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Interview: Louise Vamvoukaki

09 December 2019 by sonia sharma

Interview: Louise Vamvoukaki

Director of Sustainability Education and Engagement at AstraZeneca talks to Governance and Compliance about transparency, ethics and business culture

How are compliance and ethics moving from rules to principles?

Working in a heavily regulated industry means that rules are crucial to AstraZeneca’s success but, in my view, being “ruled by rules” can limit us in making bold leaps forward and in innovating.

We have probably all seen long policy documents and even FAQs longer than the policy itself. And yet we are expecting our employees to comply with this, to understand the role they will play whilst navigating through what can be hundreds of pages of rules.

A company culture that promotes principles, values and behaviours plays a fundamental role in business transformation, enabling us to simplify our language and policies to spell out what really matters. In understanding our “why”, we make it easier for our employees to use their good judgement to make the right choices – even in uncharted territory. This is the role compliance needs to play – an enabler rather than a perceived blocker.

How has the Code of Ethics been received?

We moved from a Code of Conduct to a Code of Ethics in 2017. We were increasingly aware that managing change was becoming the “new normal”. To achieve long term success, we knew we needed to be able to innovate, to transform how we worked. We looked externally for examples of best practice and consulted our own subject matter experts.

Our new Code moved from 16 core principles and numerous global policies to a focus on our company values and behaviours and four one-page policies. We found that a change of one word made a huge difference; “conduct” is something that is done to you and reflected in words such as “you must” or “you must not”, whereas talking about ”ethics” is far more empowering. Ethical behaviour is something we all understand, something which is in our control and which we believe in and can live by.

My role at AstraZeneca is to educate our employees around ethics. Developed in partnership with digital learning provider Sponge, our annual Code training goes out to over 60,000 employees and serves as a great barometer as to how the change has been received. Year-on-year we see faster completion rates and our 2018 training delivered the best results to date. From a survey of over 2,200 learners, 89% felt that the course was either “very” or “extremely useful” in their job; 86% said their understanding of AstraZeneca’s values and behaviours had “increased” or “greatly increased”. Feedback included words such as “interesting”, “engaging” and “inspiring” - not bad for a piece of mandatory compliance training!

How are employees motivated to ‘do the right thing’? Is transparency highly valued?

My personal belief is that motivation comes from within. All we can do is provide the right environment, and the right training, to make this happen – a healthy culture supporting ethics and integrity, respect and transparency.

I think the Code and our education around ethics certainly helps people understand what is at the heart of what we do. I have yet to meet a colleague who isn’t inspired by the changes that our medicines can make to patients’ lives around the world. Our job is to use that inspiration to motivate employees to question “is this the right thing to do?” at every step of the way, embedding this into our culture.

For example, we recently used our internal social media channels to launch a campaign around “Speaking Up”. Whereas in the past we might have focused solely on the “whistleblowing” aspect of this theme, we now talk about a broader message – showing that the voice of the individual matters. Speaking up to course correct a project, to share an idea, to help others and, of course, when employees see something that isn’t right; and for our managers and leaders to listen and respect those voices.

We work very hard to promote our aspirations and provide our colleagues with the awareness and tools to reach for the highest standards of ethics and transparency.

What advice would you give to governance professionals entering the workforce?

Firstly, my personal mantra is to “put the employee at the heart of everything you do”. We employ talented, passionate individuals at AstraZeneca who instinctively want to do the right thing. So, if you are a compliance or governance expert, take time to understand and listen to their perspectives.

Ensure that your messages (be they policies, training, presentations or even corridor conversations) are clear and easy to understand – you are not trying to turn your workforce into an army of compliance professionals – you are there to help them to do the right things in their jobs as easily as possible. 

Secondly, find your voice and don’t be afraid to use it. Your fresh thinking may provide new and interesting answers needed to make a positive step change in your organisation. Find partners and colleagues who are willing to challenge your assumptions; and be willing to take on the role of challenger yourself. For example, when selecting a training provider, look for a true partner, not an order taker, capable of challenging conventions in learning.

Finally, don’t be afraid to be creative – in fact embrace it! Metaphors, analogies and storytelling are all great ways to help people understand what doing the right thing means - they are great tool for breaking down the complexities around governance, and more importantly creating a “sticky” piece of learning, that people will remember for a long time.

As part of the approach to have an ethical business culture, what are your thoughts on the progress made to improving diversity at the top of companies? Do you think ethics gives way to diversity in some form?

I am personally passionate about promoting diversity in the workplace. Working in a global organisation, I often sit in very diverse project groups which have only ever served to increase my knowledge and produce a stronger output of work.

As a feminist, I am impatient about the slow pace of change on diversity generally. It is hard to hear that there are still more people called Dave and Steve heading up FTSE100 companies than women or people from ethnic minorities. And when the World Economic Forum tells us that it will take 108 years to close the gender pay gap, we clearly have more to do and we need to do it now.

I see ethics and diversity as interdependent; one will not flourish without the other. In fact, many, myself included, cannot perceive a company to be ethical without a positive stance on diversity and vice versa. How can diversity thrive without the voices of our employees being heard and respected? How can we be ethical without a variety of opinions to help us steer the correct course?

I am proud to work in an organisation where both ethics and diversity form key elements of a wider sustainability strategy. It helps motivate me to move the needle in what I do. For our 2019 Code training – developed in collaboration with Sponge – we have ventured around the globe to hear stories; we have asked our contributors to speak in their way, in their language. Diversity and ethics in perfect harmony. 

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