Mohamed Nasser, Amgen’s general manager for the vast Middle East & Africa (MEA) region, leverages his considerable experience managing teams across the region to highlight four skills (and one secret ingredient) that pharma country and regional managers in MEA need to succeed.
The Middle East-Africa area (MEA) is one of the most dynamic in the world. Over the past two decades, almost every country in this region has seen some type of political reform, tension, or upheaval. These factors, along with the region’s human and economic fluctuations, mean that taking on an MEA leadership role can present a unique challenge that requires the activation of certain skills.
Setting aside COVID and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a regional Middle East & Africa leader with a three-year tenure is likely to experience at least two or three of the events that regularly rock the region: cross-border unrest or war, civil war, civil movement or displacement, considerable changes in macroeconomic circumstances due to Forex, oil prices and the like, or embargoes and sanctions.
Taking on an MEA leadership role can present a unique challenge that requires the activation of certain skills
Individually each of these events has a direct impact on business and can be a threat to the safety of a team, let alone when two or three happen concurrently.
Just imagine Finland firing a missile at Norway, or Vietnam at Thailand, and how this would impact the business? The MEA’s largest market, Saudi Arabia, has been targeted by 150 ballistic missiles from Yemini Houthis since the beginning of 2021 and yet business continues.
There are four critical skills (and one secret ingredient) that make up the ‘secret sauce’ of leading in MEA:
Select, develop, and retain an exceptional group of talented people and enable the “team” in them.
In MEA, customer relations and market experience are key pillars of doing business. This makes human talent a much more significant influence. The increasing migration of young professionals to the West means that team formation-performance cycles are influenced and the hunt for talent seems here to stay.
Another facet is that many people, driven by cultural and sociopolitical issues, grew up thinking that their leaders never earned their roles, and only attained power through twisted means. This often creates a unique leadership challenge; the leader’s role gets tougher as they constantly have to work to disprove this theory, otherwise, they face much more difficulty in earning their team’s respect than they would elsewhere in the world.
Be as agile as a cheetah and as adaptable as a tardigrade
Achieving business results in MEA is not only subject to familiar global business drivers. Supply chains could be disrupted at any moment, tenders can be delayed or reassigned at the last minute, customers may change their working hours without notice, and overdue receivables can be the norm, meaning that the list of possible complications is endless.
All of the above requires cheetah-like agility in order to change direction with a moment’s notice at full speed, thereby continuing achieving results and realizing growth.
If corporate bureaucracy or an organization’s size does not permit agility, it still needs to at least have scenario planning and be highly adaptive to constantly gyrating dynamics.
Satisfaction = Expectations – Perceived Performance (Richard Oliver)
Many international companies are either do not know what to expect from MEA or are overwhelmed by the region’s volatility and stream of crises. MEA leaders need to manage corporate expectations by agreeing definitions of “credible” and “performance cycle” with management; the story that corporate hears today might not be the same as they were told in the previous quarter.
This is not to suggest that MEA teams lack foresight; even the region’s situation-makers may have not anticipated new changes in advance. What is seen in the mirror is not usually a reflection of reality. MEA leaders need outstanding skills to summarize and succinctly demystify what is happening compared with original assumptions in a way that corporate can comprehend and include in its overall forecast.
The art of plate-spinning is not about the top three plates, but about how to keep all ten rotating
Traditionally, many leaders use a vertical focus – a top-down rank that identifies and acts upon the top priorities of the business such as focusing on the top three markets or accounts. This focus works well when the environment is relatively stable but is less appropriate in a constantly shifting situation such as that of MEA. There are more than three things moving at any given time and perhaps in different directions. In trying to determine the top three priorities, other essential ones are likely to be missed.
That’s where “X focus”, or “horizontal focus”, comes in. MEA leaders need to take a horizontal view across the business drivers and understand what moves the needle on each. They need to to keep many plates spinning as if eyes are taken off one, it can come crashing to the ground. It is vital to know what it takes to keep each of those plates in the air and empower the team to manage the sticks carrying them at the right level. Interestingly, an X-focus requires an equal amount of energy to a vertical focus but needs a different set of skills as well as an exceptional team.
And the secret ingredient: Be Cool and Fun!
It might sound trivial, but a sense of humor, fun and adventure are essential to succeeding in MEA. Setting a positive example and maintaining an open, joyful atmosphere, especially in the middle of a crisis, builds resilience within the organization and helps to keep the team motivated.
Disclaimer: This piece is solely my own opinion, based on my experience and dialogue with MEA business leaders. It does not represent my current or previous employers’ views and I have not been paid to produce it. I hope you found it useful!