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Novartis: Growing ‘Skillz Outside the Box’

By October 18, 2021Focus On Training


Novartis: Growing ‘Skillz Outside the Box’

Cover Story – By Julie McGovern

The future belongs to the curious. The ones who are not afraid to try it, explore it, poke at it, question it and turn it inside out.

As trainers, we know that an important part of our job is to create resources supporting the marketing strategies of our products and ensuring foundational capability-building of our teams. But we can’t stop there! Think about the sales professionals who have mastered the fundamentals and are curious to dig deeper into advanced selling skills that are proven to enhance customer impact. These individuals inspire us to strive for more.

Here at Novartis, we recognized that while we had a strong foundational selling skill curriculum, tenured sales specialists were hungry for resources to challenge and advance their capabilities.  We also knew that as the world evolves, so do the needs of our customers. Our field force will need to continuously develop new knowledge, skills and capabilities and engage our customers in a way that is as innovative as our science.

There was a demand to meet the needs of those who desired continuous skill development and, at the same time, drive curiosity and capability-building in the rest of our tenured sales force.

But how could we meet the personalized learning needs of a large sales force across multiple divisions, time zones, learning styles and stages of development?  How could we empower our field force to acquire and apply the right skills and knowledge to deliver next-generation engagement in the moments they need to? And, let’s be real, how do we do this on top of everything else we have going on? We aspired to develop a self-directed, advanced learning curriculum geared toward the modern learner.

The Fundamentals

At the start of the project, the team came together to envision the fundamental principles that would guide the development of a learning resource that would be engaging, dynamic and hyper-relevant for today’s sales force:

  • Accelerate Growth and Development: Go beyond selling skill fundamentals.
  • Evidence-Based: Use internal and external bench-marking data.
  • Relevant and Real World: Created for the overall field force, but developed in a way that feels customized to the needs and learning styles of each sales professional.

To achieve these goals, we enlisted the expertise of our supplier partner, the Recombinators team, and a hand-picked group of sales specialists with a passion for skill development. We worked seamlessly side-by-side across three phases of the design, development and launch of the Skillz Outside the Box curriculum.

Figure 1

Phase 1: Discover

To deliver on all three fundamental principles, we first sought to truly understand the needs of our field force. We conducted extensive interviews across Novartis and used data from STEM Healthcare to identify the skills the sales force was clamoring to learn, the skills the sales force had not yet honed and the skills that were proven to increase impact in customer interactions.

We also looked to thought leaders and top companies with strong sales organizations, both inside and outside of pharma, to understand the key skills that made them so successful. We combined our understanding of our sales force strengths and needs with what it takes to be successful in every industry, and found three reoccurring themes:

  • Planning with purpose.
  • Authentic engagement.
  • Customer first.

Phase 2: Develop

For this curriculum to fit the needs and challenges of our sales force, we wanted to ensure that the voice of the field was included throughout. We developed three tiers of partnership – Core Skillz team, Extended Skillz team and Skillz Influencers – that included a diverse group of more than 60 individuals from different franchises, roles and regions of the country. And we made sure the group was also diverse in experiences, backgrounds, gender and ethnicity.

These groups informed and influenced all stages of development and ensured Skillz Outside the Box would reflect what our reps are asking for right now – true professional and personal development. They also ensured it would be delivered in a way that makes it easy for the field to take the next step!

We wanted to give each person the option of exploring selling skills concepts and behaviors on their own, or to come together as a group to share thoughts and discuss experiences. This ultimately influenced the design of our curriculum. (See Figure 1.)

For each topic (planning with purpose, authentic engagement and customer first) our curriculum is focused on modern learning theory and includes a virtual, self-directed, interactive course featuring dynamic content from internal and external thought leaders in the form of videos, podcasts, articles and case studies.

Skillz Outside the Box gives our field force the opportunity to “geek out” – getting to the core of the skills and behaviors some of the best-of-the-best salespeople and organizations are employing and then seeing how some of Novartis’ most successful salespeople are translating these skills into the pharma world. With several hours of content, each course is designed to be accessed while on the go, digested quickly and implemented immediately. Our interactive digital platform enables bite-sized learning to be seamlessly integrated into the day:

  • Bookmark podcasts to listen to in the car.
  • Check out articles and case studies in the waiting room.
  • Watch videos in quiet moments.

To complement each course, meeting-in-a-box resources enhance the opportunity for growth and development through group exploration. The suite of offerings (Skillz clubs, virtual workshops and live workshops) is designed to be flexible, allowing the ability to use one approach or mix and match based on group availability and needs.

  • Skillz Club – Dive deeper into the course concepts with guided group discussions stretched out over multiple weeks. Participants take a section of a course, apply the principles, then connect as a group to share their thoughts and discuss their experiences.
  • Virtual Workshops – Choose from a series of short, thought-provoking virtual workshops focused on skill development. Facilitation guides allow for easy virtual execution, with warm-up activities, a discussion-based workshop and opportunity for application.
  • Live Workshops – When you’re looking for a live team developmental resource, these interactive workshops are a great resource. Facilitation guides allow for effortless execution, with warm-up activities, an activity-based workshop and opportunity for application.

Phase 3: Launch

As we planned how to launch this new resource, the driving question was, “How do we spark curiosity and interest when there’s already a lot going on?” How do we connect with our customer – the field force – when there are so many other developmental opportunities and business priorities?

Rather than taking a traditional launch approach, our goal was to engage and empower the “Skillz influencers” of our field force in a grassroots effort to create a groundswell from the bottom up, rather than the top down. Our Skillz influencers test-piloted the courses, suggested tiny tweaks to the content, and then brought their own voices and energy to endorse and launch Skillz Outside the Box to the full field force.

Some of the SOTB Core team during a December 2019 Poster Session. Left to Right: Nan Temby, Paul Kling, Julie McGovern, Jason Rakestraw, Barbara Richardson, and Liz Deveau.

Pandemic Pivot

As we quickly learned at launch, always have a backup plan! Our timing for the launch of the first Skillz Outside the Box course was April 2020, so you can imagine the challenges. Our field force was in the middle of trying to figure out how to meet the needs of their customers and the patients they serve in the midst of a pandemic.

On a positive note, this fueled an appetite for new ways of thinking about how we might reimagine the customer experience through enhanced purposeful planning, authentic customer and team engagement, and moving from a product-centric to a customer-centric approach. The pandemic caused us to switch the traditional method of launching a project to a method that has been well-leveraged by social influencers: social media. We turned to our in-house social media platform, Yammer.

Through Yammer posts, emails to peers and leadership discussions during virtual team meetings, our Skillz influencers were the main drivers of Skillz Outside the Box participation. They provided social proof by sharing their own experiences and stories of how interacting with the resources impacted them. This approach to launching Skillz Outside the Box provided a new opportunity for our field force to advance their selling skills while also providing our Skillz influencers with an opportunity to elevate their own brand and develop professionally.

The results have been overwhelming. We’ve seen members of our field force engaged in a way that they never had been before. These courses spoke directly to them – personally and professionally.

Through our internal metrics, we saw an immediate embrace of the Skillz Outside the Box curriculum. More importantly, we have had a chance to create long-term partnerships with a group of talented sales professionals who continue to inform, influence and promote not only Skillz Outside the Box, but all of our Skillz resources. It is incredibly exciting and rewarding to see our Skillz community and the groundswell of excitement grow and flourish.

Julie McGovern is a Skillz training manager with Novartis. Email Julie at


About LTEN

The Life Sciences Trainers & Educators Network ( is the only global 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization specializing in meeting the needs of life sciences learning professionals. LTEN shares the knowledge of industry leaders, provides insight into new technologies, offers innovative solutions and communities of practice that grow careers and organizational capabilities. Founded in 1971, LTEN has grown to more than 3,200 individual members who work in pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device and diagnostic companies, and industry partners who support the life sciences training departments.

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