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Moving the Needle

From an HBR article about positive organizational transformation that at its core is about the Partnership Economics ethic of mutuality. You can read the full article here and we encourage you to do so.

In December 2000, when Dr. Tadataka Yamada became the new chairman of research and development at Glaxo SmithKline, he was horrified to learn that his company was one of 39 pharmaceutical companies charging Nelson Mandela and the government of South Africa with violating price protections in a lawsuit over access to drug therapies for HIV/AIDS patients. Close to 25 percent of black South Africans were living with HIV/AIDS and at the time, antiretroviral therapies cost approximately $1000 per month—more than a third of the average South African’s annual salary, putting treatment out of reach for most patients. Dr. Yamada held discussions with his research staff and quickly learned that he was not alone in his opposition to the lawsuit. The team wanted to be a part of the solution to global health issues, not party to a lawsuit preventing such drugs from reaching those in dire need, but they felt they lacked the power to change the company’s direction.

Moving the Needle | Image Credit:

Dr. Yamada, in one-on-one meetings with individual board members of GSK, stressed the company’s moral responsibility to alleviate human suffering and tied it to the long-term success of the company. GSK can’t make medicines that save lives and then not allow people access to them. He stressed the PR disaster associated with the lawsuit, and set forth a vision, co-created by his team, for how GSK could also become a leader in the fight against TB and malaria, diseases that also were disproportionately impacting third-world populations. In April, 2001, all 39 companies dropped the lawsuit against Nelson Mandela; GSK and others reduced the prices of antiretroviral drugs by 90% or more. Furthermore, under Dr. Yamada’s direction, one of GSK’s major laboratories in Tres Cantos, Spain, was converted into a profit-exempt laboratory that focused only on diseases in the developing world, including malaria and tuberculosis. Subsequently, top executives at GSK became leaders in global health issues and have since partnered with the Gates Foundation on global health initiatives. What made it possible for Dr. Yamada to step forward with a steady voice and a sound vision? HBR identified four key mindsets that helped him catalyze this transformation:

The power of one A single person with a clarity of conscience and a willingness to speak up can make a difference. Contributing to the greater good is a deep and fundamental human need. When a leader, even a mid-level or lower level leader, skillfully brings a voice and a vision, others will follow and surprising things can happen—even culture change on a large scale.

The power of sequential skill building Prior to GSK, Dr. Yamada had a lot of practice with smaller challenges, from caring for the most complex patients in the intensive care unit, to becoming a department head and national leader in his field. Along the way he also led other efforts to change the status quo by actively helping more African Americans and women to join the gastroenterology faculty at the University of Michigan. The lesson is not to underestimate any chance you have, even if small, to hone your skills of challenging the status quo for the greater good. Train your “courage for challenging convention” muscle consistently, so that it’s ready when needed. The power of sustained focus and determination It’s easy to say, “This will take some doing; I’ll think about it later.” Combined with an unconscious “This could be dangerous for my career,” it can be easy for tough challenges to gradually slip from focus. Over time the unacceptable can become the norm, and the energy for change dissipates. But Dr. Yamada didn’t accept the unacceptable; his focus and determination were well honed. Attacking challenges was not just an occasional adventure—it’s been a way of being, as well as a highly successful career path. The power of using privilege to support people with less privilege While such a mindset is not required for transformation to occur, most would agree that it’s even better, and more rewarding, when transformation also helps those with less privilege. Dr. Yamada, trained over many years in the “patient first” culture of medicine, had a well-honed awareness of the larger change he could bring because of his voice, and a vision for the positive impact GSK could bring to countries in dire need of low cost, life-saving drugs to treat HIV, TB, and malaria. His team, and ultimately many others at GSK, shared a desire to help those less fortunate. With the support and efforts of many at GSK, this positive vision and pathway for action reverberated across the organization and helped energize a culture shift. This reminds us that while corporate transformations are almost universally assumed to be top-down processes, in reality, middle managers, and first-line supervisors can make significant change when they have the right mindset.

In closing and quoting Mahatma Gandhi: "We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do."

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