• Organizational

Break-Through at Bristol-Myers Squibb

emlyon’ s cultural transformation program at Bristol-Myers Squibb France


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Bristol-Myers Squibb France is the French division of global pharmaceutical business Bristol-Myers Squibb. In 2010 the worldwide business announced a radical change in its business model from a BigPharma one, to a BioPharma one, requiring a major shift in business style and mindset. In practical terms this meant going through an organizational transformation while increasing the focus on discovering, developing and making available innovative medicines that help patients overcome serious diseases in oncology, immunology and cardiology.

In 2012 Bristol-Myers Squibb France appointed a new General Manager, Jean-Christophe Barland, who along with the business’s new Head of Talent Management, Costanza Gadda-Conti, saw that a more ‘explorative’ culture needed to be instilled in the organization. One that could unleash innovative ideas and collaboration amongst the entire workforce. This change in ‘mindset’ would transform the business away from its existing ‘exploitative’ culture, which was very process and bureaucracy heavy, to a more agile one.

Innovation; consistent collaboration between all stakeholders; and a shift from the structured matrix organization to a more networked and adaptive one

The new business model required a full roll-call of 21st century management skills: a focus on innovation; consistent collaboration between all stakeholders; and a shift from the rather classical matrix organization to a more networked and adaptive one that could form and reform around new opportunities and projects.

The General Manager identified three strategic pillars for the business when he took over, and these became foundational for the program:

  • Connectivity
  • Operational Excellence
  • Pioneering Spirit

On her side, the Head of Talent Management, suggested a new internal or custom-designed program that would:

  • Be anchored in the business
  • Develop a wider range of talent
  • Have an external focus to push participants to look beyond the horizon
  • Create a more intrapreneurial culture
  • And build an energising ethos of purpose for employees

In order to be impactful, the program would need to be both radically different to what had been tried before, and also involve a sufficient number of participants to create critical mass to change the organizational culture.

Eschewing the previous approach of investing only in programs for top talent and high-potentials, and with the realization that those they had sponsored through MBAs frequently then left the business, Costanza Gadda-Conti was attracted by emlyon’s action-learning focused approach, from the short-list of potential providers she had targeted.

Emlyon grounded much of their action-learning activities in their ‘de-centering’ approach, where participants are immersed in different work situations at a variety of different types of organization to see how others tackle similar business challenges. This clearly fit well with both with the General Manager’s ‘pioneering spirit’ and ‘external focus’ requirements. “Emlyon came with another concept I really liked, which matched really well with the two ones we had already identified, action-learning and benchmarking, and that was entrepreneurship” Costanza Gadda-Conti recalls.

Thus early 2013 emlyon became the provider for what became the Break-Through program at BMS France. The Head of Talent Management worked closely with Laurent Poiret and Eric Vogler from the school, respectively the program and academic directors, to design the initial program in detail. The General Manager brought the business insight by working closely with Emlyon directors before the program was launched and providing the business question to be solved by the participants each year.

Unlike previous development initiatives at Bristol-Myers Squibb France this program was open to a wide range of talents. Bristol-Myers Squibb France separates talent into three segments:

  • Key/Top Talent – those with exceptional track record both on results and behaviours, plus the potential to take more senior and pivotal positions in the organization
  • Pillars – those with specialist knowledge or skill who are yet to, or do not wish to, take on new roles, but whose skills and knowledge are critical for the business
  • Watch – those individuals who may have recently joined or shown potential, and need to be watched to see if they merit further investment

Approximately 10% of the Bristol-Myers Squibb France workforce was in this talent pool – and this group made-up the core population that the program would draw from. The annual cohorts were for 24 people, allowing them to split into smaller project groups. It also meant that after five years, integrating the natural employee’s turnover, most of the talents would have experienced the program, and so create the critical mass that was envisaged to enable real culture change.

Once on the program every participant was assigned a coach to work with them; in addition each project group had a sponsor from the executive committee to assist them in making connections internally and externally for their projects; and from the second year onwards, program alumni acted as team mentors to guide and synthesize the content. This close facilitation clearly accelerated the learning process, but also played an important part in connecting people across the business that might not otherwise interact.

The program itself was summarised as “360˚ assessment; 3 learning modules; 1 strategic project”. Each element informs the next. The 360˚ assessment provides insights into participants strengths and weaknesses and so allows them to focus on those in the modules and coaching. These were on Leadership, Strategy, Executive Communications and then in later years Design-Thinking too. These modules provide the academic thinking and frameworks to draw upon in their strategic projects.

The strength of the program lies in the weaving of these elements together; linking the benchmarking and project activities, and bringing the academic input to life through the action-learning activities.

The benchmarking activities that had attracted Bristol-Myers Squibb to emlyon took place with businesses that chimed with other themes in the program. This is an area that emlyon have particular strength in and allowed participants to see how those in different sectors handle challenges, and how the way they operate in non-pharma sectors can be distinctly different but still effective.

The Innovation Project brings all the different strands of the program together, it is the cohesive element. Six-person teams making-up four groups are required to propose a new product, service or process that relates to an annual business theme raised by the General Manager. Over the years these have become less closely attached to core Bristol-Myers Squibb business, though related to it. Jean-Christophe Barland has been championing support for paediatric oncology in France, an area that Bristol-Myers Squibb does not supply directly, and many of the projects have related to helping develop solutions in this area.

The strength of the program lies in linking the benchmarking and project activities, and bringing the academic imput to life through the action-learning activities

Now in its fifth year the Break-Through program has clearly fulfilled its primary objectives. Today employees at Bristol-Myers Squibb France are much more willing to suggest and adapt new processes to achieve beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders, which has been a real evolution from the previous organization and mindset that existed before 2012. Changing organizational culture is always difficult, to achieve a wholesale transformation, without it being driven by an existential crisis, in only five years is a rare achievement.

Internally, the program has brought together 120 people from the Bristol-Myers Squibb France talent pool over a five-year period, increasing diversity of connections within the business. Externally, the teams have engaged with 84 different organizations, most of them outside pharma, which has broadened horizons and created insights that would not have otherwise existed but for the program.

The concept of operational excellence is now a natural part of Bristol-Myers Squibb France’s business process, with customer experience and NPS scores being measured throughout. The paediatric-oncology related projects, that, for example, have enabled children to continue their learning and play, interacting virtually with friends and families even when in isolation units, have energised the participants and added a sense of purpose to the business. They can do good while doing well.

The success of the program is measured at a primary level in its attainment of the core objectives, but also in the wider impact of strategic initiatives it has brought to the organization. This success is due to the strong relationship between Bristol-Myers Squibb France and the emlyon business school.

Bristol-Myers Squibb France, now managed by Philippe Teboul, the new General Manager, sees itself as being a more explorative organization that brings the strength and resources of a large pharma corporation but with the entrepreneurial energy, curiosity, agility and passion of a smaller biotech business – thus achieving its BioPharma goal.

At the same time the emlyon mission of developing ‘early makers’, those that can act and act quickly, anticipate and cultivate ideas; and see things and take action before others has been instrumental in that achievement.

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