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The Novartis Area Field Trainer Program

By March 10, 2021March 15th, 2021LTEN Focus On Training


The Novartis Area Field Trainer Program

Who better to engage and empower than those field associates on the front lines?

FEATURE STORY – By Erica Sambraus, Tom Buonanno and Anjie Hugerich

The Novartis Area Field Trainer Program proposal.

We know culture is critical to attract, retain and inspire individuals with the talent and motivation to impact customers in truly meaningful ways. Yet as trainers and leaders in a large and growing pharmaceutical company, we simply cannot build a constructive culture alone.

How can we extend and amplify our reach? Who better to engage and empower than those field associates on the front lines with a passion for teaching, mentoring and leading?

Many organizations in our field have engaged select sales specialists as field trainers, whether formally or informally, to some extent, as we have done in varying degrees here at Novartis. But ensuring the field trainer program is purposeful, focused and consistent, while also supported with the most appropriate resources is a continuous balancing act.

The Vision and Evolution

Our vision to reimagine the field trainer role started back in 2018. Foreseeing a need within the Neuroscience franchise that was soon to experience a time of unprecedented growth, one dedicated sales specialist, Rosanna Woodard, harnessed her passion and talent for training and leadership to plant the seed for a formalized area field trainer (AFT) role. This role would bolster the many new initiatives and priorities to come and help meet the need for continued education and pull-through within the rapidly changing neuroscience market and environment.

She engaged a cross-functional team that would ultimately build a robust role implemented in early 2019, which would later expand its reach across additional franchises. The role evolved to consist of one sales specialist per area who would devote about 15% of their time serving as a key area leader for both selling skills and clinical education. The sales specialist acted as a liaison between leadership, training and the field force, supporting initiatives and pull-through and providing critical guidance to new hires during the onboarding process and beyond.

AFT Development

One of the key pillars of this new program was AFT development. We know that employee development is one of the key drivers of retaining top talent and is often one of the most powerful motivators. The program proposed to develop those within this role in impactful ways. We would develop these individuals professionally and personally in areas that mattered to them, in innovative ways, and offer them exposure across every level and function of leadership.

One of the highlights of this new program was a live bootcamp consisting of an interactive ceremony to build a mission statement, immersive skills and clinical training teachback sessions, virtual facilitation training and a “speed-dating” style networking session.

This was tacked on to a live train-the-trainer for area business leaders (ABL) session, where the AFTs would be included for the first time, to learn side-by-side with the leadership team. With the help of Image Media, members of the product training, field skills development and leadership teams all came together to build upon the vision and make it a reality.


The AFT program ultimately assisted the franchise to reach business excellence through the aspects of innovation, collaboration, operational excellence and development. It pulled through the inclusive and “speak up” cultural priorities of the organization and supported our CEO’s “Year of the Field” vision.

As this program prioritized people and culture, it was evident that this team brought a sense of pride and empowerment to help better those around them in the key areas of clinical acumen and sales skill excellence. The AFT team was the face of the field and assisted in leading it to a great 2019. The program was nominated for a Business Excellence Award based on the consistent areas of impact on people and culture, innovation, collaboration and leadership.

The AFT new hire onboarding guide developed by Tom Buonanno.

Based on the value the program demonstrated over time, the senior leadership team and product training lead advocated for its expansion to three AFT programs  within the neuroscience franchise.  Each would be supported and sponsored by field skills development, one designated product trainer and regional director and one nominated area business leader per region.

The field skills development manager would oversee all three programs to inform and execute skills training and, more importantly, to have a viewpoint into opportunities for synergies and sharing of best practices and learnings. One product trainer from each brand would identify and execute clinical training needs and inform on best ways to incorporate the AFT training plan into the overall field training plan. And the designees of each leadership team would sponsor the program and help to guide direction.

Together, each team built and co-led these ever-evolving programs, each modeled off the original but tailored to the needs of each franchise through the insights and contributions of all of the stakeholders.

The LTEN Onboarding Pathway

When onboarding new members of your team, LTEN has resources that can help.  Be sure to check out the new onboarding pathway designed by the LTEN Board of Directors and staff. The new pathway supports your efforts to develop yourself and your teammates. The new pathway lays out a milestoneby-milestone map, with LTEN resources along the way to support your onboarding. To get started, simply send the new hire to and share a fully laid out  development plan. The pathway leaves room for the addition of company-provided material.

Giving Back

Fast-forward to the present. The AFT program proved more valuable than ever during this past year, and the training and leadership teams leaned on and leveraged this team like never before. In fact, the unique leveraging of the AFTs in the first ever virtual product launch was recognized across the organization as one of its most critical success factors. The impact all three AFT teams demonstrated and continue to demonstrate is truly incredible.

The recent past did create some critical gaps around recognition, development and execution, but we proposed some ideas to fill them, including hearing from the area field trainers themselves.

We developed a survey to help identify and prioritize the personal and professional
development needs of one of our AFT teams. The areas that rose to the top, in order of preference, were coaching training, virtual facilitation training,  networking opportunities, role clarity and culture/mission statement building.

The AFT bio and “meet your area field trainer” slide deck developed by Anjie Hugerich.

We also looked at the franchise’s overall priorities and training plan and started to think about how we could begin to incorporate some of these offerings appropriately over time, and in new and innovative ways geared toward the modern learner and the rapidly changing virtual environment. We came up with a proposal and timeline, presented to leadership and it was met with unanimous support.

We officially were able to start our first virtual bootcamp, spaced over time, essentially also serving as a “pilot” program for the other AFT teams within neuroscience and beyond.

Here are the virtual bootcamp components:

  • Mission Statement: We empowered AFTs to build a mission statement that would ground them with a clear, cohesive, meaningful purpose — informed by each team member’s personal vision. Utilizing a “Game of Phones” approach (thanks to one of our ABL sponsor’s ideas!), we identified a smaller task force within the AFT team to start the team off with a draft, then circulated one by one to each team member for their input, edits, additions, etc.
  • New Hire Onboarding Guide: AFTs have an important leadership role in helping to ensure new hires have access to all the tools and support they need to be successful. The newly developed new hire onboarding guide provides the AFT with a standardized agenda to help navigate new hires through their onboarding process. It is a critical reference resource to ensure a new hire’s onboarding experience sets a positive tone starting their new chapter at Novartis.
    The AFT bio and “meet your area field trainer” slide deck developed by Anjie Hugerich.
  • AFT Bios and Meet Your Area Field Trainer Deck: A one-page biography form identifying a sales specialist’s strengths, learning agilities, a short bio, qualifications, career history and awards to be used in field trainer nominations and/or for their own professional development; and a slide deck with room for each AFT’s picture and a short bio that can be shared with the entire field force and leadership team to introduce each AFT as the “go-to” for all things skills and clinical training.
  • Virtual Facilitation Training: This innovative, highly interactive two-part session is contracted through IC Axon and conducted by external experts in the field. Conducted in multiple smallgroup sessions allowing for an  intimate, personalized experience, it helps AFTs establish effective facilitation techniques for virtual meetings, training workshops and coaching sessions, and provides actionable feedback and coaching to enable participants to refine their skills and elevate their virtual impact.
  • Networking Coffee-Chats: These 30-minute virtual sessions allow small groups of three or four AFTs an opportunity to meet with one or two leaders of their choosing, across multiple functions and roles across the entire organization. Participants can rank their top four choices on a first-come, first-served basis. The intimate groups will provide the attendees the ability to get to know each other better, allow for mentorship, answer specific questions, discuss career development, etc.
  • Representative Coaching Training: Led by Novartis Leadership Development, this training allows area field trainers to understand the personal and business case for coaching. They also discover how to create a safe environment for coaching, address challenging coaching situations, coach attitudes and beliefs as well as skills and activities, inspire people to perform at their highest potential and increase individual performance and engagement.

Looking Ahead

It has been truly incredible to see the evolution of the AFT program throughout the years and the impact it has had on the field forces it’s touched, as well as each individual trainer involved. From the early beginnings within the Eye Care and Oncology divisions, with the help of the training team, the seeds planted within multiple franchises have been allowed to cross-pollinate into a program that is flourishing, growing and continuing to evolve.

Even in it’s very early pilot stage, the virtual boot camp has gained ground – with every Neuroscience team adopting at least one component or more. Every team clamored to take part in the networking coffee chats, and many teams are also adopting the mission statement building, biographies and virtual facilitation training. And the Eye Care team has brought the onboarding guide full circle!  What started there four years ago has now been brought back with open arms, taking the new Neuroscience version and evolving it even further to meet the needs of the team.

We are excited to see how this program continues to expand and to grow — demonstrating impact and the value of putting our people first.

Erica Sambraus is a training manager for field skills training and Tom Buonanno
and Anjie Hugerich are product training managers, all with Novartis. Email Erica 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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