Joseph Jimenez thrives on competition. As a teenager the CEO of pharmaceuticals giant Novartis spent four hours a day, seven days a week, practicing for swim meets. That effort paid off: At Stanford University, where he earned a BA in economics in 1982, Jimenez was a three-time National Collegiate Athletic Association All-American swimmer. In his senior year the California native led Stanford to No. 3 as captain of the swim team.

Jimenez, 52, dove into the deep end of the rapidly changing pharmaceuticals and health care industry when he succeeded physician Daniel Vasella as chief executive of Basel, Switzerland–based Novartis in February 2010. He had joined the 124,000-employee company three years earlier as head of its consumer health division. A former president and CEO of ketchup purveyor H.J. Heinz Co.’s North American and European businesses, Jimenez seemed an unusual choice to lead a multinational stocked with scientists. But with his consumer products background, he brought an outward-looking perspective to the world’s No. 2 drugmaker by sales, which operates in more than 140 countries. Recognizing that in a changing market Novartis had to stay focused on understanding its ultimate customer — the patient — one of the first things he did as CEO was invite an asthma sufferer to a management meeting.

Founded in 1996 through the merger of Swiss companies Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz, Novartis has five divisions: pharmaceuticals, generics, vaccines and diagnostics, eye care, and over-the-counter and animal health. When Jimenez took the reins, the company was coming off....