In 2011, pharmaceutical and healthcare giant Abbott Laboratories announced it was splitting into two leading healthcare companies. One was to be a diversified medical products company—Abbott—and the other, a new researched-based global biopharmaceutical company—AbbVie.
On January 2, 2013, AbbVie was officially launched when it began trading independently on the New York Stock Exchange and today employs 30,000 people in 75 countries.
The split allowed AbbVie to do something companies rarely get the opportunity to do: create a new culture with an already established workforce and product set. One key to this effort was relying on culture ambassadors to help establish this new culture at the ground level.
“I’m a believer now in the concept of culture ambassadors, but I certainly wasn’t when we first set out to change our culture,” Tim Richmond, the chief human resource officer, confessed to me one morning. Richmond was asked to oversee the company’s culture renovation by the CEO.
“We often talk about the value of top-down leadership and messaging when embarking on a culture renovation, but there’s a lot of influence from the bottom up that I probably underappreciated,” Richmond said. “As we were establishing our culture, I had some people in the company approach me to say we should create these culture ambassadors around the world. Every country should have at least one, every site, every laboratory, and even every work group.”
“I remember asking, do we really need to have this right now? But I’ve learned over time that you listen to good people who have good ideas and ask, well, what would that mean? How would it work? It turns out it was a huge catalyst for change. Because you think you have great ideas from headquarters, and sometimes we do, but if you are in another country, it often doesn’t apply. In my career I’ve been on an international assignment, and you get something from headquarters, and you think, I have no idea what this is. We have no idea how to use it. But the concept of a local ambassador is someone who works at the local level to take the broad enterprise ideas and create from it whatever is important to them.”
AbbVie had the rare blank canvas on which to paint new cultural norms, and relied on those ambassadors to ensure the norms were uniform and understood globally.
“We had the opportunity to chart our own course when we became a stand-alone company at the beginning of 2013,” said Richmond. “It was up to us to establish our independence and build our future, and it was essential that we succeed—for our employees, our shareholders, and, most importantly, our patients. Creating our culture was so essential to our business success that it was established as one of our top four business priorities.”
We sat down with Richmond a few months ago to further discuss culture in the pandemic, the company’s philosophy on talent, the importance of diversity and inclusion, and more. You can listen to our interview with Tim Richmond here.
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