Podcast: Women @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Ingrid Zhang, Novartis Pharmaceuticals
In this episode of Women @ RopesTalk, hosted by health care partner Christine Moundas, life sciences partner and Women’s Forum co-chair Katherine Wang interviews Ingrid Zhang, president of Novartis Pharmaceuticals China. Ingrid talks about her early interest in health care and why she decided to go to business school. As she reflects on her career path, from consulting to working in the pharmaceutical industry, Ingrid shares her advice for early career professionals, especially why developing a thick skin is so important for growth. She also describes the exciting regulatory changes in China’s health care market, as well as unique aspects of Novartis’s culture.
Christine Moundas: Welcome, and thank you for joining us on our latest installment of Women @ RopesTalk, a podcast series brought to you by the Women's Forum at Ropes & Gray. In this podcast, we spotlight extraordinary women with successful careers and interesting lives, who are making a positive impact in their workplaces and communities. We feature women attorneys at Ropes & Gray in conversation with prominent women clients, industry leaders, entrepreneurs and others. The podcast centers on these prominent women’s careers and what's led to their successes, the challenges they’ve faced, and the hard-earned wisdom they've acquired. I’m Christine Moundas, a health care partner at Ropes & Gray based in New York and co-head of the firm’s digital health initiative. On this episode, I’m thrilled to be joined by our Women’s Forum co-chair, Katherine Wang. Katherine, would you mind introducing yourself and providing a brief overview of your practice?
Christine Moundas: Who's the special guest that you'll be interviewing on this episode?
Katherine Wang: On this episode, I'm going to interview Ingrid Zhang, who is the president of Novartis China. I've known Ingrid for more than 15 years, and I have great respect for her passion and dedication. Her background and experience reflect a nice combination of Eastern and Western cultures. I'm sure our listeners will be thrilled to learn more about Ingrid today.
Christine Moundas: Tell me, how did you meet and start working together?
Katherine Wang: It's very interesting, because both Ingrid and I were former McKinsey consultants. So, we actually met, I believe, in McKinsey's Taipei office, where she traveled to Taiwan for a project, from the U.S. And then we also became colleagues at AstraZeneca in China, where I headed the legal department, and Ingrid was one of the leaders for the oncology business unit, so we became colleagues again.
Christine Moundas: What are the most noteworthy matters you've worked on together?
Katherine Wang: We were recently able to start picking up some matters from Novartis China. We had worked on an interesting project that was about introducing Novartis gene therapy to one of the health care pilot zones in South China, to see if that would be able to be used as an example of introducing therapies to address patients' unmet medical needs.
Christine Moundas: What would you say is most notable about Ingrid's career?
Katherine Wang: I think Ingrid is a very bold person. Actually, you can tell that she was a McKinsey consultant, and then she moved into the industry. Before that, she was a scientist. So, I think that represented her gravity to entering into new territories, to experience new things, and to never be shy of the challenges. And she has been very adaptive, action-oriented, and she was really a great leader. I have been able to witness her changes and career advancement over the past 15 years, and I'm so proud of her.
Christine Moundas: That’s fantastic to hear. With that, I’ll turn it over to you and Ingrid.
Katherine Wang: Hi, Ingrid. Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with us today. Maybe we can start with you introducing yourself to our listeners?
Ingrid Zhang: Hello, Katherine—great to connect again. I'm Ingrid Zhang. I'm currently the president of Novartis Pharmaceuticals China. It's been a great journey. Katherine, I still remember when we met in the Taiwan office over 15 years ago, where we both shared a passion of health care. And today, I have actually been with Novartis for over 10 years, and spent the last four years in this current role. Just a quick word about Novartis—we’re a Swiss-based pharmaceutical company, and what we believe in is to reimagine medicine in order to improve and extend people's lives. We use innovative science and technology to address some of society's most challenging health care issues, we discover and develop breakthrough treatments and, more importantly, we want to find ways to deliver them to as many patients as possible. In China, my business has over 6,000 associates. We are very, very vested in the common illnesses that impact a lot of people, including cardiovascular diseases, immunology, ophthalmology, neuroscience and respiratory. On the personal level, I am married, happily, with a very supportive husband and two children. One actually has gone on to college already, and the other is doing elementary school.
Katherine Wang: Ingrid, indeed, we've known each other for, I think, more than 15 years. I've always been very amazed by your passion and dedication. I know you've been through different roles, but can you actually briefly describe your career trajectory, and what would be your biggest career wins to date, and how did it come about?
Ingrid Zhang: If I reflect back on my career, I think there is a central theme, which is my passion about health care—I've actually approached health care in different ways. It goes back to my earlier childhood, when two of my close relatives were suffering from severe illnesses, and they were misdiagnosed and mistreated. As a result, they passed away when I was very young, so that actually left a really big impact on me. And there was a strong desire for me, “How can I help others so they don't have to live through the same?” When I was going through education in the U.S., I actually focused on science, chemistry, and chemical engineering, as well as did research in drug delivery. There were a lot of fun times, but I also realized that I probably didn't have the talents of getting along very well with sales. I also realized visas could take quite some time, and I was keen on making an immediate impact. And so, after business school, I actually also explored consulting, which is a lot of fun, as you know, Katherine—huge international challenges and solving difficult problems facing senior leaders. It's that positive experience that carried me, and then enabled me to actually move into the pharmaceutical industry, and move into corporate for the last 15 years, where I'm working closely with development colleagues about commercializing, preparing for bringing innovations to markets in order to benefit as many patients as possible. And, of course, I've actually worked extensively in the U.S. and China, but as well as periods in Europe.
You asked about the wins, of my career? I probably look at this not necessarily as wins and losses, but I look at it as a journey and where there's a significant milestone. There are probably two milestones that I can share. One is when I was appointed as the general manager and country president for Poland. Now, that's actually quite a bit of an unusual route. Before I signed on, I had not gone to Poland, visited or explored. So, it was a really, really great experience, learning experience for me, to lead a Polish organization and to get involved with an industry association, which is allowing me to really keep an open mind, learn from this quite challenging market, and work with Polish talents and teams, both from the mind and heart so we can really win as one team. So, that's a really great learning experience for me. I also learned that, how I can in a smaller market, really think about how I can make a difference, how I can contribute by setting a strong foundation, build a team, then learn from how to embrace by working with not just the traditional stakeholders, but by other unusual players, so we can form a stronger coalition and advocate for innovation. So, that's the first thing that I would say.
The second one, of course, is—I got asked to lead China. I have to say, I was super excited when that came, but also a little bit scared. I think for a whole month after that, I was still grappling with the ask. At the same time, I was also asked to join the executive leadership team of pharmaceuticals—which is a 30-billion-dollar enterprise—along with my colleagues. I kept asking myself, “How can I live up to the expectations of my manager, of my predecessor, of the company?” I think this sometimes can happen to women, right? But I live one day at a time. I also focus on what I need to do, and what are the priorities. And so, with the great collaboration of the team, the support of my colleagues and mentors, I really am having a fabulous time. China now is a key growth driver and priority of global. I'm really happy to report that in the last few years, we've grown strong double digits. As I look forward, I do see myself on the trajectory, and I'm looking forward to learning and delivering more milestones in the years to come.
Katherine Wang: Ingrid, what you just described—your career trajectory sound really amazing. What was the most important advice that someone gave you in the past about your career?
Ingrid Zhang: Someone, who was actually a mentor of mine, gave me this advice—"Ingrid, have some thick skin." So, this probably comes as a surprise to you, and it was a big shock when I first heard it and thought about it, but the more I think about it, the more I think about implication, I think the more I see that, especially for women, especially women early in their careers, I think having thick skin really means, “Don't be too sensitive to criticism and blame.” I don't want to take it to the negative connotation, but I really think about, there are a couple elements of it. One is that I think it's basically saying, “Don't shy away from being proactive. Speak your mind.” That view is not necessarily the consenting view, but rather to speak up. I think the second thing is also thinking about, “This is never personal.” If you really think about taking it the wrong way, it becomes personal and it might limit me from reaching higher. So, it's not personal. I think that maybe the third thing is, it really helps me to put things into perspective. I really think that perhaps sounds a little controversial, but it's really been a very valuable piece of advice that I received early in my career.
Katherine Wang: That's very interesting. You're actually widely regarded as a role model for female professionals in the health care industry. I think many people admire you for your career achievements. So, how do you see the importance of mentoring in your career? What advice would you offer to young female professionals, early in their career?
Ingrid Zhang: Yes, I think mentoring is hugely important. And for that, I think for us, especially where I am, I think I've benefited a lot from earlier years, whether it's a senior manager, or a senior leader, or just a real mentor. I think I certainly have benefited from having somebody mentoring me, somebody I really know well, and somebody that's perhaps a bit more removed—I think there's value in both. I remember, this was actually quite early when I was considering the career path, and believe it or not, a statistics professor actually planted the seeds about business school, really quite early on. And then, an ex-Wharton alum also had talked about the importance of business school, and this is actually where I made a change. Certainly, I think about some of the strong women mentors I've had very early on in my career, and really benefited a lot from. I see this more as not necessarily pay it back, but more as pay it forward. So, I do mentor actively, currently today. I also sponsor a program at Novartis, which is called "Make Your Move," where we're really focusing on younger women and men, and talking about how we can facilitate greater, more diverse career moves in order to propel learning, but also help the young talent to discover interests that perhaps they had not thought about before.
My advice to people is probably two things. One is, "Don't shy away from asking for help and asking for feedback." I think when I look back to my younger self, I was quite keen on delivering, quite keen on making it right, yet not realizing that it's actually a really great learning experience, and people around me—mentors, colleagues, peers—would love to help and provide their advice. And to be able to pick that up and learn from, and demonstrate results, it's a huge value proposition both to myself and to the one that's offering help. So, never shy away from asking for help and feedback—that’s the first advice I would give. The second thing I was going to say is, actually, "Aim high and be bold." I think you've heard this famous saying from Clement Stone, which says, "Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star." I think that's really helped me a lot. Sometimes we have these artificially set frameworks and constraints around ourselves, whether it's intentionally or unintentionally, but in reality, I think growth has no limits, so to speak. I really think aiming high and being bold will help all of us to really unleash our potential and discover new heights.
Katherine Wang: So, you have been basically working as a veteran in the health care industry for maybe 20 years. What is keeping you excited at work nowadays? Would you actually find something interesting in Novartis that would distinguish itself from other multinational pharma companies?
Ingrid Zhang: I have been in this industry for quite some time, but I think now I am more excited and more, I guess, super committed, than ever. Maybe just allow me a second to describe the regulatory changes that are taking place in China. Katherine, you know that China traditionally—the health care market—is dominated by classic brands and generics. But I think the last several years it's really, really through the regulatory changes, pivoting to innovation, whether it's on regulatory changes where new innovations are being approved and registered in China at a much faster speed, simultaneous developments, simultaneous approval is now a reality. At the same time, in parallel, access is opening up. Now, annual updates of national reimbursement lists have made it possible for a new drug to be approved and reimbursed in the same year. Not to mention, there's also a possibility of commercial insurance and then the rise of digital health. I think what's keeping me at work are two things—one is the growth agenda, and the second is talent. Speaking of the growth agenda, I really think it's all about innovation from a strategy perspective to execution and resourcing, and the process that's aligned in order to support that. And the talent, we always talk about war for talent, but I think the intensity of that competition, it's higher than ever. Yet at the same time, it's also tremendous with talents in terms of growth, building capabilities as well as developments. All in all, when I think about the growth agenda as well as talent agenda collectively, which gives me excitement, also the source of inspiration is our ability to impact families and patients.
You also asked about what distinguishes Novartis from other companies in China? One is an innovative pipeline, the second is a win-as-one approach, and a third one I'll probably talk about is our culture. The very first one, as I was describing, the market is pivoting to innovation—and therefore, having the force of innovation, which is the pipeline, is super important. And for that, Novartis, we're well-known for our different platforms, whether it's small molecules, large molecules, as well as advanced platforms such as cell and gene therapy. By focusing on disease areas, we have a deep pipeline that can be the source of innovation. The second thing that I want to talk about is the win-as-one approach, because I think today in the health care market, it's absolutely a keen force. It's becoming so specialized that we have different functions, whether it's legal—which you represent—whether it's marketing and sales, digital, development, medical affairs and different channels. We all have to point in the same direction, and I really think that's what we're really good at and continue to get even better at, is really, regardless of our personal agenda, functional agenda, or siloes, we can point in the same direction, with the single-minded focus on helping as many patients as possible. I think the third thing—Novartis has a really unique culture, and what we describe as "inspired, curious, and unbossed." Now, “inspired” and “curious,” that's probably actually quite accepted globally. “Inspired” having a purpose in what we do every day. “Curious” meaning we take a learning approach and we're never satisfied, but we think how we can do better. But I think that "unbossed," that often becomes a conversation-stopper. Most people are either becoming really happy that there's no boss, that we do what we can, or people and managers often ask, "How do I lead in an unbossed culture?" I don't think it's as simple as, "We do whatever we want." Nor is it that we no longer have a role. When I think about the "unbossed," I think it actually puts greater onus on the leaders to be able to provide the overall direction and support the team as needed, absolutely not by micromanaging, but by enabling the teams and removing barriers when it's needed. I feel like this is more of a servant leadership, and more importantly, empowering the organization. I think we're learning a lot from COVID, and I really think the unbossed culture has a long way to go in the future, where there's a lot more uncertainty and changes ahead.
Katherine Wang: I wanted to actually ask you a particular topic of interest, which is actually getting very popular worldwide—it’s the diversity and inclusion topic. I believe it has become the priority agenda item for many companies and business organizations. How would you actually see the advantage of having greater gender and other diversity leadership? And what is the, I would say, effort that was taken by Novartis, nowadays on this topic?
Ingrid Zhang: I think D&I, what we call “diversity and inclusion,” has always been on the Novartis agenda. And I completely agree with you that the value of D&I is increasingly paramount in today's environment, especially as I was alluding to earlier, the uncertainty and complexity ahead—the environment. Often I look back, and I look forward. I find it increasingly hard to do the traditional strategy of five-year, 10-year strategic planning, even if you're predicting exactly what's going to happen in the next year. I think moments like this, even if a simple question is, “When could COVID end?” I don't think anybody can give an answer that actually would carry certainty. I think especially in moments like this, I think we need diversity in thinking because that's going to help us to make the right decision and that's also going to help us not to miss the important opportunities that perhaps is more left field than conventional. I think diversity manifests itself in many different ways. You talked about gender. I think it's important to think about diversity in experience, and most importantly, diversity in thinking.
I'm quite proud of what Novartis has done. I will share with you, at the global level, my boss, who is leading the entire Novartis pharma organization, she's a woman. On her leadership teams, we have six regional leaders that are leading the P&L, and we are very equally balanced—three are men, three are women. And then speaking for the China level, China historically has been doing a reasonably good job of maintaining the gender balance. I'm also happy to report that 60% of my team, my direct team, are women. We have strong P&L leaders, that you have, and we have strong functional leaders, such as HR and legal as well. They're all strong female leaders. More importantly, we all come from different backgrounds. On the geography perspective. We have leaders very experienced in the U.S., China for sure, as in Europe. We also represent different industries—pharma, medical device (that's taken for granted), but as well as digital and tech. So, I think a team like this has a really good basic foundation for us to really think diversely. But I also think diversity's a given, and inclusion is a choice. How can I, as a leader, be open, encourage speaking up and different ways of thinking? Especially when we're faced with complexity issues, I think this is where the value of D&I really manifests itself.
In addition to gender, we've also identified how to better balance work and life. Here at Novartis, we rolled out different programs, including “Choice with Responsibility,” which gives employees and associates the flexibility of where to work. Of course, during COVID, people were working from home, but as China comes back to normal, we also can see that practice associates had choices of where they work, whether it's in office, whether it's in the field, whether it's at home. As you might know, I actually just went through a quarantine of three weeks, so I've also worked in different locations, including abroad as well as in the quarantine hotel and at home. It really gives me a sense of, “How can I support the teams better to be more inclusive?” We also give paternity leaves—meaning not just mother, but also the father, leave of equal lengths—and employees have the choice of taking that option. So, I think the great beginning of us is providing a much more inclusive environment so our talents can flourish.
Katherine Wang: Wow, Ingrid—actually, I feel like I have a complete new understanding of what you're doing and why you're so successful. I thank you so much for agreeing to be our guest speaker. I actually learned so much from you. You are a perfect blend of Eastern and Western culture. I'm so proud of you.
Christine Moundas: Katherine and Ingrid, thank you both so much. And thank you to our listeners. For more information about Ropes & Gray's Women's Forum and our women attorneys, please visit www.ropesgray.com/women. You can also subscribe to this podcast wherever you listen to podcasts, including on Apple, Google and Spotify. Thanks again for listening.