- 3 months ago
4 December 2023
It was the late 1980s when Stuart Knight left his New Zealand homeland to work in the UK, the young man looking to both explore his English heritage and his sexuality.
A trained pharmacist, he soon found work in a hospital HIV pharmacy in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but a front-row seat in an epidemic that targeted the very community he was becoming a part of meant for Knight, treating HIV was not just a job, it was personal.
“I felt quite burnt out,” he tells MedNews. “It was not a good time to be trying to understand your own sexuality. It was really high stakes; if you made a mistake, you were dead. I went to a lot of funerals.”
While Knight was open about being a gay man while working for the NHS, when his extensive knowledge of HIV medicines and clear leadership potential saw him offered a job in pharma, he chose to hide his sexuality for fear of recrimination.
“I would go to work on a Monday and people would ask what I did on the weekend, and I would lie,” he says. “I had a new boyfriend, now my husband, and we had just bought our first home together and were redecorating, but I didn’t see any benefit in coming out, I only saw risk.
“It wasn’t until some years later when I was on the leadership team and the general manager realised we were a major HIV company with two leaders who were gay but not out. The hypocrisy was not lost on him, so with our support, he enabled us to come out and to start a conversation at Roche UK about equal opportunity.
“I’ve been out at work for 25 years, and it’s probably the most important thing that happened to me. I honestly would not be sitting here otherwise because you can’t sustain the delivery of results or authentic leadership if you’re not being yourself.
“People can see when you are playing a game; when you’re not your true self. Knowing I had the backing of senior leaders to be myself and explore what that meant for me as a leader was critical.
“Everyone talks about D&I now, but it is still up to senior leaders to create an inclusive environment. I’ve been able to sustain my career because I’m understood and I’m accepted. I can just be me.”
A colourful life
Knight will leave Roche at the end of January after 30 years with the company, the past five as general manager of its Australian affiliate. He has much to be proud of, not least pioneering inclusivity both at Roche and in the industry broadly.
Having championed not only the interests of the LGBTQI+ community but also people with disabilities, First Nations people, and women, just to name a few, Knight sees diversity and inclusion as critical to people giving their best, knowing that while he has enjoyed an extraordinary career that has taken him from the UK to Switzerland, back to New Zealand for 15 years then to Hungary and Portugal before finally to Australia for his “dream job” as GM Australia, not everyone is as fortunate.
Some months after he arrived in Hungary, he was told staff had little if any experience of working with an openly gay leader and were unsure as to what he would be like, only to admit they were delighted to find him as someone who embodied compassion, inclusivity and authenticity and was also naturally warm and calm to work with.
“As a senior leader, you need to be open and to show people who you are,” Knight says. “I never thought I’d have a rainbow lanyard. I never thought I’d see rainbow flags in Basel. I never thought that I’d get married, but here we are.”
The dream job
Knight has been at the helm of Roche Australia for five years and says the job he always wanted lived up to expectations, but was not without its challenges.
His arrival in 2019 coincided with the company’s three big products going off-patent, hence he was tasked with transitioning the portfolio and transforming the organisation to create a fit-for-purpose, flexible company appropriate for the dynamic, fast-paced corporate environment of today.
Globally, the company chose to implement ‘agile working’ – a move that will mark Knight’s time from an internal perspective, while it was also closely scrutinised by other companies. The journey was neither easy nor smooth, but having gone through it and not just survived but thrived gives this leader a strong sense of purpose and achievement.
“I’m just so proud of the team and where we are,” he says. “It just feels normal now. We aren’t transforming anymore – this is the way we work and we are in a really good place going forward.
“When I hand over to Nic [Horridge] next year, I feel very much at peace that I delivered on what I was asked to do.”
More than medicines
While Knight has delivered above-and-beyond as leader of the affiliate for the past five years, it is likely another project that will ultimately be remembered as his legacy to Australia, and for which the country should be most thankful.
He is one of the driving forces behind PrOSPeCT, a public-private partnership that will offer 23,000 Australians diagnosed with incurable cancer entry into a potentially life-saving clinical trial. Roche Australia has contributed $20 million in funding, but more than that, it was Knight’s belief in the mass clinical trial program that helped bring it to life.
He says PrOSPeCT is a direct benefit of the company being agile and marks a new way of working that will hopefully set a precedent for change in the Australian health ecosystem.
“We sell innovative medicines and services so a big part of our business will always be transactional, but there’s more that we can do,” he says. “We talk about being a partner in the delivery of sustainable healthcare – PrOSPeCT is a beautiful example of that actually happening.
“We talk about developing partnerships that are mutually beneficial, and PrOSPeCT is a living example of this in action, of stakeholders aligning to create a new ecosystem. That’s where it’s really exciting – I’d love to see pharma do more of this.”
The agile transformation road may have been bumpy but with Bayer and Novartis now taking steps down the same path, there is no doubt Knight’s leadership will make their journey easier, while the tens of thousands of Australians who stand to benefit from PrOSPeCT are living proof that when a leader like Knight dares to dream of what might be rather than just what it is, extraordinary things can happen.
Time to breathe and think
As his 30-year journey with Roche comes to an end and Knight prepares to head home to New Zealand next year with his husband and partner of 32 years, he is adamant this is not retirement but rather time to “exhale and think”.
He plans to contribute in the community healthcare space in the future, potentially through charity Orange Sky, but for now will spend time gardening and caring for his elderly parents, a mathematics professor and a school teacher whom he credits for gifting him with a lifelong love of learning.
Other than this, he has no definitive plans – a strategy he says has worked for him thus far, and he isn’t about to change tact.
“When people ask me for career advice, I tell them to make sure they’re over-performing in their current role before thinking about what to do next, then to ask their manager or mentor what their next logical experience should be,” he says.
“As for me, I’m 60, I’m going home, and I’m on strictly self-imposed gardening leave for six months. I’m not retiring, just stopping full-time corporate life and taking a break for the first time in 38 years.
“It’s been an absolutely amazing career. I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in six countries and I’ve loved it, but it’s time for something new. I’m married to a wonderful man and this is a significant opportunity for us to start a new phase and a new adventure together.”