From Science to Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion – My Journey at Sandoz

At a mid-point in my career I feel incredibly lucky to have had the working with many wonderful colleagues in very different jobs ranging from studying medicine and working in heart surgeon to earning an MBA and working strategic consulting to 10 years in marketing and sales and most recently to HR with a focus on Diversity and Inclusion.

In many ways, the latest and current role has been the easiest one for me, because the key question of D&I – “How can we create an environment where everyone feels valued and can contribute to the best of their ability, and for the best joint outcome?” – is close to my heart. It points to a common thread among many of my professional decisions.  It is also present in what I moved away from professionally ( i.e. the very hierarchical, often aggressive climate in the hospital world) and in what I moved towards (an inclusive environment where respect, fairness and diverse perspectives are valued). What I bring to this from my medical training and the commercial jobs I have had is an appreciation of and commitment to strategy and evidence-based management:

From both a strategic and evidence-based perspective, inclusion is the ONE concept that comprises the key enablers of individual knowledge worker performance, effective team collaboration and innovation climate is inclusion. From a values commitment, inclusion is based on respect, fairness and empathy, and thus part of a commitment to ethics.

I found that people who engage in D&I share a strong sense of purpose, like to challenge the status-quo and strive to change things for a better, more caring and healthier environment. Which in a sense brings me back to where I started in medicine: Doing something that matters, and contributing to health and wellbeing.

However, changing from an expert medico-marketing role to people and organizational management was not without challenges:

1. Decisions are mostly based on experience, best practices and a single advisor’s or HIPPO’s (hightest paid person’s) recommendation
2. Focus is on actions and tactical planning
3. Experimentation is understood as “let’s do it and adjust as we go”

In my previous roles the opposites were valued:

1. Decisions were data-driven and based on best available scientific evidence, taking into account the methodological quality of relevant studies in a transparent, verifiable, and reproducible review process, thereby considerably reducing the likelihood of bias
2. Strategy first, tactics follow. Without directional clarity the likelihood of spending resources on non-value adding activities is high.
3. Clinical experimentation is phased and trials include randomization, control groups, protocols, endpoint and effect size and significance considerations, enabling understanding of causality between action and effect.

It took me a while to understand this polarity and adjust my thinking to make sense of the projects and dialogue that were part of my new role. What helped me were discussions with colleagues, both internally in D&I and with colleagues who had a strategic background and helped me relate. One very special moment for me was a discussion with experts Prof. Denise Rousseau and Dr. Eric Barends about evidence-based management in Dec 2018 as it showed me both where I needed to re-think in order to understand, and where I could contribute to HR and D&I in creating impact. If you are a scientist interested in management and how to make a difference I can highly recommend their book “Evidence-based management: How do use evidence to make better organizational decisions”. As a result of our discussion we started collaborating on a number of topics in organizational development and D&I.

Innovation often happens in the intersection of different areas, when one type of thinking fertilizes progress in another, and I am grateful that my medical training and thinking has opened an important opportunity to create value for us at Sandoz and Novartis, allowing me to contribute and give back.

If we apply the same standards we practice on the clinical side in the pharmaceutical industry and leverage scientific insights to help us be more effective in defining and implementing interventions that have the highest likelihood of effectively driving equity and inclusion, we can make a big difference. For example, evidence assessments have given us valuable insights into factors increasing the impact of inclusion trainings, interventions driving gender balance and the social and cognitive factors enabling knowledge worker performance, effective team collaboration and innovation climate. We also have both the opportunity and obligation to generate evidence where none exists, in collaboration with academics and in trial-like approaches embracing control groups and randomization, considering endpoints and effect size, to help us understand causality – again applying the same commitment we make in generating high-quality clinical data to inform treatment decisions. Given that inclusion is the very essence of an enabling climate and critical for mental health a disciplined, evidence-based approach that bridges our clinical approach to management, could be a real game changer.

So what could I share that can be of value for others considering a mid-career change? 

Find “your thing”, the topic that deeply interests and inspires you, where you want to make a difference. This is not necessarily linked to a discipline or knowledge area, it can be the “how” rather than the “what”. If something bothers you in what you thought was your dream job try to define it, and allow yourself the discovery. If you can change it, great, if not your dream job may not be the destination of your journey. For me, the science of medicine was wonderful, but its practice, the way it was lived in the hospital with its lack of psychological safety was not for me. Accepting that – and leaving – was tough, but I believe I would not have been happy staying, nor could I have lived up to my potential and impact.

Explore options and grow. Every lateral career move has given me a new perspective. In today’s world it is much more about learning than about knowledge, more about making transfer and connections than one specific area of expertise.

Connect the dots. Each role you consider should have something that interests you and make sense in itself. The overall picture / red thread may only become apparent after several moves. Look for patterns, and allow yourself to go off-tangent to explore, but also to return. Every experience gives you new perspectives and insights.

Have patience. Making a mid-career change is not easy, and feeling useful can take a while.

Ask for help. If there is formal support, internal onboarding or courses that’s great, and onboarding will also happen in role and on the job in collaboration with HR, talent management and organizational development. In addition, identify and leverage external best practices to learn: I really enjoyed Thais Compoint’s Inclusive Leadership Mastery Course, https://declicinternational.com/ and there also is a wonderful self-organized EMEA network where D&I heads from different organizations get together twice a year to openly share and consult each other on different initiatives in a joint aim to drive inclusion for our companies. Try to find people who understand your questions and can offer answers that resonate with you. And give back – connecting with and helping others will also widen your view in turn.

D&I is a field where diverse perspectives are valued…
People come from all sorts of backgrounds and share a passion to drive change for a more inclusive society. The opportunity Sandoz has given me is a testament to the organization’s appreciation of diverse perspectives and creating an environment where everyone’s views are valued. As a healthcare company committed to improving and extending people’s lives we also rely on an inclusive mindset to work with patient communities around the world to ensure we respect and understand their perspective, expand access to our medicines, conduct responsible clinical trials with patient community input and preferences early in the drug development process.

… with many beautiful moments!
I cannot start to count the many moments of connection that were created and shared, in collaboration with many colleagues and our Employee Resource Groups at Sandoz and Novartis. THANK YOU to everyone who had a part of this. In addition, when D&I is strategically understood and supported as both an ethical, human rights commitment and a business imperative, it is possible to truly enable and unleash the potential of our people. What could be more rewarding? So, if you have the opportunity to formally work in D&I I can highly recommend it! Informally, everyone of us can and should be part of creating an inclusive environment where everyone is respected, heard and valued, because INCLUSION needs and benefits ALL OF US.


About the author

Stefanie Nickel

Stefanie Nickel

Sandoz, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion

Born and raised in Germany, Stefanie Nickel consciously experienced the breadth and depth of diversity for the first time during a high-school year in the U.S. at age sixteen. Building on her interest in science and different cultures, she studied medicine in Germany, Austria, the United States and France, and started as a physician in the Department for Heart Surgery at the German Heart Center Munich. Struggling with the hierarchical structures and work climate in medicine, she sought to learn more about collaboration, leadership and business: Starting with strategy consulting at Bain & Company with the opportunity do an MBA at the Kellogg School of Management, via various marketing and sales roles at Amgen Germany, she joined Sandoz in 2014 as Global Director New Products and Portfolio Strategy. Having a “mid-life moment” of clarity that business peformance first and foremost is an outcome of how we interact on a human level, facilitated by her training to become a systemic personal and business coach, Stefanie transitioned into HR Strategy and Project Management before taking on her current role as Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion in December 2018, which she describes as a wonderful learning and impact opportunity.

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