Leader Talks: Novartis’ Bilal Abdus Samad on Prague’s strategic significance

The Head of Novartis’ Corporate Center in Prague discusses the city’s strengths as a business hub and employees’ opportunities for growth.

William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 04.09.2023 17:20:00 (updated on 11.09.2023) Reading time: 12 minutes

Prague is home to a strong and growing professional services sector. The significance of the Czech capital is best demonstrated by the esteem in which it is held by some of the world’s biggest multinational companies as a regional corporate base.

One such company is pharmaceutical company Novartis, which this year celebrates the tenth birthday of its Corporate Center in Prague. As one of just six strategic locations where Novartis bases its corporate activities, the Prague center has global significance.

Expats.cz sat down with Bilal Abdus Samad, the Head of the Novartis Corporate Center in Prague, to discuss exciting job opportunities at the Corporate Center, the benefits of working in Czechia, and how Prague compares with other global locations from the perspective of an expat business leader.

Could you explain why Czechia is a great place for Novartis to have a Corporate Center?

The Novartis Corporate Center in Prague opened back in 2013, so it’s now in its tenth year. It started off as an IT hub employing around 50 people. Lots of companies were coming here, and it’s a good location in terms of proximity to our head office in Basel, Switzerland. It’s in the center of Europe, with good connections to the rest of the world.

Today, the Center employs more than 1,600 people. It’s been a learning curve; we didn’t immediately think of employing 1,600 people in Prague. The growth was organic and strategic at the same time; our strategy leveraged the growth that we were seeing and the potential of the location. We had a global strategy to establish such service centers, and Prague, having already been tested as an IT hub, naturally fell into this global strategy.

We soon started to see the full benefits of being in this location; the proximity, the talent, the diversity, and that’s when we started to expand from being an IT hub to bringing in services in other areas.

How wide a region does the Prague center operate across?

It depends on what function you’re talking about. If you’re talking about procurement or finance, then it’s the Europe region. But our finance team here works with centers in Hyderabad and Mexico, as well as our other centers. On the other hand, we have an internal consulting division that works on market studies, product launches, different events and organizational activities on a global scale; they are not limited by region.

Would you say Prague is an attractive place for people to come to work?

Absolutely. We have 1,600 associates here in the Prague Corporate Center, with 80-plus nationalities. Associates were either recruited from within Prague, or they were transferred from other centers or from Novartis’ non-center locations. I worked for Novartis’ center in Kuala Lumpur before moving here to Prague.

We still have a lot of people coming in from our other locations. It’s the second largest center in our global network, after Hyderabad, India. We have a lot of people relocating from Asia, but also from South American and European countries.

Why is Czechia well-suited to hosting a major pharma company such as Novartis?

Shared services is one of the big industries in Prague; it’s a talent hub with various centers operating at scale, providing different activities and functions across the board.

It is also an attractive location because of where it is in central Europe. It’s a great place for foreigners, and it’s about education as well. Europe has strong student exchange programs, and the diversity and the cultural evolution that people get from that kind of exposure is very evident here in Prague.

There is an evolution in terms of skill sets and capabilities. That’s the case all over the world; people realize that we need to upskill in new ways of working, and Prague is on this journey as well.

Where does Czechia sit in the pack of countries that are trying to upskill their workforce?

It’s somewhere in the middle; there are some areas where it has some catching up to do, but there are others where Prague is a little further ahead. We see that with some of the start-ups that are being created here.

This is also where I see the role of centers such as ourselves. If we can create such scale and opportunity, what role can we play in upskilling and giving back to the economy? It’s not just about finding the talent, it’s about building the talent too, which we strongly believe in.

We have a lot of development opportunities for associates. We provide Coursera memberships free of charge where associates can upskill themselves for future ways of working, including courses in AI or automation, for example.

What is your current policy on employees working from home or in the office?

During the Covid period, people generally worked from home, and that social disconnect impacted the culture and the working environment for all companies. Now, we have a hybrid working model, which is a combination of being in the office and being remote. We offer a lot of flexibility; we don’t mandate what days you need to be in the office, or how long you need to be in for.

Shared services is one of the big industries in Prague; it’s a talent hub with various centers operating at scale, providing different activities and functions across the board.

-Bilal Abdus Samad, Head of the Novartis Corporate Center in Prague

Did you feel that people were eager to come back to work after home officing for so long?

Yes and no. There were some people who wanted to come back; some of them even came to the office during Covid, because they felt with our health and safety rules and the quietness of the office, they would rather come to the office than stay at home. Others not so much, because they had become so used to being remote.

It’s a journey. When we had to work from home, the initial reaction from many of us was “I don’t have the infrastructure that I need.” Now, people might ask why they need to come back to the office!

We all had to adapt to working from home, and now we need to adjust back to this hybrid model. This policy only works, though, if we see tangible benefits of it, and I think we’re starting to see them. We have an internal sentiment survey which measures the sentiment within the organization. For obvious reasons, during Covid our sentiment was either stable or going down a little bit. But now, after introducing this flexible hybrid policy, and after resuming engagement events and activities with teams coming together across the organization, our sentiment score has gone up by 10 percent.

How would you describe the Novartis Corporate Center as a working environment?

We are successful because of our culture. We have managed to foster a kind of collective ownership and accountability for the location, with people knowing that we need to work together and be together to drive value.

But the culture goes beyond that. It’s also about being psychologically safe, being able to speak and openly share your thoughts, ideas and opinions, including negative opinions and criticisms. On a practical level, we have ERGs or “Employee Resource Groups,” which include groups for working parents, women in leadership, and diversity and inclusion as an example. These groups come together for their own events, information sharing sessions and roundtable discussions for the industry.

Are these groups set up by associates themselves?

We identify the need based on associates’ requirements; an employee might say “we need something like this and we see it as missing.” The leadership team will then endorse it and of course there will be some governance and framework. But at the end of the day, it’s an employee group for employees. In addition, we have Change Advocates, who are the connection between the associates and the leadership team. They pass on ideas to the leadership team, who then come up with actions.

Just this week, a group for working parents organized a “bring your kids to the office” day and put on a picnic in the park close to the office. Generally, the office tends not to be a place for children, but this group had the idea that it would be a great way to show kids what we do, where we spend most of our time during the day before we come home. The event was a great success.

What skills do people need to thrive at Novartis’ Corporate Center?

For me, the number one attribute is curiosity. It’s a broad term, but it’s important because we are in the business of reimagining medicine. There are so many inspiring stories of patients and employees who have influenced our journey. It is easy for many of us to feel distant and not connected to this story, but if we have the curiosity to ask questions and to explore Novartis, we learn about stories that inspire us to come to work every day, and how each one of us is connected to them.

Second, we have great diversity, with a great mix of nationalities, backgrounds, experiences, languages, even food! If you’re curious and ask questions and explore, there is a lot to learn on a personal level as well.

Thirdly, curiosity is the mother of invention, along with necessity. You need to ask the question: Why is this not working, or why is it not working as well as it should be? You can then start exploring and identifying areas in which you can change or improve. So for me, a lot of things link back to this one word: curiosity.

Could you pinpoint any areas in recruitment which are big priorities for Novartis in Prague at the moment?

We have a lot of opportunities in procurement as well as in IT. That’s not to say we don’t have opportunities in other areas; we also have opportunities in finance and real estate, for example. Real estate is about creating the right employee experience through our real estate strategy, also encompassing the manufacturing facilities.

The opportunity we see today in Prague across various areas is a testament to the importance of Prague as we look to bring more senior roles to this location. That’s part of our evolution as a center; it’s not just about services, about sitting in an office and processing transactions. We want to be a strategic partner to the organization that adds value.

You can motivate associates to help achieve this by showing them a career journey. If somebody joins the organization as a fresh graduate and they see that the maximum they can reach in Prague is two levels up, in two years’ time they’ll already be looking for opportunities elsewhere. Getting more senior roles into the organization helps people see their potential future career path and journey.

Is Novartis a place where people without a pharma background can progress?

Absolutely; having a pharmaceutical background is not necessary. Of course, there are specific roles where you cannot work without a pharma background. If you’re a representative who’s going to talk to a medical professional, you need to have an understanding of the pharmaceuticals that you’re talking about.

But for other divisions and functions such as procurement or IT, you don’t need to have a pharma background. On the other hand, when you come to a pharma organization, you see the value that you can contribute and the purpose that you have. We provide opportunities for associates to learn about the industry, and in that sense it’s very different to working in any other organization.

I came from an audit firm when I first joined Novartis. My background was in finance, but at Novartis, I’ve spent time in change, stakeholder management, and now general management. 

For me, the number one attribute is curiosity. It’s a broad term, but it’s important because we are in the business of reimagining medicine. There are so many inspiring stories of patients and employees who have influenced our journey.

-Bilal Abdus Samad, Head of the Novartis Corporate Center in Prague on the most important trait the company looks for in employees

Are there any particular language skills that you prioritize apart from English?

German is highly sought after, as it is throughout the pharma industry. Italian and Spanish are important too. With 80-plus nationalities, we cover a very wide area including eastern Europe and Asia, with English consistent across the board. But if I were to pinpoint other key languages, they would be German, Italian and Spanish.

Could you outline your own story that took you to where you are today as an expat business leader in Czechia?

From an educational perspective, I’m a chartered accountant. I studied finance and worked for PwC in the Middle East out of their Abu Dhabi office. That was my first real job, after relocating from Pakistan, which is where I’m from.

I worked in Abu Dhabi for four years, before joining Novartis and moving back to Pakistan in February 2010. I got married in the same year, and I worked in Pakistan for two and half years before moving to Novartis in Indonesia, as the head of the finance team there. I stayed there for four years, running projects, reorganizations and new team setups.

I then moved to Novartis Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. I spent three and a half years there, before moving to Prague in 2019. I later took over as CFO for the Center and as interim CFO for our Dublin center. I became head of the Prague Corporate Center in September last year.

How was the transition to moving to Europe for you and your family?

I moved to Prague with my wife and our two kids, who are now eleven and seven years old. One was born when I was in Indonesia, the other when I was in Malaysia.

All this moving around has been one of the best things that could have happened to us. My kids are growing up with exposure to different cultures and languages, and it’s great for them to not know barriers and boundaries around those matters. They have always been in a very diverse and multicultural environment. That’s probably the part that I appreciate the most.

As they grow older, it becomes more difficult to consider uprooting them and moving them again. The younger they are, the easier it is to make such a big move.

As an expat business leader, how have you found the working environment in Prague compared to the other locations where you have worked?

From the perspective of Novartis’ culture, the corporate part is quite consistent, thanks to our global practices, policies and strategies, which are consistent across the board.

Of course, there are local differences in how you communicate and the language, and that’s all part of the learning journey. In Indonesia, for example, things are a lot more informal. You can be very casual, you can even use slang and so on, and that’s fine; it’s all part of their communication culture.

In Prague, things are a lot more structured and you have to adapt as you would with any other place. Anyone who comes here needs to understand the influence of history and the specific cultural elements that depend on the specific experiences of the people.

This article was written in cooperation with Novartis. Read more about our partner content policies here.

Would you like us to write about your business? Find out more