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“We’ve had to retain the utmost flexibility”: Roland Diggelmann, CEO of Smith+Nephew

“We’ve had to retain the utmost flexibility”

Roland Diggelmann
CEO of Smith+Nephew

The pandemic has affected almost every business, and often in very different ways. For Smith+Nephew, makers of surgical implants and the kinds of robotic tools that have transformed processes such as keyhole surgery, it meant a fall in demand for their products and services.

After all, if people are living in lockdown they’re less likely to pick up knee injuries playing sports, and many people were also put off, or unable to schedule, elective surgery.

As lockdowns started to ease, other challenges arose, such as global supply chain disruption, the soaring price of scarce components, and the ability to service pent-up demand for elective surgical procedures.

“So many things that have been happening to the business have been outside of our control,” says Roland Diggelmann, CEO of Smith+Nephew, speaking to PwC for the 25th Annual CEO Survey. “So, what we’ve had to do is retain the utmost flexibility in how we manage the business.”

Extreme situations

“The essence of management is managing the long term and the short term and finding the right balance. That has always been the case but now it's just much more pronounced because of more extreme situations. At the height of the pandemic everything was focused on the short term. What do we know? How do we continue to serve the market? How do we engage with customers?”

However, in an industry driven by innovation, Diggelmann says it was critical that short-term reaction to the pandemic didn’t derail longer-term commitments.

“The innovation continued. We protected the R&D line and made sure we continued on the major programmes. We made some adjustments where we needed to, but this industry is driven by innovation, and that's what we really want to keep up.”

That innovation process involves working closely with surgeons to ensure products continue to meet their needs. And it also requires the recruitment and retention of a highly-skilled workforce.

In both instances, Diggelmann has seen huge value in a return to more face-to-face meetings where possible, citing the importance of experiencing local cultures in order to understand different attitudes towards healthcare around the world, and the benefits of meeting potential recruits in person. “It's been a reminder of how powerful face-to-face meetings are,” he says.

The importance of human interaction

Human contact is critical in Diggelmann’s business. In terms of performing surgery, that may seem an obvious point. But it’s also critical in terms of building and maintaining trusted relationships with surgeons, physicians and patients.

“Our products are used in human beings. We have a huge responsibility towards our customers and ultimately the patients. Trust is the most important thing. You earn it over a long time but you can lose it very quickly, and in medtech you lose it for a much longer period of time than in other industries.”

“Our customers have to trust the brand, trust the products and trust the people on the front line who are interacting with physicians every day. That's where the real trust is established.”

Building trusted relationships

Given the importance of trusted relationships, Diggelmann is very focused on the purpose and culture of his organisation. In a market where highly-skilled people are in-demand, he believes it is essential to offer more than just a well-paid job.

“The most important element for us is leading with our purpose and leading with the culture of the organisation. Purpose is so important. People choose this industry because they want to make a difference. Many have skills that could go into any industry, such as software engineers. They could go anywhere, but they join us because they believe in the purpose, they believe in making a difference to patients’ lives.”

Still on the topic of uniting his people behind a shared purpose, Diggelmann says for all the challenges the pandemic threw up, it also taught the organisation important lessons which will continue to inform its approach for years to come, in terms of how it engages its people and its communities, and how it improves the experiences offered around its core products.

“We've learned a lot about how we communicate, interact and meet and about how teams can work remotely and still achieve good results, and about how we provide medical education and training, and how we train our own commercial sales teams and how we continue to embed digital solutions in our products.

“All these elements have been massively accelerated by the pandemic. But, conversely, we’ve also been reminded of the importance of in-person meetings when it comes to really critical decisions, hiring and customer engagement.”

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Marco Amitrano

Marco Amitrano

Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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