At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Chair of the Executive Board and CEO of Merck, Belén Garijo, speaking in a session on workforce transformation in the digital era, shared lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic experience, insights into the importance of building leadership skills, and using technology as an enabler.


During the “Preparing 1 Billion People for Tomorrow’s Economy – Digital transformation,” session at the World Economic Forum, Garijo joined the CEO of ManPower Group, Jonas Prising, along with other speakers to discuss the impact of technology on the future of work and how it will require the workforce to obtain additional or alternative skills in the future.


Lessons from the Pandemic

The session inevitably began with the before-and-after effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global workforce. At Merck, new work paradigms were already underway with some hybrid and remote work models already in place since 2013. According to Garijo, the pandemic served to advance the company’s existing workforce plans even further: “The pandemic was a great opportunity to accelerate some of the strategic people plans we already had in place.”

Helping people navigate the crisis while preparing for the future was the biggest challenge I faced

Belén Garijo

The pandemic, however, presented a huge challenge in terms of engaging the workforce in a completely different way of working while insuring business continuity, particularly with respect to supply chains and production. “Digital connectivity was something new to the whole organization. Half of our workforce, mainly people in factories and labs, didn’t have a computer at home so we had to very quickly equip those people,” says Garijo.

Other concerns were cyber security and looking towards automating processes, mainly on the manufacturing front to enable more efficacy and efficiency into the future. “Helping people navigate the crisis while preparing for the future was the biggest challenge I faced,” she confides.

To confront all of these issues, Merck had to rethink its entire employee strategy. “It was a cultural transformation and we [reinforced our] culture to make sure we put people at the centre, reshaping our strategic workforce approach,” she said.


Creating Leaders

The pandemic also revealed a gap in some of the capabilities needed by leaders to confront the new realities they suddenly found themselves facing. “During the pandemic people were absolutely overwhelmed trying to catch up and perform in a completely different world with a tremendous sense of urgency and no time for upskilling,” says Garijo.

At Merck this led to a race to further develop leadership capabilities: “The kind of leaders we needed was absolutely different so we did a lot of leadership development,” she goes on to say.

If you want to have a high impact job, you need to be a good, effective leader

Beyond the pandemic, Garijo sees leadership as an essential skill employees need to develop. “If you want to have a high impact job, you need to be a good, effective leader,” she states.

With respect to new recruits joining Merck from prestigious universities, Garijo believes that becoming a good leader is something that develops on the job. “Perhaps because of my own experience I am a firm believer in learning and developing on the job and not in the classroom.”


Tech as an Enabler

According to Garijo, at Merck, technology is being used not as an end in and of itself, but as an enabler of human intelligence, particularly leveraging data-driven decision making. With respect to talent, the firm is using an AI base model to match capabilities with needs across the 60,000 people organization. “We use technology to drive many of our upskilling and training programs and to identify needs and gaps or to match our talent internally with a need,” she says.

However, Garijo stresses, the use of technology has not meant fewer jobs at Merck, but different jobs. Yet, in the CEO’s view, before companies can upskill their employees, they must have a clear understanding of existing skills gaps. “We need to understand what is happening moving forward and reshaping our strategic thinking on people and capabilities is absolutely key because of the scarcity of certain skills that we need to perform our business in an effective and efficient way,” she claims.


Talent, a Priority

In Garijo’s view, workforce issues reach far beyond the Human Resources department and should be among an organization’s priorities. “Attracting talent and developing people is not an HR topic, it’s a fundamental leadership priority. The ambition is to always have a higher impact. That is a fundamental shift in the way we hire people today,” she claims.

Regarding new hires, Garijo also stressed the importance of attitude: “I hire for attitude not only experience.”