We interviewed Mary LeBlanc, former CIO of Novartis Pharma AG, to learn about her leadership journey and how she fostered a culture of innovation.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science and technology?

Mary LeBlanc: I was always interested in math and science. What I liked about it in high school was that compared to other subjects like English or Philosophy there were clear answers to questions. My undergraduate degree is in human biology, anatomy and physiology and I have an MBA with a concentration in the management of information systems.

While you were the CIO of Novartis Pharma AG, what were you most proud of?

MLB: We had a very innovative program spanning 2012 and 2013. We were challenged by our CEO & Division Head, David Epstein, to roll out 25,000 iPads to the sales force, giving us less than six months to take away the laptops and create a couple of killer apps, including video. This was a huge challenge. Many companies were rolling out iPads to the sales force but what was unique about this program was that it was targeted at changing a culture. With a long legacy of laptops, too many administrative applications, designed to feed information to headquarters versus selling, had been created.

With sales reps having only iPads, we untethered them to make them 100 percent customer-focused. I think this is what was so inspiring about the program. It wasn’t just about the technology but about the kind of culture change it could enable. This ability to change how we work is extremely powerful.

How did you help to drive a culture of innovation at Novartis?

MLB: The pharma industry in general is innovation-based—certainly the creation of new drugs and new treatments are the core of success. But this type of innovation includes a 10- to 18-year cycle, and so the issue we faced at Novartis was that there was a lot of fear of failure. In drug development, if you make the wrong choice before you start a 10-year clinical trial, the costs of failure are quite high.

What I did was encourage a culture of fast fail. I had, for example, the infrastructure group telling me they needed 18 months to get the iPads working on the network globally. I told them that if they could get them up in three months, I’d protect them from any mistakes. They literally wrote that on a note and put it up on the wall. Promising to protect people if they failed was probably the single thing that helped make people feel that they were relieved of this burden of being fired if they failed. We did have some problems, but I think the experience taught us so much more than endless analysis would have.

How do you believe that technology is disrupting business models?

MLB: The obvious ones, Airbnb and Uber for example, fall within the sharing economy, which is highly disruptive. But if I look to life sciences, it is the shift to outcomes-based payments and the dramatic difference that is making as to how we’re treated when we go into the doctor’s office.

Historically, as a patient, and I speak from personal experience, you go into a doctor’s office and they’re the ones who know everything. In one case I was actually told I couldn’t get a lab test result without my doctor’s permission. Of course, I was thinking, “Wait a minute. Who’s paying?” But now what I’m finding is that this outcome-based shift is requiring the use of devices and the collection of data and its encouraging health. Now you have a doctor and a patient who are mutually incentivized for better health, as opposed to medication. So, you’re shifting from this medication orientation to a participatory health experience.

What else are you seeing?

MLB: Another point is the pressure on transparency with payments and the access to physicians by drug representatives. These rules about doctors reporting payments from pharmaceutical companies and conferences is really designed to stamp out that kind of interaction. And so, what we’re seeing is a dramatic difference in how we interact with physicians through technology. An example of this is holding educational conferences virtually, versus hosting them at a specific location.

Do you think applying these digital capabilities will mean better outcomes for patients?

MLB: I do. I’ve heard this feedback a lot with devices, about how people react differently when you’re measuring steps, and when you have feedback, it’s a pretty powerful tool. Historically I think that who pays and who benefits has been out of alignment. But I think this outcomes-based shift will change that. I actually heard of a doctor who dropped a patient because they weren’t participating in their own health—it’s a very interesting dynamic.

How do you keep current on the topic of innovation in general?

MLB: I’m an auditory learner so I primarily like to talk to people. One of the things I’ve done recently is join the advisory board for UCLA’s Easton Center for Technology Management with the MBA program. Talking to these students is a phenomenally energizing experience, so I hope to expand my work with that program. I think that working with the population of tomorrow, the customers of tomorrow, is both energizing for me and a source of great learning.

Was there a catalyst or driver that led you to shift your career to developing new leaders in technology?

MLB: I like to say I was born “bossy.” I have a natural bent toward leadership. But I think as a manager in a company you learn very quickly that your own output is limited. As you rise in the management ranks, the ability to leverage other people’s talent becomes a critical success factor. You learn quickly if you’re going to be successful, and you want to lead an organization of 1,500 people, that developing them as leaders is the critical success factor and that becomes your job.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?

MLB: I don’t know if someone gave it to me or something I discovered on my own, but I learned early on to focus on my job. I get up every morning and do the best job I possibly can and then everything else takes care of itself. So, I think the best advice I can give someone is to focus on doing a fantastic job and trust that the promotions and recognition and everything else will follow.

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