- 2 months ago
11 December 2023
Ashraf Al-Ouf had been in Australia for two years as Country Head of Bayer Pharmaceuticals Australia and New Zealand when he decided to undertake a radical transformation of the affiliate, determined to ensure it could adapt to the changing needs of its customers.
Appointed to Australia in 2019 in what was his eighth move in 22 years, Al-Ouf waited until late 2021 to restructure the ANZ business in a bold decision that very much reflects his style of leadership – patient, considered, purposeful and inclusive.
“The needs of customers are changing so fast and you come to a point where you think, what is the best model to satisfy your mission and still have customers as the focus?” Al-Ouf told MedNews when we sat down together last week.
“We had the luxury of being able to choose the model that would best fit our vision and out focus. We started with the customer as our cornerstone and then considered how we could be agile and adapt quickly to their changing needs.”
A strong influence was Al-Ouf’s former Medicines Australia Board buddy and later Board colleague Stuart Knight.
As General Manager of Roche Australia, Knight had guided his company through the move to agile after Roche decided to move in that direction globally.
Al-Ouf’s move to agile was driven by local needs rather than a global directive, hence he was able to take elements of Roche’s learnings and that of other companies for Bayer’s model.
“In any change, you have three elements,” he explains. “Mindset, process and structure, and we chose to start by working on the mindset. One of the things I learned from Stuart was that mindset is key. The learning curve over the last two years was very steep, and I loved that. It was all about customer needs, about agility, and a focus on mindset.”
Much of the work was done coming out of the Covid pandemic, while Al-Ouf’s promotion to CEO of the Bayer ANZ Group in late 2022, taking on oversight of the ANZ crop science and consumer divisions as well as pharma, was perhaps an early affirmation of its success.
He has now been promoted to Head of Commercial Operations for Bayer APAC commencing 1 January and will soon hand the ANZ Pharma business to Manoj Saxena, who will consequently report to Al-Ouf.
“Manoj is not expected to do further changes but rather to work on culture and nurturing agile ways of working within the organisation while looking for opportunities to refine the processes and support the organisation,” Al-Ouf says.
“Everything is built around the brand teams closest to the customer so for Manoj to dive into this, to understand it, digest it and live it for himself but also to remove roadblocks to nurture ideas and be very innovative is what I need him to do.”
The opportunity in APAC
The timing of his move to Singapore came sooner than Al-Ouf had expected but he says this is a role he has always wanted. Having held leadership roles in Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and Australia, the opportunity to work at a regional level is one he could not pass up.
“The unique thing about APAC is that it is the only market that is extremely diverse, which is really unique and beautiful in so many ways,” he says. “When a product has lost exclusivity and starts declining in reimbursed markets like Australia, Taiwan and Korea, it is growing in emerging markets.”
Having seamlessly transformed the ANZ business to agile, Al-Ouf is eager to do it all again in APAC.
“I can see how good it is from so many aspects, like ensuring people closest to the customer are truly empowered to make decisions,” he says.
“People love it when they are empowered. You see it in their motivation, how they flourish and bring new ideas.
“Someone asked me whether agile works everywhere – yes it does. Every country is unique but empowerment is empowerment and agility is agility. How you structure it might be different, but the concept is there. It’s good for customers and good for employees.”
‘It’s beautiful when you are dispensable’
As country head, Al-Ouf says the move to agile was challenging as it meant adopting a different style of leadership where he was no longer the decision-maker. Instead of being captain, he is now just another member of the team.
“It’s nice to be a leader who can steer and make decisions, but now we have an organisation where everyone can be visionaries and architects. It was easy for me to direct the organisation and harder to just sit back but once I did, I really enjoyed it.
“I am just a team member like everyone else but I am also here to provide support and remove roadblocks. I describe my role as ‘Guardian of the Mission’. It’s beautiful when you are dispensable and the team doesn’t need you. I couldn’t wish for more.”
Having made himself dispensable once, Al-Ouf now plans to do it all again by empowering his regional team, unconcerned about his own future as he says there will always be another job to do.
“Three years ago I saw vulnerability as a weakness but now I’m enjoying showing vulnerability because it allows me to show my true self to other people,” he says.
“People are my focus and I have been very focused on people since day one. I like to inspire teams to do their best and in turn to be inspired by the teams, and I love to be around people and to see them happy. I want people to wake up every morning and want to come to work.”
This wide brown land for me
Jordanian born with his parents and siblings still in Jordan and his adult sons now permanent residents of Australia, Al-Ouf will soon be somewhat conveniently located between the two countries, but as he prepares for what will be his ninth move in 27 years, he also knows where his globetrotting journey will end.
“Home is here in Australia,” he says. “We love this country, we love the culture and there is no doubt I will be coming back. When I retire, it will be in Australia.”
It is not just the land and culture that have captured this global leader’s heart but the entire Bayer ANZ team he has worked so closely with.
“Honestly, this is my dream team – the best I’ve worked with in 30 years,” he says emotionally. “They taught me the true meaning of compassion. The amount people care about other people here and they way they really support each other – I have never seen this before.
“I’m really very proud of the team and what they have achieved, and I am so proud to be leaving a team that is resilient, agile, open-minded, free to explore and experiment, to fail and to learn from their failures – this is a legacy I am so proud of.”