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Emerging Pharma Leaders: Vas Narasimhan


Global Head, Drug Development, and Chief Medical Officer, Novartis

Driving ‘Incredible Science’

Vas Narasimhan, Global Head, Drug Development, and Chief Medical Officer, Novartis


Vas Narasimhan’s pharma journey did not start with a game plan other than wanting to achieve “the biggest possible impact on public health.” He went to Harvard Medical School, and then onto Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, with the goal of becoming a public health physician. 

After graduating, he worked extensively in Africa, Peru, and India on projects focused on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria. After taking in the experience of on-the-ground medical systems in the developing world, he eventually decided he wanted to expand his knowledge of management; he felt that “what was lacking in the public health community was the ability to lead and manage complex global organizations.” So he went to work as a consultant and engagement manager at McKinsey & Co. for two years, learning a lot about the industry and, crucially, how to lead.

“When I was working in Peru on a TB program, running a project with the Ministry of Health, I saw how difficult it is to get the various stakeholders from around the country together and align around a common goal,” he says. “I remember thinking how little you actually know when you have to make complex decisions-but people are still looking for you to lead. McKinsey taught me that, how to make decisions with limited information.”

In 2005 Narasimhan joined Novartis, working primarily on pipeline development, and in 2007 became global head of its meningitis franchise. By 2009, as head of US Vaccines, he was leading the whole of the Novartis operation’s pandemic H1N1 response, an experience that gave him “a lot of confidence in my ability to get people behind a common purpose.” He had to galvanize the global organization to develop four different vaccines and produce hundreds of millions of doses in a short amount of time. “I had to keep people moving toward a goal that they didn’t think was possible,” he says, “and also take care of the external environment, where, for example, you’re testifying in front of Congress and trying to manage a huge range of stakeholders.”

Spending the best part of a decade building Novartis’s vaccine development pipeline also had its humbling moments. “You get so passionate about what you’re doing that you desperately want it to succeed,” says Narasimhan. “We did everything we could to build and grow that business, but in the end we had to understand that there was a better owner for it and we sold it to GSK.” 

But Narasimhan looks back on this turn of events philosophically, as another valuable experience. “Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and realize that, even if it feels like a personal setback for you, it’s the best thing for that enterprise to go in a different direction. It took time to be comfortable with it, but in the end it was the right decision.”

Narasimhan’s career trajectory, nevertheless, continued apace. Now, as global head of drug development and chief medical officer at Novartis, he leads more than a 10,000-person staff spanning over 140 programs. For him, overseeing such a large number of people comes back to those common goals. “In a large organization, you’re only as good as your immediate team-and the team around that immediate team- because they’re the ones that have to take those objectives forward,” he says. “It’s about driving a culture of openness and collaboration. I spend a lot of time on the selection of the top 200 people; if you can drive that culture through your top leadership, that will really help shape how the organization operates.”

Narasimhan is as passionate about the managerial aspect of his role as he is working on “the incredible science.” He says that “every day there is a stream of problems that you have to tap into your brain to really think about solving. A few years ago I would have said, just focus on the objectives and on driving results. Much more now I realize it’s the time I spend with people and the power of inspiring them. And you have to be genuinely curious and treat every meeting and every conversation as an opportunity to learn.”

That Narasimhan is earmarked for even greater things was confirmed by his inclusion in Fortune’s “40 Under 40” annual ranking last year of “the most influential young people in business,” sharing the platform with the illustrious likes of innovators and disruptors such as Bank of America managing director Karen Fang, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook, and a young singer-songwriter named Taylor Swift. But in the midst of such accolades, he has kept his feet on the ground and his mind on the job. “I’ve trained myself to really just focus on the day, the week, the month,” says Narasimhan. “In the last three years I went from head of vaccines R&D to now heading up drug development and being the chief medical officer across all of Novartis. I wouldn’t have scripted it, and that makes me reticent about over-engineering my career.”

 - Julian Upton


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