Data and Compassion: How the Pharma Industry Prepared Me for Leadership Through COVID

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Four people in face masks sitting at conference table working

Image source: Getty Images; Credit: Tetra Images.

An article by Wa’el Hashad, Avanir President & CEO, was recently featured in BioPharma Dive.

In the fall of 2019, I took a sledgehammer to one of our corner offices. The cracked drywall marked the beginning of our headquarters redesign project designed to promote spontaneous employee collaboration. The corner offices were the first to go.

In their place, we built collaboration corners — communal, coffee shop-style areas that encourage conversations and fill the floors with natural light. We were set to unveil the remodeled office in the spring of 2020, but before we could, employees were transitioned to working from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there's no playbook on how to manage your workforce in a COVID environment, I found guidance in the core principles I’ve developed over my 25 years of leadership in the pharmaceutical industry: Make decisions that are data-driven and guided by science, and act on those decisions with compassion and empathy.

During those early phases of the pandemic, there was no such thing as too much data. There was so much we needed to know, and so much we knew we didn’t know. How prevalent was the virus? What was the capacity of our local hospitals? How fast was it spreading? What were the COVID-19 transmission rates in normal versus vulnerable populations?

The number of decisions we had to make felt like it was growing exponentially by the hour, and to be safe and effective, those decisions needed to be supported by the best medical and scientific data available. We established dedicated COVID taskforces that focused on day-to-day operational issues, strategies on how to both keep our employees as safe as possible and effectively manage our business in this new environment, and then eventually, how to prepare the workplace for when we would return to working in our office. These task forces relied on daily updates of local, national, and global data to help guide their recommendations.

We also consulted with an infectious disease expert to help us interpret the data and inform our COVID-19 employee workplace strategy and planning. We had open dialogues with key customers to learn about their challenges and what we could do to maintain business continuity without putting them or our employees at risk. This cycle of data gathering, expert analysis, and informed decision making continues to this day.

Throughout all of this, my leadership team and I also sought out data of a different kind — data from our employees. How were they doing? What were their concerns —  safety or other issues? What new life circumstances did they face that made their day-to-day work difficult? And, most importantly how could we address them! These questions went out to employees in the form of an engagement survey.

The response rate was incredible. So, with science-backed safety precautions in place at our office, as well as a better understanding of our team’s thoughts, fears and hopes concerning the process, our taskforce was able to build an informed and phased plan that allowed employees to safely return to the office in April 2021 without exposing them to additional risk.

Within that plan, we factored in the need for more flexibility. Our remote working policy had to evolve to consider how our teammates’ lives and needs had changed. Our company-wide communications focused on transparency, information sharing, and above all, an open two-way dialogue between employees and our leadership team.

These past two years have been among the most challenging I, and most other leaders, have experienced, but I’ve never been prouder of our company, our team, our leadership and our industry.

It’s from this industry that the vaccines and treatments were born, it’s from this industry that the world sought hope, assurance and normalcy, and it’s from this industry that I learned how to safely lead and navigate the toughest times without losing sight of the people we serve and the team that makes it happen.


About the Author

Wa’el Hashad, President and Chief Executive Officer of Avanir Pharmaceuticals, Inc., is a passionate leader with more than 25 years of experience in pharmaceutical management, sales, and marketing both in the U.S. and international markets. He develops and inspires high-performing teams and has built a global reputation for his transformational leadership style by creating cultures that focus on dedication, transparency and innovation. An accomplished executive, Wa’el has a strong history of formulating and executing strategies for brand development —from phase one, to global launch and post life-cycle management. Wa’el earned a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences from the College of Pharmacy, Cairo University, and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Akron in Ohio.




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