Health Leadership In A Time Of COVID: An Interview With Ipsen UK and Ireland
In the last few months, almost every business has had to make some huge adjustments to how it operates. However, organisations in the healthcare sector have been thrust into the spotlight. They are not only having to ensure they maintain their critical services to patients and healthcare operators, but also are having to navigate a virus pandemic and look after their employees.
For an insight into how the healthcare industry has had to adapt, we spoke to Asad Ali, Managing Director at Ipsen UK and Ireland. Ipsen is a leading global biopharmaceutical company focused on innovation and specialty care, working hard to bring solutions for patients and healthcare providers. We caught up with Asad to discover what impact COVID-19 has had on Ipsen UK and Ireland, and the healthcare industry as a whole.
How has Ipsen UKI been affected by COVID-19, particularly as a leader in the biopharma space?
The healthcare industry makes a tremendous difference not only to the lives of patients with debilitating diseases but also to the healthcare professionals that are there to take care of those patients, and the treatment and management of their conditions. So, with the advent of COVID-19, as an industry we knew we had a significant role to play as the pandemic evolved.
At Ipsen, our portfolio focuses on three main therapeutic areas - oncology, neuroscience, and rare diseases - the largest of these being oncology. With regard to cancer treatment, the healthcare systems in the UK and Ireland have had to evolve, adopting new measures such as the establishment of covid-free zones across the cancer networks, enabling patients to still receive care. Despite the disruption there has been a strong focus on cancer patients continuing to get their treatment, whether face-to-face or via virtual interaction with their healthcare professional.
Neuroscience is an area where we have seen a more adverse influence of COVID-19. Some of the services and clinics have been categorised as non-essential, bringing some negative impact on patient care. However, both Ipsen and the healthcare providers have adapted to continue to support our patients and healthcare workers, and thankfully we are starting to see a return towards more normal services.
How did you respond to the current situation both personally and professionally?
On a personal level, I have a job that requires a lot of travel, as does my wife, so that has been a big change for the family. Perhaps the biggest challenge has been supporting our kids through this new reality. We have a teenager, an 11-year-old and a 3-year-old, so trying to get them all set up for home-schooling was something of a struggle initially.
By comparison, professionally the transition was quite smooth! At Ipsen, we already had a strong focus on online working, and our usual face-to-face meetings switched to virtual. We also quickly switched to virtual engagement with our customers, to better support the vital interaction with healthcare professionals through this period of uncertainty.
Obviously, the NHS and HSE have been under extreme pressure; the whole point of lockdown was to avoid the spread of the virus and overburdening of healthcare systems. So, Ipsen had to play a role from day one, streamlining processes and going virtual. We are lucky that we operate in countries where our infrastructure has been reliable; unfortunately it has not been as easy in some other parts of the world.
What would you consider as your top three leadership challenges during this pandemic?
For me, the top three challenges Ipsen has faced can also be perceived as opportunities.
Firstly, it has been critical to us that we are adding maximum value during the crisis. We want to provide meaningful value to our stakeholders, patients, customers, colleagues, and our business. Value is going to be different in all of these instances and, as always for Ipsen, has to be tangible and measurable.
For our customers, this has meant reducing the number of patients that need to come into hospital for their treatment. For patients, this is around being more empowered to manage their treatment independently. We want all of our partners and colleagues to see that we have pivoted the business to ensure we have solutions that work for everyone, wherever possible.
The second challenge is around really being present, which was front of mind for me, even before the lockdown. Whether it is for our customers, patients or colleagues, or other stakeholders, it is vital that we remain available for them all.
Throughout lockdown, we have continued with the aspects we feel would make a real difference for our people. One example is that we continued to hold “mentoring retreats”: protected time to focus on our people's growth, development, aspirations, and plans. We did these through virtual sessions, and it worked exceptionally well.
The third topic is how we react to change. Consciously we championed the change, and emphasised that it was in fact more of an opportunity than a challenge. In many ways the pandemic has accelerated changes that were coming anyway, for example in digital adoption and remote working. When change is being thrown at us relentlessly, human nature can be to fight, freeze, or flee. But, if we actually embrace it and become more ‘change agile’, we can engage with our stakeholders in ways that embrace the new reality that we’re all facing.
How have you been keeping your employees safe, informed, and motivated?
For the last year, Ipsen has been prioritising the focus on mental health. As part of this, an Ipsen team, including myself, started training to be mental health and well-being advocates. When the pandemic hit us, and we locked down, it became even more important than ever to focus on this area.
I am very proud that we continued with that training virtually, and we now have a team of accredited mental health and well-being ambassadors within the company. We have also created a well-being hub on our intranet where colleagues can find yoga, exercise, and meditation videos among other things, as part of this initiative.
It has also been essential to keep engaged with our employees; they need to feel heard and know that we understand their challenges. We are mindful that it is a very profound challenge that we are facing right now, but it is also essential to keep some light-heartedness too. So we have openly welcomed families and pets to our video interactions, held online quizzes and virtual drinks parties.
Instead of our usual KPI reporting during this period, we did a "KPI – Keeping Our Purpose Ignited" video series, which were employee videos recorded from their homes and in their gardens talking about our progress with a different KPI each day. It was a fun and engaging way of recognising colleagues whilst keeping peoples’ engagement and optimism up.
Did you draw inspiration from other leaders during COVID-19?
It is so important to be aware of what is going on in your own ecosystem – in your sector, in your industry, and in the wider world. Clearly, healthcare has been a huge consideration throughout the pandemic.
Entire countries have been working towards ensuring that our healthcare systems are not overburdened. I have drawn inspiration from how the Irish and UK healthcare systems have responded to the crisis; both NHS and HSE leadership decisions have been exemplary.
In the UK, NHS Nightingale temporary hospitals were set up in record time and to an excellent standard. In Ireland, they put in immediate protocols to minimise face-to-face contact in medical situations, which will have saved many lives.
The other place from which I have drawn inspiration is my colleagues; both my leadership team and my other direct reports. Ipsen has a full bench-to-bedside footprint in the UK and Ireland. We have activities all the way from basic research and discovery through to full commercialisation, lifecycle management and everything in between. We employ almost 900 people in UK and Ireland, and every single one of them has played a key role in this pandemic.
We continued making and distributing essential medicine during this period and we continued with research and development throughout the lockdown, even though it has been challenging. And we all did this while managing our personal situations - with the challenges of having children and pets jump onto our conference calls! I have been so impressed with how everyone has dealt with their new working normality.
Another incredible feat is that we have brought in a new CEO, David Loew, who joined Ipsen from Sanofi Pasteur on July 1st. I am not sure how many companies can say that they have virtually recruited a new executive leader during a pandemic!
It was a pleasure to catch up with Asad Ali and to find out just how Ipsen has not only weathered the storm of COVID-19 but embraced the challenge and made positive changes, to benefit not only the organisation but its patients, clients and stakeholders too.
Asad Mohsin Ali, currently Managing Director for UK & Ireland at Ipsen, an emerging global leader in innovation and specialty care, including Rare Diseases, Oncology and Neuroscience. Asad also heads 1 of 3 Ipsen Global Hubs (the 2 others are France and the US), and is Chair of Ipsen’s UK & Ireland Site Steering Committee which is responsible for a 900 strong workforce across four global sites (Slough, Abingdon, Wrexham, Dublin) that span the full "bench to bedside" chain including R&D, TechOps, Supply, Commercial Operations and Corporate Functions. 22 years of industry experience across a variety of roles with Novartis, MSD and TESARO.