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Iris Zemzoum portrait


3 little kids, 17 suitcases and a room with locked windows

Published 17 March 2021 in Leadership • 6 min read

Taking a challenging new role at a higher level in a different company is a big leap even in normal times. Now, add three young children, a move from Germany to Singapore, two weeks in a COVID-19 quarantine hotel, and the need to operate almost 100% virtually.

Put it all together, and you have the situation faced by Iris Zemzoum, as she took her new job as head of the APMA (Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa) for Novartis Pharmaceuticals in
October 2020, leading a geographically dispersed organization of 7,500 employees.

Fast-forward four months and Iris is well on her way to integrating into Novartis and taking charge in her new role. Effective onboarding by the company and her new team was one key to making it happen. A second was having the right mindset as she navigated through the inevitable challenges. A third was being systematic in making early connections, diagnosing the business challenges, and assessing her new team.

Especially important was taking care of the family side of the transition process. Research has shown that leaders making geographic moves – even seemingly easy ones within countries – struggle more with family adjustment difficulties than the new role‘s challenges.

I spoke with Zemzoum about her experience and lessons for others facing similar situations.

How did the company support you through the onboarding process?

The company recognized that I was making a very big leap and gave me great support from the start. Before I left for Singapore, they brought me to the company headquarters in Basel for two weeks, which made a big difference. I got to meet my new boss for the first time face-to-face as well as my peers and the members of the executive committee. It was the best thing I could have done because it gave me a foundation of relationships.

Sitting in Singapore, I’m pretty isolated from the rest of the leadership team. It would have been hard to establish strong relationships if I hadn’t had this time to connect. Once in Singapore, I got a lot of support from my new team as they had prepared briefings and other materials for me. I was rapidly able to connect with them virtually. The region is huge, including 31 operating countries, spanning from Morocco to New Zealand. But I was able to make personal connections with everyone and get the information and insights I needed.

The company and my team also understood that I was facing a unique set of challenges getting settled in Singapore during a pandemic. My boss and HR told me to “take the time you need to settle in”. It helped to hear that, although I still put pressure on myself to get a grip on everything.

5 ways to smooth the move

• Understand the full set of transition challenges you will face and identify the ones that will create the biggest risks. Iris was experiencing promotion, onboarding, operating in a new culture and family relocation. The most pressing was rebuilding a support system so she could devote time to getting up to speed with her new role.

• Ask for the right types of support from your company to meet these challenges. Corporate onboarding systems often are cursory and one-size-fits-all, but leaders’ transition-support needs vary widely.

• Make critical connections early. The time Iris spent at the company headquarters before her move to Singapore gave her a rapid start in building key relationships.

• Recognize that you inevitably will go through an adjustment process. The honeymoon of getting promoted or joining a new organization virtually always gives way to frustration or even crisis that, with perseverance, gets resolved as the transition progresses.

• Focus on maintaining a positive mindset. Transition challenges are much easier to deal with if you see them as opportunities for growth and not trials to be endured.

What were the challenges you faced on arrival?

Singapore has very tight restrictions on who can enter and what you must do on arrival. Although I had expected to bring my nanny along to help for the first few months, I couldn’t. My husband was unable to move at the same time I did and I couldn’t even bring my mom with me. So I had no support, which was really challenging.

Then there were the first two weeks with three children under seven years in a sealed room in a quarantine hotel. It’s hard when you can’t even open the window. I had 17 suitcases in the room with me.

Fortunately, five or six of them were for the children. So there were lots of toys to keep them occupied, and we put the mattresses down on the floor and they used them as a trampoline. I had worried about them but they did great. It helped that they were so young. I explained to them once, and after that, they didn’t even ask why they couldn’t get out of the room.

Here the onboarding process helped as I wasn’t expected to put in full days in virtual meetings, just attend the most important ones that had been identified for me. My new team and HR partner were very supportive and worked to accommodate my situation. At no time did I felt under pressure from the work side.


Even with the company support that was a lot to have to deal with and I can easily imagine being overwhelmed, so how did you manage?

I tried to maintain a positive mindset. Sometimes late at night in the quarantine hotel, when the calls were over, and the kids were sleeping, I would look at the closed window and feel a bit claustrophobic. When it happened, I would just try to relax, take some deep breaths and it would pass. Then in the first week in our new home and home office, the glass railing of our balcony imploded, and everything fell into our garden so that no one could go out again for days.

At moments like that, I forced myself just to laugh and say, “Iris, you’re in this hidden camera show where someone is just testing you, and it will be over soon.” When everything got a bit overwhelming, I just forced myself to laugh. I also kept telling myself that it was a matter of a few weeks and things would get better. I just had to keep on, and things would get resolved.

I had confidence, too, in my ability to organize and find solutions. I tried to keep in mind that you grow with your challenges. Things might be hard, but you adapt, and you start performing at a higher level so that you can cope with much more.

What will the next few months bring?

Now that I’m more settled, I’m focusing on understanding the region’s unique characteristics and potential and building my team. It’s been wonderful to move to Asia after almost 15 years in Europe and knowing that region and business so well. I’m enjoying being out of my comfort zone. It has 31 countries that are so diverse in language, culture, and healthcare systems. I’m energized by the opportunity to bring innovative medicines to patients in a region with almost half of the worldwide population.

Then there is my team. When you inherit one from your predecessor, you don’t know what you’re going to get. When I take a new role, I start with one-to-one meetings to get to know team members personally, and then a second round focusing on the business. My assessment process worked surprisingly well with video calls. I came away feeling that I had inherited an excellent team. In the western part of the world, we underestimate the huge pool of talent in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific.

They are so passionate and have worked so hard to get where they are. My challenge now is to make them my team, aligned on one vision and begin to have an impact with and through them.


Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

He is the author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Shaping the Game, and numerous other books and articles on successfully taking new roles. A recognized expert on leadership and transitions, he coaches C-level executives as they take charge, build their teams and transform their organizations.


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