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Sanofi CHRO: Culture and Identity Are Two Different Things
CHRO Conversations

Sanofi CHRO: Culture and Identity Are Two Different Things

Sanofi CHRO Roberto Pucci

A Conversation With Roberto Pucci
Executive Vice President of Human Resources at Sanofi

Pharmaceutical giant Sanofi has over 100,000 employees with 145 different nationalities in 100 different countries. As Sanofi's Head of Human Resources Roberto Pucci relates, Sanofi can balance all those individual differences -- which are vital aspects of employees' sense of identity -- because employees are also devoted to shared goals and core cultural principles.

Emond: You mentioned to me once that you believe there's a difference between cultures and identities. Tell me more about what you mean by that.

Pucci: When you try to tell employees, "This is the set of values and culture that we have in this company. This is our culture. This is going to be your culture," you can get some resistance. It would be difficult to tell a German to put aside his identity, or to tell an American to forget her roots. And there are identities within our business too. At Sanofi, there are people working in the vaccine business, for instance, who are very proud to be involved in preventing disease. At the same time, many others within Sanofi are devoting their lives to curing disease -- working on therapies to cure or reduce the impact of chronic diseases, for instance, or to develop personalized medicines to treat rare diseases. They're very attached to what they do -- it's part of their identity.

So, our message is that you can keep your own identity, your sense of belonging, your roots. That's part of who you are, and we want to be respectful of that. But that's different from culture. Culture is how we work together at Sanofi. No matter what your identity is, we have to apply the same management principles that are the foundation of how we run this company.

Emond: What are some of those principles?

Pucci: Well, culture is sometimes a very difficult thing to define. We try to be very concrete about the soft expectations that we have for people. For instance, people in our company do not belong to a business unit or a country affiliate. People belong to themselves, of course, while the work they do and how they do it belongs to the entire company. So, when a Sanofi employee is thinking about professional development, they can think beyond the boundaries of their current business unit or country team.

Another cultural expectation is that everybody in the company should have the opportunity to be heard. People should not be afraid to speak up. Especially if they are in a minority -- whether it's a demographic minority or a minority opinion -- because the conversation is enriched by including many different points of view.

Emond: How do you encourage people to speak up? People with a minority opinion can be a little hesitant.

Pucci: First of all, we have a training module called "Managing Your Bias." It starts with the principle that we all have some bias, you know? So, for instance, Sanofi is a pretty formal company; our corporate image is pretty polished. What if somebody shows up for an interview wearing casual clothes and a pair of old sneakers? What would be your instant reaction? In many pharma companies, the instant reaction would be, "We're not interested. He's not one of us." So, we're training people in various countries and at various levels in the organization to try, as much as possible, to get rid of those biases and really value people for who they are, not how they look, or their personal identity. The module has been very well-received; it's very successful training. While frankly we'll never be able to completely eliminate bias, we can try to minimize it. That's part of respecting identity, you know, which is part of our culture.

We constantly push the notion of leadership being inclusive. And we really push what we call the DEEP principles of leadership conversations: being Direct, Empathetic, Earnest and Productive.

Emond: Tell me more about those DEEP principles.

Pucci: To make a person feel comfortable, you need to be Direct. A conversation needs to be candid and open, not two-faced. Second, be Empathetic. Being emotionally intelligent shows the person in front of you that you can connect with them not just rationally, but also emotionally. The third dimension is being Earnest, which means being honest and working to deliberately create trust. Finally, it's important to make each conversation Productive: Give a sense of optimism to the person you are talking to. Show there is light at the end of the tunnel.

We've been training people, especially our leaders, to practice those four DEEP principles. I'm not suggesting that we'll solve all the issues. But if you combine our efforts to encourage everyone to have a voice on one side and our drive to practice DEEP conversations on the other, then I think people of different backgrounds and identities will find it easier to express themselves within our team discussions.

Emond: How do you balance this issue of culture versus identity versus leadership behaviors?

Pucci: Well, here's an example. We are a global company, and we have conference calls with people all over the world. So, a respectful, practical approach is to not organize a global conference call for 4 p.m. European time, because that would be 10 p.m. in Japan. Conversely, 10 a.m. in Paris is too early for participants in the U.S. We try to schedule these calls at noon or 1 p.m. Paris time to accommodate people in as many time zones as possible. It's a very basic example, but people don't necessarily think about that.

It's also important to take account of official holidays around the world. Chinese New Year is in the middle of January, so the holidays extend past Jan. 1, which people working in Europe may not immediately think of. Similarly, we try not to organize meetings around Thanksgiving that involve our colleagues in the U.S., and similarly for important dates in other parts of the world. We have to be able to apply flexible schedules to accommodate different needs that are tied to different identities -- and that flexibility is part of our culture.

But at the end of the day, I think the best strategy for me has always been walking the talk, starting from the very "top of the house." I think there is nothing more detrimental than saying one thing and doing another. I believe the best way to exemplify the culture of what a company wants to do or wants to be is to ask leaders, especially the CEO, and also everybody else at the top of the organization, to manage and behave according to those management principles. So, a manager who shuts down every single individual who opens his or her mouth needs to learn that is unacceptable leadership behavior. He or she should either develop and change, or leave the organization altogether. The success of our efforts to evolve our culture is closely aligned with the managers really living those management principles.

Emond: Tell me more about those operating principles. Are they different from management principles?

Pucci: We've got six operating principles at the executive committee level.

  • The first says we act as one Sanofi, inside and outside. We are a very diversified business model, but at the end of the day, we are one company. Whatever is good for the company as a whole should prevail over individual interests and the interests of any specific part of our business.

  • The second one is that we focus on customer and external stakeholders. This is not unique to our company: Plenty of companies put customers first, but in healthcare, patient health is more important than any other consideration.

  • The third is to actively listen to all points of view. Everybody has a voice, right? This is embedded in inclusion -- inclusion of diversity and inclusion of active participation from everybody, from the bottom to the top of the structure.

  • Our fourth principle is to discuss and debate projects, issues and ideas constructively, and then collectively commit to the decisions we make. Because it's OK to debate a topic and initially disagree about the best approach. But once a decision is taken, we have the responsibility and accountability to implement it.

  • Principle No. 5 is to ensure that any decision we take in these circumstances is aligned with our purpose and values.

  • And the last one: We execute responsibly. Which means that every action, everything we do, we do with integrity.

Those six principles have been discussed and agreed on at the executive committee level.

Emond: How do you make sure that people keep them in mind?

Pucci: As a matter of fact, we appoint an observer at each executive committee meeting. There are 15 of us, including the CEO, who meet face-to-face once a month. During that meeting, on a rotating basis, one of us becomes the observer, who is responsible for going through those principles and debriefing the rest of us at the end of the meeting. Have we been patient-oriented enough in the discussion we had today? Did we give space to everybody? Did everybody have a share of voice necessary to express their opinion? And so on. … If you practice those operating principles consistently on a regular basis at the executive committee level, you can be sure that these people will replicate the model all the way down to the very bottom of the organization. We believe that this is way more effective than a big slide deck full of nice words without anybody actually "practicing what they preach."

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article, which was based on an interview conducted by Larry Emond.

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