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Iris Zemzoum portrait


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

IbyIMD+ 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…

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