socially responsible projects on the African continent. You can’t do that sitting in a conference room. You need to go to Kenya in order to understand Kenya, or South Africa to understand South Africa, and so on. You need to see the environment that you will be operating in, and to identify the sounds and smells of the city. By doing so, your senses are activated, and you learn in a much more real and tangible way.”

Often, there is a vast chasm between the “haves” and “havenots” in African countries. There is extreme poverty, as well as those who are very privileged, rich, and comfortable. As ALP participants see and experience this, they then can begin to deal with how they will relate to the cultural challenges and synergies that exist. Therefore, program sessions are held in both the comfortable and challenging locales.

The reasons for this are twofold. First, the more comfortable locations are a nurturing place where participants can reflect on who they are and what they will create. If participants can lock into high aspirations in the beginning, it will build the will for them to learn.

On the flip side, the more challenging locations give leaders the ability to see how the market operates. This often is an eye-opening experience, particularly when participants visit hospitals and see how the markets run. “Talking about what it is like to be without electricity and actually experiencing it gives people a new reality, and builds empathy,” adds Africa University program facilitator Judy Malan.

Off-site training opens people up. By taking people out of their natural work environment and the traditional conference room setting, they are afforded an opportunity to stretch their minds. In other words, a stark change in environment creates a whole new dimension to the learning experience, which has a positive impact on innovative thinking and learning retention. And by being in an environment that is conducive to more than one learning style—and stimulates multiple senses—the student’s ability to learn improves.

Additionally, “off-site” is both a physical state and a state of mind—which can be effectively leveraged. While off-site commonly refers to being physically distanced from the office, another way of thinking about off-site is mental distance—that we are far away in our minds from the day-to-day aspects of business.

Another practical reason Novartis chose off-site training for the African Leadership Program is because it takes people out of the environment where they can be constantly interrupted. When you train on-site, people’s natural tendency is to go back to their desk or office every time there is a program break, and quickly try to deal with one or two of their usual job duties. This causes them to get sidetracked.

However, when people are far away from their natural habitat, there is less connectivity with that habitat. Therefore, the chance of being interrupted is vastly reduced. We have even gone so far as to advise participants during breaks to spend the first five minutes “technology free” in order to allow time for the learning to sink in and reflection to take place.

Novartis has a strong learning culture that embraces the growth of its leaders through diverse programs. Employee development is and always has been supported at the highest levels of the company. Because of this, today we have a mature training and leadership development portfolio with programs held both on-site and off-site. Some can be held anywhere, while others are specifically designed to be experiential, such as with our African Leadership Program. Here participants share experiences—and stories—with everyone learning from each other, just as always has been done throughout the rich history of Africa.

“People have a different level of engagement because of where they are,” concludes Malan. “Ultimately, humans learn in experiential ways much more than we often acknowledge; it is not just a game of the mind.”

Frank Waltmann, Ph.D., is head of Corporate Learning at Novartis, a Swiss-based pharmaceuticals and life sciences company.