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Elena Rodriguez: Listening vital to business and society

Listening is essential to growth in our personal lives and in business, according to Elena Rodriguez, global head of D&I at Novartis

Speaking at the UNLEASH World conference, Rodriguez explained how her personal journey has informed her appreciation of listening to others.

"Listening is so important. It's about saying I see you, and I notice you, you matter," she said. "Growing up I was incredibly quiet, but this experience heightened my understanding of the fact that the loudest voices will not always be giving you the best ideas. There is a lot of strength in being quiet.

"As individuals, as organisations, and as a society we need to make sure that people feel listened to."

Rodriguez reported that this concept is at the heart of multinational pharmaceutical company Novartis' values and overall strategy. "This idea is not only important personally, this is important for business. We need diverse thinkers because ultimately, as a pharma company, we are trying to create products that can save and change people's lives," she said.

"We want people to be learners and not knowers. We want people to be curious and ask questions, and to invite diverse ideas. We need leaders who will create clarity, direction, and hold people accountable. We're a knowledge-based company, and we love data, so we need to make sure that everything we're doing is having an impact."

She said that encouraging a culture built around open communication starts with strong leaders: “We think that creating change starts with the individual, so it’s all about leadership. When you have the right attitudes in a leader the team will follow. Self-awareness is another aspect that’s really important to us. We recognise that change is hard and it takes time – some leaders might have built up an immunity to change, and might have developed certain patterns of behaviour without realising it."

Rodriguez described how Novartis introduced 'immunity maps' so people could reflect on their behaviours. “We create ‘immunity maps’ with our leaders to help them recognise where they might be struggling, and recognise and accept it," she said. "The message is ‘this is what I find hard, I will fail, I will try and try again'.

"If we can create that sense of psychological safety in our leaders, and make it a daily practice, our employees will follow. This feedback to leaders comes from employees too; we ask our people to feed back to the organisation the change that they would like to see."

Novartis also recognises it needs to "listen to society," Rodriguez added: “We knew that as a large organisation we have an impact on society. Gender pay and equality is deeply important to me, which is why we’ve made a commitment to gender balance in management by 2023. We’ve also introduced global parental pay, where all parents regardless of their gender are given 14 weeks' paid parental leave.

“We’re extremely proud to be the first pharma company to sign up to the UN Standards of Conduct for Business, Tackling Discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, & Intersex People. There’s so much more we want to tackle in this area, and inclusion is never a finished job.”