We hear more and more about servant leadership in the corporate world, and that’s a good thing. But it’s important to understand it’s more than just words –  it’s a mindset of putting others first and really trusting your team – and sometimes that does not come naturally to those accustomed to being in charge.

For more than a decade, I've been a volunteer firefighter. When I was younger, I was one of those who fought fires directly. When you go into a burning house with another firefighter, you literally trust your life with that individual. In these situations, you build very deep connections with other firefighters and with those colleagues who, like me, you may someday serve as a team leader. 

As a firefighter, when you send colleagues into a burning house, you feel very much accountable for their safety. At the same time, you cannot do much about it. You have a walkie-talkie where you could theoretically communicate. But in practical terms, they have huge gear and heavy equipment – it's physically hard work that also requires mental focus. The last thing they want or need is to talk to you all the time over the walkie-talkie.

So you stay silent. You watch them go in, and you trust that they will make the right decisions, because you know they have the knowledge, tools and experience to do the job. 

I have the pleasure and challenge to also lead the global drug product manufacturing network across Roche and Genentech. We have roughly 4,000 colleagues – often working around the clock –  producing medicines in Brazil, China, Switzerland, Germany and the U.S. We make products that people rely on for life-threatening diseases. Some of those include current and future solutions to help fight COVID-19.

Many of our people have come to work every day over the last 18 months just as they did prior to the pandemic. Others worked from home, in order to protect those working onsite in labs and in sterile manufacturing, filling, finishing and packaging environments. They work together as teams, even when apart.

As a leader, it is my job to ensure colleagues can do the jobs they are hired and trained to do by creating the right environment. How can I help them to partner and do their jobs better? What obstacles can I remove, and what information can I give them so they can take ownership and face any challenges with confidence? How can I create a community of colleagues who make bold, informed choices – where we as leaders trust that they will take the right decisions in even the most dynamic situations?

We serve close toat Roche. That in itself is fantastic, but there’s much more we can achieve. Producing medicines is complex and time-consuming, and as an organisation we must ensure that we consistently provide safe, reliable medicines to our patients in the fastest way possible. That’s where the servant leader mindset of a firefighter can help. 

It is our vision to deliver three to five times more medical advances at half the cost to society. To do that, we need to radically simplify the way we work and become even more agile and innovative. That starts with empowering and trusting people.

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