Head of Strategic Planning, Business Development and Licensing, Greater China, Novartis
"I was rather naïve and thought that science could solve anything," says Charlotte Chui of her early years studying the discipline
(her undergraduate major at Harvard was biochemical sciences). "When I realized that wasn't the case, I took a bit of a detour."
Fortunately for science—and pharma, in particular—that detour (into the finance industry) wasn't permanent. In 2007, Chui
joined Novartis's global strategy team in Basel, Switzerland. "A great move," she calls it. "It gave me a chance to really
understand top management, to look at what they consider when they make a decision." The observational approach paid off:
just over a year ago Chui was appointed Novartis' head of strategic planning and business development and licensing for Greater
Once in China, Chui quickly became an integral part of the team, relishing the opportunities and challenges of this dynamic,
growing market. She took a leading role in realigning the company's operation from a fairly centralized model to a more flexible,
decentralized one, coordinating projects that addressed regionalization, key account management, novel product launch mechanisms,
and new channel development.
Before the realignment, Chui says that Novartis China was "hearing a lot of complaints from the front line. The organization
had clearly outgrown the way it had been working before in the country." She worked to push decision-making to the front line
and make the organization more customer-centric. The process was complicated, involving the revamping of "a lot of our governance,
a lot of our systems." But the benefits are now visible: "We're much more aware of what the customers are thinking, we have
much better feedback from the market, we have much faster decision-making, and we can identify opportunities and act much
Also crucial to Novartis' recent strategy in China has been Chui's tireless support and development of new talent. Working
with colleagues from all divisions, she has sought to develop leaders by helping them think more strategically and communicate
their knowledge in a more impactful way. "I see a lot of very energetic talent here that is probably younger than in other
countries, and there's a huge opportunity to develop it," says Chui. "But it's very easy for staff to get distracted—there's
a million other opportunities in China—so it's important to keep the information lines very open."
Effective delegation is key to Chui's leadership style. "What I see in a lot of managers, new managers especially, is a feeling
that, 'I can do things better and faster if I do it myself.' I think that's really a mistake," she says. "For me, if you can
establish rapport and trust, then it's a great opportunity to let go a little bit, to let someone else take ownership and
develop their skills. Of course, you also have to follow up, support them, and give them feedback."
For all its buoyancy, Chui adds, however, that the Chinese market isn't all about the rapid growing of talent and resources.
"Some people think that somehow the sales magically happen," she says. Indeed, there's as much a need for "lean" in China
as there is in the West. Characteristically, though, Chui has her own views on what lean should mean. "I don't think it's
just about the bottom line," she says. "To see lean simply as a way to improve the margins is very short-sighted." For Chui,
the most important objective is always customer satisfaction. If that is failing, "it doesn't matter how much you watch the
bottom line, you're dead in the water," she says. "Lean is about changing the mentality, changing the way we work, being very
innovative, and being open to ideas from the front line. This may not be as easy to measure as, say, procurement savings,
but it really makes a difference."
As well as remaining committed to her work with Novartis—"the company has very big ambitions here; in the next few years I
would love to see us as the leader in China"—Chui's role is also meaningful on a personal level. As a Chinese-American, she
grew up in the US, but her parents worked hard to keep Chinese culture alive in the household. "My mother would cook Chinese
food at home, we would speak Mandarin, and my parents would read poems to me in Chinese," she says. "None of that I really
appreciated when I was growing up, but when I started working here it all helped me integrate much faster and much better.
So, if coming to work in China was not exactly 'coming home', it certainly doesn't feel too far away."