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Vas Narasimhan of Novartis: ‘We Are Not at All Prepared for a Pandemic’

You’d already been a senior executive at the company. Was being C.E.O. really that different?

I thought I could just keep doing what I had done in my previous roles and it would be fine. It took me probably six to nine months to realize that I’ve got to adjust because it’s an all-consuming role, mentally more than anything. Everyone told me that the job is harder and it takes a huge toll. But I think until I experienced it, I wouldn’t have known.

And then there are things you can’t be prepared for. I was not prepared for the constant crisis. I’m always in the public spotlight, always the spokesman. Even though everyone told me, I still wasn’t prepared for that. I don’t know what prepares you other than doing it.

How do you deal with all these stressors?

I’ve been working with a coach on four principals: mind-set, movement, nutrition and recovery. On mind-set, I set intentions every day. I find that trying to be clear about what I want to accomplish in the day, right in the morning, is very important. What’s the impact I want to have?

Nutrition is, Am I eating for performance, or am I eating to enjoy? I’m convinced that your glycemic status impacts your overall ability to make good decisions, handle stress, all of those things.

Movement: I’m a Peloton addict.

And then recovery. I try to sleep seven or eight hours a night. I take all my vacations with my family. I go on walks with my wife, who’s like my life coach, and professional coach, and all of everything in between.

How do you make time for all that and still do your job?

There’s a feedback loop. If I build those four areas into my daily schedule, I have a bigger impact. So I don’t see it as making time. I just build it in. I try to sleep from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. I work out from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m., and somewhere in there I try to do my meditation. Then I get to the office, and I try to take breaks during the day. I try to be super careful about what I eat all the time. I fast for 14 to 16 hours as well. I generally do from 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. to noon, with only coffee and water in between. I find that all of this helps. It’s just a matter of doing it for enough times in a row that it just becomes a part of your normal way of being.

What’s your view on the reputational problems facing your industry?

One of the five priorities I’ve set up for our company is building trust with society, which I see as a long game. This is not going to be fast. It’s about consistency, whether it’s on access and pricing, tackling public health problems like malaria and leprosy, or being a responsible actor on social problems, human rights, gender equality. I believe I have an opportunity to do something unique in this because of my background in developing vaccines and working in public health.

If you look over the last 100 years, the gains in life expectancy have been tremendous. And if you look at some of the philosophers like Steven Pinker, they would say that these are some of the greatest achievements of mankind. And it’s even happening in sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania, East Africa. You have these life-expectancy gains, and it’s because of the advent of modern medicine. That gives me tremendous determination to stay the course. But people don’t think about that huge story. They think about what happened recently. And recently our industry has not behaved in the best way.

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