Training Exclusive: Motivating Employees 
in Asia

Novartis inspires and motivates its employees in Asia through leadership development and training.

By Frank Waltmann, Ph.D.,Head, Corporate Learning, Novartis

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

In the context of leadership and development, discussing motivating employees in Asia—or any country, for that matter—is somewhat challenging. After all, motivation is rarely the issue for those being groomed for leadership. They typically already have established their strong motivation to succeed through their job performance. So, let’s pivot just slightly and also talk about a close sibling of motivation: inspiration. Taking these two aspects together, I can offer some unique perspectives from Novartis Asia and China University instructors, as well as participants whose development and leadership readiness is vital given the rapid growth of the overall Asian economy.

Employee Retention in China

There has been a marked shift in the work culture in China within the last 20 years. Recent data shows that today’s Chinese worker is more individualistic than in the past, and places a far higher value on quality of life.

In Kathryn H. King-Metters’ 2008 Wall Street Journal article, “Misunderstanding the Chinese Worker,” based on her study, “A Shift in Loyalties: How Do the Personal Values of Hospitality Service Workers in the People’s Republic of China Compare on Hofstede’s National Culture Dimensions Over Time?” (2007, Capella University), it was revealed that many employees want more than just a paycheck. They want training, time off, and community building. The concept that there is no loyalty to the company and that money alone is the driving force for staying or leaving a job is erroneous. This makes leadership development programs in Asia all the more important.

Nelson Hsu, president of Alcon China, a Novartis company, agrees and explains why leadership development is particularly important to China: “The market and business growth in China is approximately 25 percent per year in many areas,” says Hsu. “This presents many opportunities for workers and affects the market turnover rate. Our Novartis China University gives people a reason ‘why’ to join our company, and to stay with us.”

Learning Programs

In many Novartis Asia and Novartis China University programs, courses are interactive and dynamic; participants get feedback from others about themselves, which, for many, is a new concept.

“The majority of the groups I teach are new to Novartis and have only been with the company for one to three years,” says Dr. Muhammad Shiaz, a native Pakistani leadership training instructor. “So the learning curve is high. They want to learn and find out what Novartis is all about, in addition to growing their leadership skills.” This is key to their motivation to stay and build a career at Novartis.

“Most of what they’re learning is about emotional intelligence,” shares Dr. Shiaz. “For example, through internal exploration, participants learn how to know their blind spots related to personality. When you understand your personality type, and know your blind spots, you more likely will prevent yourself from 
derailing under stressful conditions.”

Ling Yuin Fong is an instructor for the Novartis “Gaining Your Momentum” (GYM) program for new leaders. He explains how learning is not just a one-time experience, but also a long-term journey. “After finishing the first-time management program, we send participants reminders about leadership on a weekly basis so as to trigger memories about topics they’ve learned,” explains Ling. “These include video links and articles about leadership topics. This brings consistency and keeps them engaged with the content they’ve learned in our programs. We want them to 
become more conscious about what they know, what they do, and their actions as a leader.”

Jacqueline Wong is an instructor at our Asia University for the TEAM program, which, as the name implies, helps develop better team interaction and teambuilding skills. “All company teams struggle with strategy implementation and could do better. Our program is not specific to Asia; rather, it is a good program that happens to be delivered in Asia,” she says. “The reason we’re teaching it here is because Asia is a large growing market, and we have to make sure our teams are effective.”

Chen Siyuan, head of Commercial, Vaccines China, is involved in putting together a future program at our Novartis China University called “Critical Thinking Process.” “In a fast-moving environment like China, we are often reactive to things, and don’t necessarily handle situations in the right way,” says Siyuan. “So it’s important for our associates to have the right process of thinking and tools. Also, because China is moving so fast in terms of the business environment, the talent pool is affected. Many employees have only been in the company a few years, and have not had much business training. They get put in a position that they are not ready for in all aspects.” Fortunately, China University programs address this, and are tailor-made for China.

First-Time Leader Development

The Novartis Asia University starts employees on a continuous growth leadership journey. One of our popular programs is called Setting the Wheels In Motion, or SWIM for short. It is a five-day course in which participants explore their own personality and those around them through the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI)—a worldwide standard for measuring thinking preferences and brain dominance. Also, they explore how to work within and among teams, and learn principles about developing business.

For many, SWIM is the first formal training they’ve ever experienced. For example, Stephanie Espejon works with our Vaccines division, handling Regulatory Affairs for Southeast Asia and the Middle East. “The SWIM program motivated me to do the best I can, because if the company is giving me training in leadership and management, it means that somewhere along the line I was able to make it see my potential,” says Espejon. “To me, that is a good sign. And what I learned is that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ leadership style—it’s more about how you make the business relationship with other people work. I have come to believe through these programs that if you are put in a leadership position, you have to decide how you are going to lead, and that the style needs to be for the good of the company.”

Asia University participant Ryany Sekarini adds: “The SWIM program does not tell people what to do, but shows us how to understand ourselves. I learned that before we can lead others, we must know how to lead ourselves. This is different than a ‘how to supervise people’ course. Another valuable learning was to gain an understanding about other people’s perception about me. This was new, and useful, because in Asian culture, a leader is someone people respect. Sometimes it’s not about the position but about the attitude. Maybe you won’t get the high position, but if your attitude is good, 
according to people, you’re a leader to them.”

Lewis Tan is a production manager for a Novartis contact lens manufacturing plant in Singapore. He participated in training and was particularly affected by something he learned at a recent program: the Q x A = E equation (the effectiveness of a project is determined by the level of acceptance of the idea by the people, a famous General Electric theory). “This lesson has helped me and my team in many areas, especially with our cross-site projects,” says Tan. “We looked at the project we brought to class on a deeper level, and noticed areas we hadn’t considered before, such as analyzing stakeholders. This alerted us to the fact that we had left some key personnel out, which would have negatively affected the project’s success.”

Looking Ahead

At Novartis, our leadership development programs delivered through our Asia and China Universities are taught and facilitated by both Asian and Western instructors to a wide swath of our Asian employees. We have made the commitment to develop a range of leaders—from first-time managers all the way to top-tier executives—because we believe future Asia country managers need to come from within the region. The reason is simple: We are conducting science and business in Asia as a partner to its existing health-care system, and in doing so offer value to the entire society.

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

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.