Emerging Pharma Leaders: Jason Smith

September 18, 2016

Managing Director, Singapore and Asian Emerging Markets, Novartis

Access Visionary in Asia

Jason Smith, Managing Director, Singapore and Asian Emerging Markets, Novartis                                                                                                           

Majoring in Economics at Yale, Jason Smith began his career in fast-moving consumer goods as a core brand marketing manager at Procter & Gamble. But after six years, he and his family “decided to change everything about our lives.” In February 2003, they upped sticks and moved to Basel, Switzerland, where Smith took a position in global marketing and sales with Novartis. He expected to be outside of the US “for about two or three years,” but six Novartis roles later, he is still happily ensconced in pharma, now as the company’s head of Asia cluster in Singapore. 

Smith’s Novartis career spans HQ roles in emerging markets and running one of the company’s global franchises in Parkinson’s disease, but it was when working as a general manager (GM) in Denmark that he realized he had found his calling. The GM role afforded him, he says, “the ability to impact a business, a culture and, most importantly, work very closely with the team around me.” As well as in Denmark, Smith took GM roles in Portugal, and, just before the Singapore posting, for Australia and New Zealand.

Now overseeing 17 countries, about a billion dollars in sales and around 3,000 employees, Smith rates identifying and developing talent as the thing that most appeals to him about his job. He has helped to institute a young Asian talent program, which puts a select group of employees through “a very robust program, with learning, mentors, exposure to senior management and mandatory rotation in other countries that will help us validate the potential we think we see.” Smith believes that leading across many countries and cultures is about agility. “We’re looking for change agility,” he says, “for people who can deliver results across changing situations. But the hardest, most important component of the program is people agility. That’s why we implement project and country rotation; it is important to start that early and really foster that ability to work and deliver results across cultures and countries.”

Smith credits having the same coach (Sunita Malhotra, now owner and managing director of People Insights, Belgium) for the last seven years and across four jobs as helping him understand that his role these days is not to “take over in a crisis” but to help ask the questions and facilitate the discussion, “so that the team comes up with a decision, even if it is not necessarily the exact decision I would take.” This focus on leadership excellence is key to assuring a meaningful legacy, Smith says. It’s also the most important driver of long-term business results-which is why the early and constant focus on people is so important. It’s something he successfully achieved during his three years in Australia and New Zealand, where he helped build a “tremendous leadership team” and saw them “flourish quite selflessly, tackling some of the deepest competitive and organizational challenges and doing it in a way that was the furthest thing from competitive with each other.” A year on, Smith is proud to see the results that the team achieved, as well as “a number of promotions from that team, people going to other parts of the world. Those are the things that stick with me the most.”

While Smith looks for “solid performers,” he says it is important that leaders are humble enough to be aware of, and crucially, to be open about, the mistakes they’ve made. “When we sit down for a performance review or an interview I ask, ‘What did you fail at this year?’ The answers you get usually describe something that is a long way from recognizing real failure. That can be hard to answer, but being able to self-reflect and learn is one of the most important qualities in terms of what I’m looking for.”

For Smith, a successful legacy equates with improved access to medicines for Asian patients. “We spend a lot of time not just on the quarterly results but on the collective shared vision for Asia,” he says. To that end, his team has helped to pilot the company’s Novartis Access Program, which makes around 25 of the company’s drugs available for one dollar per patient per month per treatment. He is set to instigate this program initially in two Asian markets, one this year and one next. He is heartened that the Novartis culture these days allows for “the decisions to follow the words in terms of making our drugs more accessible.” 

Smith adds: “If, 20 years from now when I’m looking back, what will I be able to take away from my time in Asia? If we look at the percentage of the population, of the billion or so people that live in the 17 countries that we’re working in, it’s not a huge percentage that can readily access our medicines. If we could chip away at that in a more meaningful way, that would be a real legacy.”

- Julian Upton