Celine Schillinger: The Woman That Transformed Sanofi


Being a change maker at a hierarchical company in a highly-regulated sector is not for the faint-hearted.

Just ask Celine Schillinger, senior director, stakeholder engagement at Sanofi Pasteur and a thought leader in business transformation, whose efforts to push the Paris-based drug-maker to embrace diversity and social engagement were not exactly met with open arms. Like the banking industry, the pharmaceutical industry is conservative; it ranks lower than banking when measuring internal innovation.

Schillinger: “Companies need to transform the way they work”

Branded a “troublemaker,” Schillinger was denied a raise and promotion. But her persistence paid off both for her and the company — Schillinger was named France’s businesswoman of the year by business daily La Tribune and Sanofi won a global Shorty award for a social media campaign she organized.
To succeed in changing any company you need three things, says Schillinger. “You need courage to launch, a few strategically-placed friends inside the company who think what you are doing is nice, cool and interesting so they help you to embark quickly and/or external validation, and you need luck because the timing needs to be right.”

60 Ideas That Went Beyond Gender Diversity

Schillinger, a scheduled speaker in the Innotribe track at Sibos, a global banking conference, says she believes the banking industry can learn from the experience. “Companies need to transform the way they work,” she says. “Triggering and supporting internal transformation must be built around social media and social engagement. That means calling upon people in whatever the position they are working to tap into collective intelligence to produce new approaches.”

For Sanofi the journey began in 2010 when Schillinger read a McKinsey report arguing that companies that have diversity in their top management do better financially. Schillinger emailed CEO Chris Viehbacher, suggesting the company integrate more women at the top. At the time Sanofi had only one woman in its C-suite of 11 executives.

Change Maker

Born in Bordeaux, France.

Post-graduate degree from Paris-based CELSA Sorbonne in corporate communications (following public affairs studies at the Political Sciences Institute in Bordeaux).

Hired as communications manager at Lisa Engineering, an information systems company in Paris.

Moved to Vietnam to look for a job; stayed for four years, then moved to China.

Hired as an international human resources director at Paris-based global pharma company Sanofi.

January 2011
Wrote a letter to Sanofi’s CEO asking him to integrate more women into senior management. After getting no response, reaches out to other women in the company.

June 2011
Women’s group becomes the largest internal community among the whole Sanofi group and six months later it reaches 2,500 members across 50 countries.

June 2013
Launches dengue fever activist community page on Facebook. After one week, it attracted 10,000 followers, after two months 50,000, after three months 100,000, after nine months 250,000.

August 2013
Launches a personal blog — www.weneedsocial.com — to encourage corporations to use social networking to change their relationships with their customers.

December 2013
Named France’s Businesswoman of the Year by La Tribune, a business daily.

April 2014
The dengue fever campaign wins a Shorty Award, a New York -based contest that honors the best in social media.

“I got no answer,” says Schillinger. Nonplussed, she organized a lunch for 12 women at Sanofi to discuss what to do about it. “By June 2011, we had already formed the largest internal community among the whole Sanofi group,” says Schillinger. “Six months later we had 2,500 members across 50 countries.”

The point was not just to eradicate sexism but to teach management that to be truly innovative a company needs to become less hierarchical and learn how to listen to its own employees and its customers.

The group came up with 60 ideas that went well beyond gender diversity. “The management, seeing that, realized there is something here, something important, a positive oriented movement with proposals that were also of real interest to Sanofi,” says Schillinger.

Is The C-suite Now Gender Balanced? Hardly.

The company decided to form an official group to implement some of the initiatives.

Is Sanofi still hierarchical? Absolutely. Companies don’t change overnight. But the drug maker is now also embracing a network approach that allows it to tap the knowledge of its employees. Is the C-suite now gender balanced? Hardly. Instead of one woman now there are two. However, across the company departmental diversity is now being measured by human resources and mindsets are changing. “Sexist jokes have disappeared; people find it odd now when no woman is on stage,” she says, “and we are continuing to push for more change.”

External awards and recognition have helped the push for change. The gender diversity drive earned the company a gold trophy from a French business executives association and Schillinger was named Businesswoman of the Year. “All of this has brought enormous benefits to the company — we were named as a model company,” she says. Creating a vibrant network around gender diversity at Sanofi triggered similar efforts at other companies. Today, there is an association in France that brings together gender diversity groups from 20 companies.

But change doesn’t stop with new ways of engaging with employees; it requires new ways of engaging with customers via social media, says Schillinger. That too proved to be an uphill battle.

In 2012 Schillinger was transferred to a department preparing the launch of a vaccine for dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral infection found in tropical and subtropical regions. Dengue has become a leading cause of death among children. There is no cure and no preventative medicine. Sanofi has been working on a vaccine for about 20 years and is expected to be on the market within three.

“Instead of doing the traditional pre-marketing I suggested that we become a leader in behavioral changes that could prevent dengue fever,” says Schillinger, “and that we try to connect everyone that is interested.” She pushed to co-create a social media campaign across different platforms with a non-profit organization.

“It is not an initiative where we speak about our project; it is not an initiative to raise awareness to scare people, the aim is to create new solutions,” she says. The campaign is not only a place where people can tap into Sanofi’s own expertise but also a virtual meeting space. Instead of broadcasting to potential customers it is triggering conversations.

Everyone Was Afraid Of Facebook

But creating a social media campaign that was not controlled by the company was considered both foreign and terrifying. “I had to convince a lot of people to shift from being territorial to a connection logic,” says Schillinger. “Everyone was afraid of Facebook. They said, ‘everyone will attack us and say bad things about us.’ I told them ‘they are already saying a lot of bad things about us but we are not there to respond’.”

Going live the first response from executives was: ‘oh wow super cool. Did you follow procedures?’” she recalls. The initiative was supposed to have been approved by nine departments. It wasn’t.

“This project was so different in nature that I just felt it didn’t fall in this scope,” she says. “This thinking made it possible to actually bring the project to life in an agile manner. The natural and expected behavior would have been to wonder whether the procedure applied, and to ask [those in charge] for advice. Then, and just because of the natural tendency to avoid risks, they would have turned the initiative off.”

A meeting of top management was convened to discuss her actions. A harsh email was sent to her “demanding I explain and justify what I have done,” she says.

A promised promotion and raise were refused and she was branded a troublemaker. “This disconnected me for a while from my management. I could not go and help management and they didn’t trust me. But six months later everything was solved thanks to a huge uptick on the Facebook campaign.”

A static page about dengue fever acquired 218 followers in three years. The social activism campaign — waged across different social media platforms — attracted 10,000 in the first week and 250,000 in the first six months.

We Will See The End Of Hierarchies

“This was the best demonstration that it is ok,” says Schillinger. “That social engagement did not mean the sky would fall on the company’s head. You need imagination and courage to go beyond a purpose that is too directly tied to marketing. It is time that big companies give back and this is a great way to do that.”

As luck would have it Schillinger came across the Shorty Awards, a global award competition for social media. Winners include American Express and BNP Paribas. The dengue fever campaign won first prize this year for best use of social media for health.

The criticism of Schillinger disappeared. “Now I am asked to explain this initiative to our top leadership. The CEO told me he thinks it is fantastic.”

With several awards under her belt and the blessing of Sanofi’s management she is now determined to bring change not just to her own company but to others.

“We will see the end of hierarchies,” she says. “What is really key for innovation and transformation is inclusion, tapping into a broader knowledge and energy, and the will to be involved and contribute.”



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