Daniel Vasella: The Long Journey Toward Leadership

Bill George

Daniel VasellaSometimes great pain makes for a great healer.

Throughout Discover Your True North, successful individuals discuss how they became authentic leaders. This forum is a chance to delve deeper into the thoughts and journeys of these influential leaders. In this profile, we will talk about crucibles with former Novartis CEO Daniel Vasella.

Thank you for your time, Daniel. You experienced crucibles early in your life, many of them health-related. How did your illnesses as a child affect the path you ultimately took in your career?

Well, at age 5 I went to live away from my family to get treatment for asthma. Then, at age 8, I had tuberculosis. Back then the treatment for tuberculosis was very painful. I had to be held down during treatments. I remember it was not until a doctor sat me down and explained how I was being treated and why that I started to feel more comfortable. I remember wanting to hold the nurse’s hand. I saw at an early age how important compassion is to a person’s healing.

And you weren’t the only one in your family who was affected by illness?

That’s right. My older sister passed away from cancer when I was 10. The next year we lost my other sister to an automobile accident. Then my father passed away in surgery two years later. It was a difficult time, to say the very least. My mother went to work in another town and visited every few weeks. This began a rebellious time in my life.

In Discover Your True North you mention that it was a girlfriend who got you back on track. Is that right?

Exactly. She got me in gear. Ultimately, she’s the reason I ended up going to medical school at such a young age — I was 20. It just shows you what an incredible impact a kind, loving force can have on your life. The sanatorium doctor who treated me for tuberculosis was another shaping influence; I never forgot how kindly he talked to me. That doctor was the image I had in mind as I began my professional life.

What made you move from practicing medicine to the business side of the pharmaceutical industry?

I thought I could touch more lives, affect more change. I processed the treatments I went through as a child and decided I wanted to impact the care of larger groups of people. I had recently applied for a chief physician position, but the search committee felt I was too young, so I began to investigate a corporate position. I was hesitant to make the leap to the corporate side of the business, but my wife encouraged me.

What was your first job in the pharmaceutical industry?

Starting out, I worked as a salesman in the United States for Sandoz, a chemical and pharmaceutical company, and eventually moved back to Switzerland as assistant to the COO. I took a 40% pay cut and was frustrated. But it was the right step and it took me in the direction I wanted to go. The position allowed me to learn the business from a management perspective and eventually led to promotions.

What did you learn about yourself during this time of growth and transition?

Initially, I learned how a step back could be a step in the right direction. I needed to change the path I was on, and in the end it worked out. I gradually took on more responsibility and touched various aspects of the business. When I was promoted to CEO, I was in a position to live out the vision I had when I went through my own health issues as a child. I was able to promote the creation of life-saving drugs and define a corporation around compassion, competence and competition.

At Novartis, is there one drug that sticks out in your mind as emblematic of what you accomplished as CEO?

In Discover Your True North we talk about Gleevec. Gleevec was initially effective in treating myelogenous leukemia, yet it was cast aside because of poor market projections. This worked against our corporate culture. We were in business to help save lives. With some effort we were able to take Gleevec to market and I saw firsthand the impact that drug had on patients and our business.

So everything came full circle: the child who had health problems and dreamed of better care grew up to offer patients life-saving therapies.

Yes, I guess so. My childhood illness and the death of my father and sisters definitely shaped me as a person and as a leader. I wanted to lead an organization like Novartis because I believed it offered me the best opportunity to change people’s lives for the better.

Thank you, Daniel. We’re glad you could share your story with others who are pursuing their own True North.

Thank you for your time. If I have learned one thing it’s that one has to do what’s right, based on one’s moral compass, to be an authentic leader. And the crucibles you face often help you define what’s right.

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