Jeans and other drugs: Novartis CEO Narasimhan's prescription for a millennial-friendly culture

Novartis is allowing its employees to wear jeans to work in a culture shift under CEO Vas Narasimhan. (Forbes)

What does it take for a company to attract millennials? An inspiring culture—and jeans, according to Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan.

“When you look at successful innovation-driven companies, you have to have people who feel inspired and empowered and feel the curiosity to come up with the best ideas,” Narasimhan said at the recent Forbes Healthcare Summit.

When Narasimhan first took the reins in February, he embarked on a journey to not only focus Novartis as a “medicines company” but also to “un-boss” the Swiss drugmaker and make it more attractive for employees.

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About half of Novartis’ staffers are millennials, and “they expect to work in a very different environment,” said Narasimhan. So, he’s aiming to shift Novartis from a top-down hierarchical culture where people wait for instructions from their bosses to a place where employees “feel much more empowered and inspired by our mission.”

A big change of direction like that starts with small things, such as a different dress code, he figures. “We start to wear jeans to the office,” said the Swiss pharma’s chief executive. “We really try to open up transparency in the company using technology and social media.”

Loosening up on dress code sounds like a trend spread from Silicon Valley. According to an article from Inc., 40% of millennials look up to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as their business inspiration, the guy who always appears in a gray t-shirt and jeans so he can focus on productivity, not fashion.

A drugmaker is also a tech company, in a sense. Instead of being confined in formal business attire, allowing employees to dress as they like caters to millennials’ desire to feel independent, comfortable and creative, said the Inc. article.

But, just as Narasimhan himself said, changing the rules on dress or adopting the trendy internal social media platform Yammer are the small things. The company's mission also has to make millennials feel inspired. In that sense, Narasimhan and his predecessor Joe Jimenez seem to be on the same page.

“The modern-day global workforce, especially the millennial generation, wants to work for a company they believe in,” wrote Jimenez in the opening sentence of an article featured in the third-quarter 2015 issue of Ethisphere magazine. Citing a 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey, the former Novartis CEO pointed to company values and issues people care about as important factors in retaining employees, especially millennials. A 2016 Harvard Business Review article also highlighted “addressing larger societal concerns” as a factor that has affected millennials’ career choices.

Ironically, Novartis has some serious catching up to do in that realm. Kickback allegations, bribery charges and, more recently, a notorious $1.2 million consulting deal with President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen clearly disappointed and frustrated many of its employees.

Narasimhan, in a letter to employees right after the Cohen news broke, said he was “[d]etermined to fight for all of you so you continue to feel proud, inspired and empowered to transform the health of the world every day.”

Now, with transforming Novartis' culture and rebuilding trust and reputation as top priorities, Narasimhan has some proving to do. And he's hoping that, after four or five years of work, the company's culture will really make a change.