- 2 years ago
15 December 2021
Roche Products General Manager Stuart Knight and Bayer Pharmaceuticals General Manager Ashraf Al-Ouf are Medicines Australia ‘Board buddies’ – an arrangement that pairs sitting Board members with non-members for communication purposes. These two expats soon discovered they had more in common than they realised, and reveal in MedTwos how their regular catch-ups not only helps them discuss how they lead but also provide an important connection. It can get lonely at the top.
Stuart: You wouldn’t think a Kiwi and somebody from Jordan would have a lot in common, but we do. We’re both pharmacists, so we’ve got a similar brain. Pharmacists are a mixture of people who like science but enjoy working with people.
Ashraf studied in a beautiful university town called Szeged in the southern part of Hungary. When I was GM of Roche in Hungary, I used to go to Szeged. We have both worked in multiple countries – I think Ashraf’s worked in eight, I’ve worked in six – so we’ve both got very understanding partners that we have dragged all across the world.
We both arrived in Australia about three years ago, so we’re foreigners looking at Australia, and at Australians. When I first arrived, I had Bruce Goodwin as my buddy. I remember going to Budget Week in Canberra and it was fantastic, as a new GM, to have somebody who was so experienced and so knowledgeable about the Australian system. Bruce would sit me down and he really helped me, telling me how it worked, what I needed to do. Bruce had also worked overseas so he had that depth. It was a fantastic introduction to MA.
I was appointed to the Board fairly quickly after I arrived and Ashraf and Anne Harris from Prizer were both my Board buddies, but when Pfizer was introducing a biosimilar to one of my medicines, Anne and I agreed it made sense for us not to be Board buddies, just to protect ourselves.
When I meet with Ashraf, there are two areas we focus on. The first is my responsibilities with the MA Board, which is very much a two-way dialogue. It’s really important to me that Ashraf knows what happened at the last Board meeting, what we’re looking for, and where we need support. The way MA works, we need to utilise the full capacity of all member companies.
It’s also really important that Ashraf has a mechanism to the Board, to Liz [de Somer], to Anna [Lavelle]. For example, when the first part of the Strategic Agreement was negotiated last year, it was going to impact Ashraf’s business quite significantly and it was my job to make sure his concerns were made clear, and that they were understood. The big thing about being on the Board is you have to take off your company hat and leave it at the door – that’s incredibly important. The advice I’d give anyone thinking of nominating is to remember you’re not representing your company, you’re representing the industry sector.
The second thing Ashraf and I talk about is leadership. What are you doing about people working from home? What are you doing about your Covid vaccination strategy? How are you keeping your stress levels in check? How are you building a high-performance culture? How are you dealing with engagement? Do you have any ideas on employee wellbeing? In these things, we’re not in competition with each other. We’ve all got an interest in having engaged, motivated and healthy staff.
The highlight of my year has always been the global Roche GMs meeting. Once a year, I would go to Switzerland and Roche would bring all the GMs together for three days. It was fantastic. You could just sit down, have a glass of wine and talk to somebody who got it. I haven’t done that for two years and probably won’t for a while, so having somebody here you can talk to, where you can just ask how are you, are you okay. It’s having a peer to talk to, somebody who’s got the same job. It’s quite lonely, otherwise.
Ashraf is very gentle but he is also pragmatic and very sensible in his approach. He’s a really good listener. Listening is absolutely critical in leadership because it’s not just what is being said, but also that third level listening of what’s not being said, the emotional component, and also the level of concern that’s being expressed.
Ashraf is also very open to the views of others, yet he has his own extensive experience. He’s worked in really interesting markets like Indonesia, Japan, and Germany, and so he’s got this lovely mix of interesting experience and background to draw on but being genuinely open to the views of others. With CEOs and GMs, that’s not a quality you see in everybody.
Ashraf: I was born in Jordan and studied in Hungary. That’s one of the commonalities between us – I studied pharmacy in Hungary for five years in the eighties and Stuart worked in Hungary, although that was more recently. It is one of the things we talked about when first getting to know each other. We both like Hungary very much – the country, the cities, the people.
I arrived in Australia in July 2019. It was my second time here and MA waited until after the election in October to assign me a Board buddy. I remember being told that Stuart would be my buddy and I was very happy with the choice. A buddy makes you feel like you’re across the Board’s strategy and focus and that you’re being heard. I feel like I’m part of the Board because Stuart communicates effectively, and he listens. I’ve had a few topics I’ve wanted to talk about, or ask questions, or put something on the agenda, and Stuart is always available. That is really very helpful and something that I am grateful for.
Our first meeting was in February 2020. It was face-to-face in Roche’s office then, after that, it was all virtual. It didn’t change the frequency or what was communicated – if there were updates from the Board, Stuart would send an invite or just call to provide an update.
With the Strategic Agreement, there were lots of confidentialities, but Stuart shared what he could when he could. That’s one of the things I respect about Stuart, he is a very good communicator, and he’s down to earth and approachable.
Stuart and I are also both expats. When I was first in Australia many years ago, most MDs were expats whereas nowadays, most are locals. I believe the diversity of experience gained across the globe helps us to contribute to the local healthcare environment.
In MA, there are many companies and there is fierce competition, but we put it aside when we meet and discuss topics that are about the good of the industry. It’s always valuable to talk about MA topics because as leaders, we all care about the industry. Whether it’s the Strategic Agreement, the return to office after the Covid, workplace vaccination, I find it extremely useful to have these discussions but because of the competition rules, we always stick to Board or leadership issues.
Roche is at the forefront of agile transformation which has been a good learning experience for me. I’m extremely interested to hear more about this because I believe the old way of doing things cannot survive, it’s as simple as that. Covid has changed our lives and the younger generation is eager and hungry to do more. With this current generation, you would not be able to retain somebody to do the same job for five or six years, and this is why agile working will help not only with retaining and attracting talent but will also drive productivity.
We need to be agile. I am already working with my team to think about what we need to change, but Bayer is still at the very early stages. Stuart has been extremely generous in sharing how Roche approaches transformation, and I feel fortunate that I can learn from him.
Stuart and I have a shared focus on people and culture and it is something we talk about a lot, about how much we can do for our people, how to have people really enjoy what they’re doing, to love coming to work and doing their job. It is a big interest for both of us. Communication is another area where we have similar views. To be an effective leader, you have to be yourself, be authentic and honest in your communication. My values are being authentic, trusting people, always being honest in dealing with people, and I feel Stuart shares these values.
I was fortunate to be matched with Stuart. While every MD has a role to play in shaping our industry, a successful buddy partnership is driven by chemistry and fit. Being matched with Stuart, I was simply lucky.