Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson on Company Culture in a Distributed Office
For episode 3 of the HBR video series “The New World of Work”, editor in chief Adi Ignatius sits down with the CEO of Sanofi, Paul Hudson, to discuss wellbeing in the workplace of the future, and how corporate culture can thrive in a distributed, hybrid office. Hudson heads one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and believes organizations’ duty to care for employees’ health goes beyond just safety and includes their sense of purpose and fulfillment. “We may not be your family literally,” he says, “but we do care for you to be the best version of yourself.“
Paul Hudson, head of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, says leaders need to sit back and listen more often.
HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with the Sanofi CEO in the third episode of our new video series “The New World of Work,” to talk about:
- How to drive a strong corporate culture in a dispersed, hybrid era
- What the office of the future might look like
- Why companies have a duty to help employees achieve their best selves.
Talented employees, Hudson says, “expect to tell you exactly what they think on any given day,” and that’s great.
“The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooryi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.
ADI IGNATIUS: Paul, it’s great to have you. So, let’s start with workplace safety, particularly since you’re representing Sanofi. In the U.S., more and more companies are requiring vaccination as a condition for employment. For many workers, the deadline is fast approaching. I’d love to get your view more broadly on what should a healthy office environment look like now and going forward?
PAUL HUDSON: It’s an excellent question. A lot of people are really trying to answer that. We’re a scientific organization, we’re a health care company, we’re a vaccine company. So, for us, perhaps even more than many, we look critically at all of the data. And as we do that, we recommend and urge everybody in the company and outside the company too — friends, family, and beyond — to just simply get vaccinated. It’s the best route you can take. We have been very encouraging right across our entire global organization. We recognize that guidance and laws and different things are slightly different depending on the country. But if you have the chance, get vaccinated. That makes for the very safest workplace possible, and that’s exactly where we would start.
ADI IGNATIUS: And just for clarity, where does Sanofi stand now in terms of producing Covid vaccines with partners? Where are you now with all that?
PAUL HUDSON: We’ve been on this since January, even before the WHO declared a pandemic, and we’ve been pushing really hard to bring a vaccine through. It’ll be a booster. We’ll get data in December. We’ve been running an mRNA program and we’ve been making up to half a billion doses for J&J, Moderna, Pfizer, BioNTech. So, we’ve been all-in as a vaccine company, as a purpose-driven health care company. And to be honest, our people really haven’t stopped since this thing started, nor will they until we’re back to normal.
ADI IGNATIUS: Let me just push you a little bit more on this question of what is a safe, healthy office environment. I suspect this may not be the last time that we talk about how to protect ourselves from things like Covid. You talked about the need for vaccination, but beyond that, what are we learning about what a healthy office is? What are the mandates that companies need to make? What do individuals need to do? What do teams need to do?
PAUL HUDSON: You mean for literally health and safety? Because we go beyond that, right, to resiliency and protecting our people mentally, which is an even bigger subject. We’re committed to firstly, get vaccinated. Secondly, take all the best precautions you can in office environment.
Once you get beyond that, you start looking at how to operate. And I think we all remember as we all switched to Zoom early on, we demonstrated we could operate remotely. But could we collaborate? Could we innovate? We’ll find out later, because our innovation cycles are long, whether we managed to do that, but the collaboration piece we missed. And that little bit of in the corridor between meetings, that little bit of water-cooler serendipity, it’s not just for the opportunities that come with it, but let’s be honest, it’s also to take a moment to check in with each other. How you doing? You look a bit tired, how you doing? I noticed you looked quiet in the meeting. You don’t set up a Zoom to debrief how somebody’s feeling after a Zoom. Maybe we should.
But I think what’s really interesting for us is how we create those moments as people start coming back in the hybrid mode, to be more empathetic, more understanding, more caring. We got glimpses into people’s lives, through Zoom: the dog jumping on the desk, the child clamoring for a parent’s attention. And we shouldn’t just flip straight back. When we get into the hybrid, let’s care just as much. I think it’s going to be important for people’s physical wellness, mental wellness, and to deliver on the growth agenda and strategies of our company and other companies too.
ADI IGNATIUS: So, you’re in Paris. You’re presumably at headquarters. How many days a week are you having people come in? Can people choose what days they come in?
PAUL HUDSON:. Well, for me during most of the pandemic, I moved to Paris in the summer of ’19. And I remember saying to my family, “I don’t really need a home office because I’m going to be at the office and traveling.” And then just a few months later, I’m working from the kitchen table and being told my voice is too loud and I’m in the way. And we were all there, had three teenagers or slightly older, competing for Wi-Fi. It was not the easiest moment. So, I started coming back a little bit earlier. We kept our offices open for people, some people were in very small apartments who needed a bit of space to get out and have somewhere to go. So, we did all that, but I’m back pretty much every day.
But our expectation is people do two, three, four days, whatever feels right for them, their own circumstances. I think you do have to create an environment where you can catch up with each other. A 100% remote, it doesn’t give you that. So, we’re going to learn, right? As of now, nobody really has the full picture, the full answer, but we feel good about where we’re at.
ADI IGNATIUS: I agree with you. I think those unplanned encounters are not only nurturing, but probably generate ideas and learning from one another. It’s not always easy to convince people of that though. I mean, it strikes people more as a kind of a belief or a bias. It’s not demonstrable that if you’re in the office, something beneficial will happen, because we’ve seen that productivity is fine for knowledge workers working at home, maybe even on the rise.
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PAUL HUDSON: I’m not sure I agree 100% because there are some roles that are much easier to help, whether you are working a very transactional role where your productivity is measured by say a ticket solved. If you’re on a help desk or something that has got a very definite proof point at the end of a day or a week or a month.
I think in relationship-led industries, scientific-led industries, where that serendipity creates a lot in terms of a high-performing environment, a caring environment, scientifically innovative environment, you can’t take away that chance. You just can’t do it. And I’ve heard what you’ve said before from other people, but it’s funny, when people start coming back for the first time and you run into them in a corridor, they literally light up with enthusiasm because they haven’t seen many people, different faces, they’re now working with colleagues that they’ve never met in person before. It’s really fascinating to see how quickly the energy comes back, and indeed what that brings to them. So, it’s intangible, I’m with you. So, a little bit magical too.
ADI IGNATIUS: You are a multinational, very global company, headquarters is Paris, but I’m sure you’re distributed all over the place. A lot of us used to think of culture as something that happened in the office, happened at headquarters, but I’d love to hear you talk about having a distributed workforce, probably across countries, across languages, but then also now in a hybrid environment where sometimes you’re there sometimes not: What does it mean then? How do you drive culture? How do you sustain culture? How do you make sure it works for people in headquarters, people who aren’t?
PAUL HUDSON: I think the remote worker maybe a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, was always on the periphery when they connected to a meeting, and almost second class. I think we’ve proven that that is just simply not the case. We think the blend, the hybrid is the right way, but you can’t exclude the remote person dialing into a meeting. So, I think it puts a much higher burden on the people in the room and the technology and the tools that we have to make sure that people are included.
So for me, for example, if I’m leading a meeting and it’s a hybrid, I have to really listen to the people in the room, of course, I have to make sure that the microphones are good, the cameras are good. And I have to make sure that those that are remote get invited into that dialogue. Which means a slightly different operating model for anybody chairing a meeting, but a really essential one, because you can’t create two tiers. So there’s a very high expectation on all of us as managers and leaders to firstly make sure that everybody is included, however they connect, in person or not.
ADI IGNATIUS: To some extent that’s technology challenge. And I’d be interested, what have you learned in terms of upgrades of technology or better uses of technology? In my experience, Zoom meetings work quite well. In-person meetings work quite well. It’s the hybrid meeting that can really fall short either way. But I think there are technological solutions, we just have to figure out what they are.
PAUL HUDSON: I think we’re all upgrading our tech. If you’re in the tech business, it’s probably going to be a good windfall over the next year or two, because what was passable is no longer acceptable. And we have to be much more inclusive. You have to really be able to read somebody’s body language from a remote connection. And that’s okay, but it’s just a higher burden on it and we have to solve it. Again, whoever’s leading the meeting needs to be much more open and connected to do that.
We’re moving into a new office next year, here in Paris: There are no offices. It’s only collaboration space, and it will have the latest tech. We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that whether you are in the room or outside the room, you’ll get the same experience. And that’s going to be the minimum standard now, that’s the ticket. And we want people to be in our company that can manage that tech and care about the people that work for them, not two tier.
ADI IGNATIUS: We talked a couple of weeks ago with [Microsoft CEO] Satya Nadella, who started talking about Microsoft’s thoughts on the metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg has renamed Facebook, Meta, and is talking about the metaverse where we really combine physical and virtual worlds with artificial reality and virtual reality and holograms and whatever. Some companies are already experimenting with this. Are you looking at any kind of meta-type solution to these issues?
PAUL HUDSON: I’d be over the tip of my skis if I said I was an expert in that, but I do know that when we have something viable, we’ll all be moving to it much faster, particularly if it bridges the hybrid. You can imagine a world where you’re seeing data representation in real time, whether you’re remote or in the room, exactly the same and you can explore it and move around it.
I think we’re a little ways off, frankly. I think if we just get it right on the hybrid up front, we get people back. People enjoying being back physically, they don’t need to be here five days a week. We’re a company that’s in a transformation of its own.
Last time we spoke, I was explaining to you that we launched a new strategy. And then before we knew it, everybody was remote. And yet we’ve continued to advance our agenda. I think we’ve demonstrated as a company that you can continue to move even if you’re trying to blend these new approaches. And it’s not a bad thing, it’s really not a bad thing. Once you get beyond the tragedy of the pandemic, there’s some things that really must stay in how we work. And we’re trying to be at the forefront of that.
ADI IGNATIUS: But I have to ask: This is you. This is not a hologram of you, right?
PAUL HUDSON: For now, it’s just me. But I will be honest, there are days where three of me would’ve been useful. I’m not sure everybody would’ve enjoyed that, but it may have helped me a little bit.
ADI IGNATIUS: You talked about how you’re building a new headquarters, which is giving you a chance to quite literally design the future of work. And you mentioned already there won’t be offices. Talk more about what future offices should look like.
PAUL HUDSON: I think we learned this with the pandemic that you can operate remotely. We demonstrated that you can transact, you can do the things, but you need to create a space that people want to go to. You’re not coming to put your stuff in a cubby and then sit at your desk and only come out to talk to people when you need a coffee.
We’re trying to move to a model across the world, but it’ll take time, where you go to collaborate, you overlap on days that are important, where a cross-functional meeting could take place, or a staff meeting could take place, because we want the serendipity. Now we know that people traditionally came in, let’s say 9:00 to 5:00, 9:00 to 6:00, something like that, maybe later, now we recognize people will come a little bit less, but may stay longer.
So what you offer in terms of places to linger, to chat, to bump into each other, to be comfortable, to have informal conversations, there’s more pressure to have those spaces, and rightly so. The food and beverage offerings have to move to grazing all day and into the early evening. It has to take a wellness emphasis. I think we just recognize that getting people to the office to sit on their own is not the point. Getting people to be together, to collaborate and innovate and to keep an eye on each other in a very positive way, is a duty of care and is the future of work.
ADI IGNATIUS: So a lot of this strikes me as a growing attentiveness to what workers actually need. Instead of saying, “These are the rules, and follow them or you can’t work here,” it’s, “All right, I’m listening to you, and we understand more work-life balance, or things that workers need.” It does seem like workers are more empowered, certainly in the U.S. I’d love your thoughts on how you retain top talent now? How do you have a competitive advantage versus your competitors in terms of keeping top talent at your company?
PAUL HUDSON: I think the new blend is going to be a little bit between productivity, a little bit between engagement, a little bit between flexibility, and ideate, create. There’s a lot of buzz words. But I think the truth is, in particular for talent earlier in their career, they expect a few things. They expect to tell you exactly what they think on any given day. They expect their manager to have a much higher degree of empathy and EQ than perhaps previously. I said earlier, we’ve glimpsed into people’s lives on Zoom. We shouldn’t go back to not caring.
I worked with an amazing HR leader a few years ago, who said to me once — she described herself in a big room, she introduced herself. And one of the words she used to describe herself was caring. And somebody said to her afterwards, please don’t use the word caring in this company, and it’s not what we stand for now. That’s not Sanofi, that’s another company.
But I think in the new world, it’s a minimum expectation. We may not be your family literally, but we do care for you to be the best version of yourself. And to want to dedicate precious years of your career with us, it has to be a place where you can be the best version of yourself. It has to be where a boss that listens and understands if you’re having a bad day or a great day. Knows how to celebrate. Knows how to help you if you’re struggling.
And particularly earlier, with this whole data revolution, Adi, my generation, we did most of the jobs on our way to higher roles in the companies. So we sort of knew how to do everything. The younger talent now is digitally native, data literate, their expectation of educating the tenured like me isn’t by passing it up the chain, their expectation is to be in the room with us. We didn’t do those jobs. They want to tell us how the world will look.
I’m sort of pleased. Is this cultural and company disruption? We have to create an environment where we’re empathetic, where we listen, where we care, where we let people who are the new knowledge champions step forward and have their moments and accelerate and create new career paths.
This whole thing, “the longer you’re here the higher you go,” is pretty much gone. I think it’s good that we’re going to see it all with fresh eyes. And the talent, it is asking for all of that. And it’s asking to work at a purpose-driven company. And it’s saying, “If I don’t connect with why I’m here and gifting you precious years of my career, then I’m not staying.” Personally, I think it’s refreshing. I love it. Our own company is benefiting and moving at high speed, but there’ll be those that get that wrong, I think.
ADI IGNATIUS: So what’s your advice? The definition of effective leadership is changing under our feet, and hopefully it’s all positive, progressive, leads to great things, but a pretty dramatic change from 10 years ago. What’s your advice? To be an effective leader in this new world, what do you need to do?
PAUL HUDSON: Well, I think if you’re a senior leader, you’ve probably missed some of the data literacy that you would’ve got earlier, or it wasn’t around. You’ve got to go and teach yourself and work with people to get up to speed. You may never compete with those that are just joining, but you should at least understand enough to create an environment where they can excel and express themselves, for sure.
I think it’s really important that we just recognize that we don’t have all the answers, and our job is to create environments, in meetings or beyond, where people can bring the answers in the room. And that’s great. So it’s in the room. Now we’ve got to make sure we get it out, so that we can do something with it. I find that really exhilarating.
And for me, there’s a lot of talk of D&I. There’s not enough practice. So we’re looking at how we’re more representative of society like everybody else. But I really care that when we look around that room and the answers in it, that it’s more likely to be in it because we’ve got the right mix of skills and personalities and ethnicities and abilities and disabilities. We’ve got it all. It’s a minimum expectation, going forward.
I’ve got to share one story with you about leaders doing the right thing. Yesterday, I had a long session with our head of consumer health, Julie, and our operating leadership team and the whole team in Vietnam on a manufacturing site.
The pandemic came very late to Vietnam. So it’s only this summer where there’s nearly a million cases, and tragically, 25,000 people have passed away. But what happened was unlike many places, you had to stay home and you couldn’t go out even to buy food. So what that meant was the army were delivering food.
Now, if you’re making essential medicines, like we were in Vietnam for Asia, it meant that our people had a choice: Stay home or help the patients that needed the medicines. Three hundred of our people volunteered to go to the manufacturing site and sleep in tents, so that they could continue the production of medicines so that patients could get them throughout the pandemic.
Our leader on the site, he installed Wi-Fi routers so people could talk to their family every evening on FaceTime. They trained somebody to cut hair. It sounds like a crazy thing, but people were there for six weeks. They did everything to make it feel like as homey as possible. It’s a small thing. There’s no policy you can write as a company for those things.
You need leaders that understand if your people want to step up, you’ll create an inclusive environment. You’ll make the changes. You’ll feel empowered. And you’ll lead with some courage, because it’s the right thing to do.
You can’t imagine how proud I am of that team for what they did and how selfless they were. And they reflect many in Sanofi. We had 20,000 manufacturing and R&D people who just wouldn’t stay home. Who wanted to keep going through the crisis to help people. And they’re just a small example, but we have to think about the whole person now, wherever they are. And as leaders, it’s on us, and we’ve got to step up.
ADI IGNATIUS: I want to go to a question from a viewer. If you were to expect one trend to emerge in business moving forward in this new reset of what leadership is, what would it be? What’s the defining trend of this moment for leaders?
PAUL HUDSON: If you were considering whether you were authentic or not, challenge yourself and sit back and listen a bit more to people, understand them as a person. Everybody wants to be the best version of themselves. It’s a lot of slogans, like I said, but there’s some real talent everywhere, and it comes in all forms and shapes and sizes. And we just need as leaders and managers to stop running at 100 miles an hour, catch a breath, help people take a pause, help people be best versions of themselves.
On the Zoom world, we stripped it back a little bit, I think. And I would hope that we still made those efforts beyond the “you’re on mute” and all the other funny moments. There was still some tremendous moments of really wanting your people to be in good shape. And I think that has to stay with us. It’s not easy. And for us at Sanofi, we’re very proud of the progress, incredible progress. We launched research projects in MS, in breast cancer, many different things during the pandemic, faster than we’ve ever done before.
I think one of the reasons was that our people just got reunited with their purpose. And when you really are driven and you’re purpose-driven, you find a way and you help as many people as you lead. I think there’s something in that. I’ll do my best to stay honest to that every day. I’m sure there’ll be days I’m better at it than others, but I really believe that’s a huge opportunity.
ADI IGNATIUS: I want to follow up. You talked about authenticity, and we’ve talked a bit about vulnerability. I’d love to hear a moment in your career that was a crucible or turning point
PAUL HUDSON: Oh, I’ve got to be honest — and it’s not me trying to be humble — I’m a work in progress. So I’m learning every day. I took a new job in a new country and a new language, in many new disease areas, and then went into my first pandemic.
So I’ve made more mistakes than you could possibly imagine. I’ve tried to fix the ones I can quickly and I’ve tried to do the right thing to get us back onto that. And it was a lot, right? It was a lot, but I’ve tried to just steer a true course for myself that’s consistent with my values. And I think that’s nothing special, just trying to do the right thing and create that environment for others.
I made a ton of mistakes. I made some good decisions too thankfully along that journey. We’ve had some tough moments. We got stretched with our own vaccine development in Covid, but we’re still here. We get data in December. People are very determined and we’re doing things that have never been done before at speeds that have never been done before.
I don’t have any regrets. Maybe my French didn’t advance as much as it could have in the lockdown. We spent too many months locked in our own apartment, but I’m trying. I’m trying really hard. I think the first thing we need to think about as leaders is a little bit of honesty about what we’re not good at. I try and wish people a good weekend and then I’m getting to the stage where I can ask them what they did at the weekend and how that went, but it ties us back to where we were, right? I’m a chief executive in a country where I’m not fluent in the language, but I have to make the effort to pick up on the social signals to see if people are doing okay. And I think that’s my responsibility. I don’t think I can delegate that.
ADI IGNATIUS: So one more question for you: What is the most essential aspect to innovation?
PAUL HUDSON: Well, in our industry, you have to create an environment where a medicine can be a miracle. It must be first. It must be the best. It must change and transform or save a patient’s life. So the only way to be rewarded by society and to be respected for the work we do which is noble is literally to do something that’s never been done before. In 2017, 60+ % of our medicines had that criteria. Today, 89% of our medicines have that criteria. So I’ve got nine in 10 chances of actually doing something for a patient that’s never been done before. And this company, that’s what we stand for, and that’s pretty incredible.
So innovation is about creating the right environment, letting everybody have air there, opportunities to speak. It’s not about hierarchy. Setting a high bar on what innovation should look like should be rewarded, and a minimum is to change or save a human life. And don’t waver. You just can’t waver on that. In our industry, that’s what we’re about. Over time, we’ll involve data and other things to make the chances of that happening even more realistic.
But I can tell you we had 10 drugs, candidate drugs for oncology diseases like breast cancer, etc., and immunology diseases like skin diseases, for example, in asthma. We had 10 a few years ago, and as of today, we have 32 and that continued at a massive pace during a crisis.
So high bar, great standards, don’t worry about people failing. As long as they try their best, keep supporting them. Don’t blink. See how far you can go. And if you’re purpose-driven and you care about changing a patient’s life, you’ll find a way. And that’s our industry. I’m sure everybody has different motivations, but that’s where we stand.
ADI IGNATIUS: So Paul, I really appreciated this. You’re very much the model of today’s CEO, I mean, somebody who thinks about empathetic leadership, who thinks about inclusion and equality and sustainability and all these issues. If I were interviewing Jack Welch in his heyday, it would’ve been a very different conversation. So anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts and good luck with Sanofi going forward.
PAUL HUDSON: Adi, thanks. Great to talk about it. I guess there’s no right answers. We’re going to learn over time, but we’re certainly doing our part and I’m loving the learning journey and trying to make the best environment we can for all people. So thanks again.