We need to recognize our differences and celebrate them. It’s a privilege to live in a world with a variety of ethnicities, identities, genders and ideas. That’s how we learn and grow every day.
For my series on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ornella Barra.
Ornella Barra is Co-Chief Operating Officer for Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., overseeing Boots (UK, Republic of Ireland and Opticians), Global Brands, Retail Pharmacy International and International Wholesale, as well as Global Human Resources, Communications, CSR and other business services.
Before moving into her current position in June 2016 she was Executive Vice President of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., and President and Chief Executive of Global Wholesale and International Retail in December 2014. Prior to the formation of Walgreens Boots Alliance, she was Chief Executive Wholesale and Brands of Alliance Boots. Barra had previously been Chief Executive of the Pharmaceutical Wholesale Division (from January 2009 to September 2013), and before that, Wholesale & Commercial Affairs Director. In her role, she oversaw the Pharmaceutical Wholesale Division as well as the overall development of International Health & Beauty and Brands.
Barra is on the Board of Directors of AmerisourceBergen Corporation, a pharmaceutical services company, and also serves on the board of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers industry association.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I don’t usually like to talk about myself — I have always been very discreet. I am also a curious person, and as a girl I was fascinated by the world of medicine and human sciences. I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, so there was always a lot of dynamism and initiative around me, driven by real passion and a willingness to build something meaningful for our family and beyond. It was very natural for me to follow in those footsteps, being a pharmacist and an entrepreneur at the same time.
Pharmacy represented the perfect combination for me because it brings together healthcare and entrepreneurship in a unique way. I graduated in pharmacy at the University of Genoa, Italy, and I started out managing a pharmacy, before buying my own. Soon after, I founded a pharmaceutical wholesale company. But I wanted to develop my business further, so I started looking for a partner. That’s how I met Stefano Pessina (who is currently the Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of WBA and will soon be transitioning in a new role as Executive Chairman of the Board, following the appointment of Rosalind Brewer as CEO of WBA, starting March 15th). Following that first encounter, through mergers, acquisitions, and organic growth, we have built together Walgreens Boots Alliance, which is one of the largest companies in the world and a global leader in retail and wholesale pharmacy. Our goals have always been to increase our scale and our profitability but even more importantly, we always wanted to expand our employee base.
I keep living this journey and I keep doing my best to build something that can have a positive and lasting impact in our world. This motivation is today stronger than ever, as WBA stays firmly on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. With our pharmacies and distribution networks, we keep providing essential health services, responding to the critical needs of communities around the world and putting the health, safety and well-being of our customers and patients at the forefront.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I find a lot of inspiration in reading medical journals and manuals. There is so much research and innovation in medicine, and I love understanding more about the biology of human beings. It’s humbling to see how much progress science keeps making in the fight against many diseases. Just think of Covid-19 vaccines — they have been developed in less than one year, when it usually takes a decade. It’s also a great way to remind myself that there are always many new things we can learn every day.
There is however a special reading that I strongly recommend — that’s the new edition of WBA’s CSR Report! At a time of unprecedented disruption for healthcare systems, I think it’s a great way for everyone to better understand the most critical social and environmental issues that need to be addressed, in order to build a more inclusive and equitable post-pandemic world. Our 2020 CSR Report is full of great examples of what we have done in 2020 to increase access to healthcare, protect our planet and foster healthy and inclusive workplaces. It’s a very informative read, available at https://www.walgreensbootsalliance.com/corporate-responsibility.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
One motto that has always been with me is: never rest on your laurels. It has always motivated me to go further and start new ventures. I admire people around me who keep looking for ways to improve themselves, no matter how much success they have achieved.
In other words, it’s that ‘above and beyond’ attitude that millions of front-line healthcare workers have demonstrated during this pandemic. We have tens of thousands of them in our organization, working tirelessly in our pharmacies and in our communities, in warehouses and driving vans. They have been reaching well beyond their duty to support the well-being of people and communities when it’s most needed. They are a real inspiration and deserve our deepest gratitude and admiration.
But most of all they deserve our strongest efforts to ensure their safety and well-being. Supporting the health of our more than 450,000 employees around the world is always a priority for WBA, but the issue took on particular urgency during the pandemic. We implemented a vast array of measures at workplaces to protect them and we updated policies to allow them to take care of themselves and their families. Employees in support offices were provided with all tools and flexibility required. We deployed a pandemic response system to mitigate employee exposure cases. We also introduced an always-on employee feedback tool including a wellness check and support to help people manage stress and anxiety.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I believe leadership is mainly about having a sense of direction that others will want to follow. While leadership styles may change, the fundamental ingredients of leadership remain constant over time. It’s a combination of strategic vision, disciplined focus, true passion, and courage — so powerful and credible that it inspires feelings of trust and loyalty in others. Another key feature of true leaders is the ability to manage conflicts and divergences, transforming them into positive energy that can fuel growth.
I think that the main mission of leaders in organizations is to allow people to express their talents and develop an entrepreneurial spirit. This means also promoting the rise of new leaders and the exchange of new ideas and perspectives. Because a real leader is always keen on listening and open to other opinions — that’s the only way to keep your vision relevant and up-to-speed, especially in a fast-changing world like the one we live in. But being a leader also requires being brave and taking decisions at the right time, even when not everyone agrees, as well working hard and leading by example with regards to integrity, reliability and discipline.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I don’t use the word ‘stress’ often and I don’t normally feel stressed — I can get absorbed or worried or thoughtful. I am a perfectionist and I always make sure everything is directed and organized carefully.
In life one should be able to differentiate between real problems (such as health problems or losing one’s job) and those that are just issues we must deal with as part of our responsibilities. You can’t be stressed just because change happens or because you have more tasks to do. When you are motivated, focused and above all passionate about what you do, you feel less stressed. And being confident about what we do helps living better.
OK, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
You used the word “inexorably,” and that sums it up perfectly. This self-reckoning is long overdue. What I think is different about this moment is that we’re finally listening. Our society can only thrive if we create equal opportunities and allow merit to prevail. It’s the only way we can move forward toward a better world for everyone.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
As Chair of the CSR Committee of WBA, I must first say that diversity, equity and inclusion is at the center of everything we do. This is something that our Senior Vice President and Global Chief Diversity Officer Carlos Cubia points out often, and rightly so, as it is a key part of our CSR strategy.
In everything we do, we aim at promoting fair treatment, access and opportunity, by striving to identify and eliminate barriers that prevent full participation in our organization by underrepresented groups. Not only we value the different perspectives that exist our Company — we intentionally seek out to leverage them.
For example, women have always been vastly represented in our workforce and currently they make up 68% of all our employees. Recently we have hired even more women in leadership positions and increasing representation of women in leadership globally is a specific component of our DE&I performance goals, which we keep updating and reinforcing.
Our 2020 “At the Heart of Health” CSR Report, launched in early February showcases the progress we have made to address the biggest issues that impact society today, including driving accessible and equitable healthcare during COVID-19 and building a diverse and inclusive workplace through leadership accountability models. As our report outlines, we have four CSR pillars, and one of them is “Healthy and Inclusive Workplace.” Just last year, we were proud to add the word “inclusion” to our company’s core values. This was a milestone for us because while having a representative and diverse employee base is critical, making sure their voices are heard and valued is equally important. From building a representative and inclusive workforce to working with our partners to impact underserved communities around the world, I’m inspired by our commitment to change and accountability around what we still have yet to do.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
There is a direct correlation between positive performance and DE&I investment; and there is a direct correlation between poor performance and DE&I disinvestment:
· Gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform the market
· Ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform the market
But DE&I shouldn’t only be about the bottom line. It’s important for us — as a company focused on healthcare — to reflect the communities, patients and customers we serve. Our executive team is particularly diverse — just to give one example, Rosalind Brewer will soon join WBA becoming the only African American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company — and this strongly helps us move much closer to our patients’ needs.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
1. Listen. As I mentioned earlier, this may be the first time the world actually listened to our friends and neighbors regarding racial injustice. We might have heard them before, but we weren’t listening. Now we are.
2. Learn. If you listen but don’t learn, it’s all for naught. It’s important to listen with an open and caring heart so we can all learn from each other and become more connected.
3. Adapt. We have implemented diversity, equity and inclusion training across our businesses at WBA that tackles unconscious bias. We all have them, and the sooner we recognize those and adapt to change our behaviors and attitudes, the more equitable our communities and workplaces can be.
4. Challenge. Reducing inequalities is in everyone’s interest, even when it doesn’t seem economically convenient in the short term. The corporate world can do more to embrace this idea, and competition will be based increasingly more on the ability to contribute to a more equitable society.
5. Recognize. We need to recognize our differences and celebrate them. It’s a privilege to live in a world with a variety of ethnicities, identities, genders and ideas. That’s how we learn and grow every day.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
We must be realistic and understand that nothing will be the same after the coronavirus pandemic. However, it’s important to put things into perspective. We will face economic downturns, but we must not forget there are opportunities in every difficult moment. It’s not about simply being optimistic; it’s about using all our resources to look for those opportunities and getting ready to seize them when the time comes. If we embrace this point of view, we start seeing difficulties in a different way and this gives us motivation to keep fighting and staying positive, also for those who need our support.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I have had the privilege of meeting with many personalities I admire, from politicians to top global businessmen and women that lead some of the biggest companies in the world, in technology, healthcare and science. One of them was Rita Levi Montalcini, the Italian Nobel laureate, honored for her work in neurobiology, who died in 2012. I was fortunate to know her and I still miss our meetings greatly. She was an outstanding, tenacious women, and a great listener as well, always sharing ideas with young people. What I admire the most perhaps, is that through her vision and her moral values, she really helped shaping the role that science plays in our society today.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can visit WBA.com to read the 2020 Corporate Social Responsibility Report, “At the Heart of Health.”