Ask the Experts Interview Series


Joshi Venugopal

Dr. Joshi Venugopal is a pharmaceutical industry executive with a unique breadth of experience spanning R&D, Early Pipeline (Ph1, Ph 2 and Preclinical) Commercialization and In-Market Commercialization. He managed P&Ls with annual revenues of over $1 billion and teams as large as 400 associates in diverse cultural settings.

Ask the Experts Interview Series

with Joshi Venugopal

If you must describe yourself in one word, what would that be?

Breadth – I have consciously pursued broad experiences over narrow specialization. I love to connect the dots to create value and feel that innovations happen at the intersection of disciplines. I trained as a cell biology scientist, worked in research, development, and commercial organizations at Novartis. Leading extensive teams across three continents has been part of my journey. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life, and Novartis has consistently provided me with opportunities to explore new horizons.

You have lived/worked in 9 countries with very different cultures. What has been some of your keen learnings?

During my youth, I was fascinated by stories of those who went to distant cultures and conquered the hearts and minds of the locals. That includes William Adams the first Englishman to set foot in Japan after a shipwreck and TE Lawrence whose dedication to the Arab cause inspired the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Thus, whenever I enter a new country, I do so with a profound curiosity about its culture and a genuine desire to connect with its people.

Transitioning to a new culture can initially unsettle one’s equilibrium, as norms surrounding decision-making, communication, and managerial dynamics differ significantly. However, with an open mindset, I’ve come to appreciate that alternative methods, unfamiliar to me, often yield superior results in the local context. By doing this repeatedly has gifted me with a fresh perspective—a new inner eye—that recognizes the richness of cultural nuances. As Marcel Proust eloquently expressed, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Starting out in Basel, you have been sent all over the globe over the years in the capacity of a GM and country president before returning to headquarters. What has been some of the most enriching experiences in those years?

I strongly advocate for professionals in global roles to immerse themselves in local experiences, and vice versa. Such immersion fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other’s perspectives and responsibilities.

My career has been marked by diverse experiences, including leading turnarounds, establishing country organizations from the ground up, managing stable operations, and driving substantial growth in emerging markets. Among these experiences, one that stands out is the turnaround of the Korean organization. It was an exceptionally challenging yet ultimately rewarding endeavor. Faced with significant business performance obstacles, our team’s collective efforts enabled Novartis to emerge as the fastest-growing multinational pharmaceutical company in Korea.

However, beyond professional achievements, what truly matters to me is the enduring bond forged with my team members over the years. This camaraderie holds more significance than any performance goals attained in the past.

How do you manage your energy?

I realize morning to noon is when I have the best mental alertness. So, I try to do intellectual heavy lifting during such times. I keep routine tasks for the later part of the day. If my energy level goes down, I often feel an outdoor walk can help me recharge. Exercise and recovery with sleep are essential.

What do you think is the role of a General Manager?

In effective teams, competent members fulfill their assigned tasks. In exceptional teams, these members willingly prioritize the collective goals over their own KPIs. While many teams aspire to this level of cohesion, few attain it.

In this analogy, envision a General Manager as a conductor leading an orchestra. They may not be the foremost expert at playing an instrument, but they guide the ensemble of experts. They cultivate a shared vision among team members, with clear roles and responsibilities, while still allowing for individual expression. They through subtle real-time adjustments, to breathe life into the composition. Ideally, they foster unity and harmony amidst potential discord.

The role of a GM? To create a shared vision and inspire the team to work in harmony, ensuring each member shines when their moment arrives, contributing to a collective masterpiece. The key lies in fostering a team-centric mindset, where individual success is secondary to the team’s achievements.

I thoroughly enjoyed Itay Talgam’s TED talk, “Lead Like the Great Conductors.” It provides a fascinating perspective on leadership.

You were the Global Head of New Products at Novartis while the company was preparing a pivot in its strategy. Tell us more about that.

Novartis unveiled a new strategy in 2022 focusing on five core Therapeutic Areas, key technology platforms, and the US market. It was a decision taken after a thorough review of unmet medical need, the external landscape, the industry pipeline and Novartis’s ability to scale and lead. Strategy is often deciding what not to do more than what to do. Hence, a reprioritization of therapeutic areas and programs followed. The decision to focus is a difficult path to choose but an easier path to walk.

You have been tasked to do some significant turnarounds. How do you perform under pressure? What are some paradigms/principles that you hold dear?

Turnarounds can be stressful, but also very rewarding. In handling significant turnarounds, I’ve gleaned insights from experiences and mistakes.

  • Building genuine connections is vital; rushing risks losing team trust.
  • Transparency without assigning blame and inspiring optimism for what lies ahead, echoing Napoleon’s sentiment: ‘The role of a leader is to define reality and then provide hope’.
  • Decisiveness without losing view on cultural nuances is crucial
  • Aligning key leaders is critical.
  • Managing expectations with your management is important.
  • Regular communication keeps everyone informed.
  • Celebrating small victories boosts morale.

Your thoughts on intrapreneurship in large organizations?

Intrapreneurship is a necessity in large organizations. Without it, we risk falling behind as competitors seize opportunities. Large organizations have invaluable resources, the ability to scale innovation, partner externally and offer job security, all of which can foster innovation. However, disruptive innovations that cannibalize the current business model may face resistance within large organizations, as seen with Kodak and digital cameras. Organizations that instill a culture that encourages employees to think differently and take initiative can overcome such inertia.

What drives you? Who or what has shaped who you are?

My primary motivation stems from a love of learning. I must add that I value humor and find joy in shared laughter within a team.

A long list of people has significantly influenced me – they range from my team members, family, managers, colleagues, coaches, authors and public figures. I believe none of us are ever fully formed; rather, we’re continuously shaped by various people and experiences.

Outside of work, what is your hobby?

When I’m not working, I enjoy traveling with my family, engaging in conversations with my son, and delving into The Economist magazine while savoring a cup of coffee.

Any closing remarks/general advice to share?

The only thing we are entitled to in our life is to have our own adventure. When we retire, we are more likely to regret what we did not do than what we did do. Sail away from the safe harbor to explore, dream and discover. A journey matters more than the destination.

Disclaimer: All views expressed are his own.


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