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Authentic Leadership Dialogue: Ugo Bello

Ugo Bello, Global Sales and KAM Director, Novartis is an innovative and passionate leader, with a real hunger for learning. Our unscripted dialogue was fast paced yet deep with self-reflection. Ugo was very transparent in this interview and shares some great insights on what leaders of the future need to be able to do and the challenges facing them in the interview that follows.

Afsheen Ismail (AI) : What is your leadership journey?

Ugo Bello (UB) : I started off with an ambition to prove myself. Career was not the key goal, the key goal for me has always been learning from the experiences. I tend to look for situations that require different efforts and make me uncomfortable.

When I completed my PhD, I realized I couldn’t make a career in academics. In Italy, the time it takes to get a real job after completing my PhD would have been 15 years. Life would mean living on grants. This is when I started in Pharma, setting new goals – this was 25 years ago.

When I started, I wanted to be a GM. The more I worked in business I became clearer on the direction to stay in. Many things happened by chance; I was growing in the local organization in Italy however timing to become a GM would have been long in Italy – at that time. Time is very important – I am impatient. I wondered what else I could do. Because of my innovative work in Italy people from many geographies were coming to me for advice and the HQ in Switzerland offered me a job. I thought, I’m going to take it and see what happens. It was still a way to become a GM, a different path. I thought it would make me special, I would be international, and I embraced what is here now. It was a lateral move but overall it worked out well.

AI : Does being more mobile create more opportunities?

UB : I had the opportunity once, to take a role here in Basel – or Russia. I feel the opportunities to grow have existed regardless of which location I chose. However, I would not have learned as much as I did in Russia if I stayed in Basel. Mobility has a weight yes, but it’s only a plus to me. I focus on learning and developing myself.

If you consider a pyramid – the number of brand managers in a country – are exponentially higher than in HQ. So, in terms of a pyramid it becomes a smaller number of brand manager at HQ, and you have more experience and become more unique and this gives you an edge. It also enlarges your brain and perspective.

Being mobile also accelerated my boredom, however. I really felt like, at one point, I had seen everything. It had a profound effect on a person who wants to learn. I need to be given room to take some risks, and that’s a key to retention.

All that being said, I am still a work in progress – I am still learning. In my current role as Global Sales I focus on being influential vs being the boss.

AI : What are leaders of the future going to need to be able to do?

UB : As a leader we want to guide and not suffocate and micromanage. The hardest thing is knowing when to give people the space to make their own decisions. So, I really appreciate working with people who are bright – who can come up with answers fast.

People are coming into their roles sooner and sooner with less experience. We want these new leaders to come up with ideas, make the right choices with less direction. We want to empower them.

What is very important is this – we must Balance Empowerment with Developing Talent – there are significant lack of experience in certain points and by empowering new leaders too fast these vacuums can become a big problem.

AI : What is your leadership motto?

UB : Understand sense.

Dr Ugo Bello, Global Sales and KAM Director, Novartis

AI : What is one thing you wish you knew about being a leader when you became a GM in Turkey for the first time – 2007?

UB : Too much focus on results than people. I was given the duty to open an affiliate from scratch, it was a big success, but I shred myself and my people in the making. It was a difficult situation; I had a lot of pressure. When I was there, I was everywhere. I was behind every single aspect, including air-conditioning calculations, on the field, following up with reps. Turning every pebble I found between me and success. I took everything so personally. I am forceful, intelligent, I see things. I became an opponent to people. My bosses, my CEO – I didn’t give anyone a chance. I didn’t have any filter, everyone was new on the team, new to their roles, expats.

What I do differently now is that I put a leadership team around me that can do well what I don’t have in my strengths. And I let them get on with their work once they’ve committed their objectives.

AI : What is the one person who changed the way you lead?

UB : The boss I had when I was regional head for Africa and CIS for Novartis. He completed me. A couple of things I always neglected. Somehow, he gave me those 2 things. He highlighted the importance of precision in my communication. And created in me the awareness that businesses have developed certain rules/ways of doing. The reason this was important is that I realized it is important to play within these rules so you can be heard better/understood better.

I used to be a maverick. He gave me access to things that were missing. I felt I was self-confident – then I realized I could express my ideas with even more professionalism. It raised the quality of my work.

Final Word

Ugo’s motto is simple – Understand Sense. It began to emerge during our dialogue just how much he embodies his motto. I experienced Ugo as a leader who understands what needs to be done to achieve a result, then with laser focus he goes forth and achieves it. And I suspect not very much can really get in his way. Yet he is also a self aware leader who can take a step back and reflect on his own leadership behaviors and evolve from there. And to find that balance – between the doing and the being of leadership – that definitely makes sense.

I invite leaders to reflect on how they maintain their own balance in their leadership journey. What is working for you right now, and what isn’t? And how can you evolve to a better place of balance?

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