AstraZeneca’s Niko Andre: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Be present: acknowledge that times are uncertain and there may be unknowns, while pointing out opportunity and roadmap ahead. It is ok to not have all the answers as long as there is a clear commitment and focus on moving forward.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Niko Andre, MD, PhD, Global Franchise Head Hematology and Immuno Oncology, AstraZeneca Oncology Business Unit. Niko Andre has continuously focused his work, personal contribution and development on the life sciences. Working for AstraZeneca today, he is helping to build and advance their broad and innovative portfolio of Hematology and Immuno Oncology medicines worldwide.
Before joining the Pharmaceutical Industry, Niko was leading the Clinical Oncology Unit at the University of Bochum, Germany, following a dedicated academic and clinical tenure with board certifications for Internal Medicine, Oncology and Hematology. He received part of his clinical education at the University of Texas, San Antonio and spent two years of postdoctoral research as a fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.
Prior to joining AstraZeneca, Niko held various roles in medical and lifecycle positions at the Roche group, supporting at the time the advancement of the first paradigm changing monoclonal antibodies in cancer medicine, and later growing and leading their global Medical organization with a strong focus on systemic and patient centric healthcare partnership.
Having lost his father to cancer very recently — and with Cancer Medicine being the red thread of his entire professional life — Niko is a fierce advocate for advancing care for cancer patients, and to passionately drive scientific and clinical progress, enabling better outcomes and ultimately cure for patients living with this threatening disease.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. My dad was a student of social sciences, and my mum received her education as a nurse. We did not have much money and lived a very simple life, but as a student, my dad had great flexibility to spend time with me and engaged me very early in the aspects of social dynamics, learning and communication. My mum introduced me to the fascinating, and at times intimidating, hospital environment — I loved the smell of disinfectant whenever I was visiting her at the ward. These experiences sparked ambition and curiosity to explore what I would today describe as the ideal combination of social and scientific matters: medicine, and a deep appreciation of commitment and work as the source of value creation, setting me on my path to become a doctor.
After finishing my medical training, I continued my specialty education and received board certification for Oncology and Haematology. I was fascinated by clinical Oncology care and research, and also had the chance to explore basic research during my post doc time at Harvard. My engagement in global Oncology trials then led to joining the pharmaceutical industry, first as a scientific advisor and later with growing accountability for the medical aspects of global lifecycle management. Today I support holistic lifecycle management and commercialization for the Immuno-Oncology and Haematology medicines at AstraZeneca.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In my early days in clinic a very experienced resident said to me after rounds, “Niko, I have no doubt you will be good doctor. But please, stop with that serious face when you talk to patients. You always look as if you are about to tell them that they are dying.” I was stunned. I thought my serious look conveyed confidence when I was actually just scaring people. I learned that we shouldn’t assume how we are coming across and instead we should focus on learning how others feel and think which is absolutely essential to bringing empathy into every good social and professional interaction.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Many people have helped and influenced me along the way and my dad certainly looms most prominent. In addition to my dad, a person that stands out is a mentor I had in my early days in the pharmaceutical industry. It wasn’t so much a specific story or moment, but he simply cared for me as a person and helped me significantly to understand the dynamics of Pharma. I learned from watching him model how to be a wonderful leader and always painting a visionary picture of “what could be” which still motivates me today.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. What is your company’s vision, what is its purpose?
Medical science and clinical care are wonderfully purposeful and working in this space is such a privilege. My calling always has been combining these two fields in cancer medicine, and AstraZeneca (AZ) is so amazingly determined to not only deliver better medicines for cancer — but to drive better care and outcomes holistically and sustainably. It creates a great sense of pride and motivation when such a vision translates into tangible improvements for patients and healthcare. That unified purpose is what we work toward at AZ and how I know I’m at exactly the right company.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
A principle that I hold very important is “always explain the why”. Everyone wants and deserves to understand what’s going on, what’s behind decisions, what’s behind change and why things are happening — especially at times of uncertainty. Ambiguity creates speculation and anxiety, and can lead to misunderstanding, frustration and disconnect. So even if things are not fully clear, I try to be as transparent and available as possible, to ensure everyone is on board even if it’s, “I am not yet sure what will happen”. As long as it’s authentic, it helps. A lack of inclusive leadership often leads to disconnect and frustration. It is wonderful to see how transparency and an authentic effort to create shared ownership unleashes potential, especially in complex and ambiguous situations.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
On the “giving up” — how about “knowing when to stop”? This is where experience is a major factor and I have seen myself much less agitated when something I felt was important to accomplish did not pull through. Individual versus collective intelligence is something I reflect upon quite frequently. And while we all declare to be collaborative team players, we often simply try to optimize pull through of our own interests and ideas.
My core motivation is to simply help people with what I do — on whatever level. This can be as simple as making someone feel appreciated. Motivation is strongly driven by how we interact with each other. Working with “good” people is always a central help for me, even if the work itself got hard or turned out to be unsuccessful.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Caring for the people and the mission. Being accountable, being approachable, and being in it for the long run.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Yes, there seems to be significant uncertainty for the future. Yet hasn’t this always been the case, in a way? What fascinates me is that we often forget how much better we are off today — and the incredible opportunities that we are developing today for tomorrow, especially for cancer medicine. For us that means delivering real benefits to patients, and we are constantly working with and for patients to ensure we are truly innovating for them.
As a general thought on motivation and engagement: role modelling is critical. Walking the walk and talking the talk. I know this sounds generic, but it is so vital. A trainer at a London business school once said to me, “Niko, people are authenticity detection machines”. That is so true. We instantly sense if someone really cares, means, knows, or speaks the truth. As a responsible and caring leader that is what I try to adhere to. Sometimes, admitting mistakes, insecurity, or failure, can be as motivating as a brilliant communication around a compelling vision.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Along the same lines. Respect the individual and approach them with integrity, honesty, timeliness, and clarity. People can deal much better if the “why” is adequately explained and it is communicated appropriately.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Medical progress will always happen, however unpredictable the future is. In the meantime, we need to focus on modelling scenarios and risks to the best degree possible, while not getting paralyzed in angst or indecisiveness. Patients are waiting for better care and outcomes. As leaders we need to create the frame to enable progress, however difficult the conditions are.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
A few important things come to mind: Business integrity, a willingness to let go, welcome change and be quick to adapt, and possibly most important, clarity on the mission. The mission helps simplify and connect the organisation, separating “must dos” from “nice to haves”, a critical factor for sustainable success.
Can you share the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Hanging on to status, structure, and process always surface as problems. It often manifests in a mindset that does not embrace the need for evolution and change.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Focusing on value is essential. Constantly reviewing how every activity, project, investment, and process generates value. Finding the right balance between short term maximisation versus long-term growth is another critical aspect, especially in industries which have a long development lifecycle and high-risk investment needs like Pharma.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Be authentic: genuinely care for the people AND the business. Be authentic in your actions demonstrating that care
Be present: acknowledge that times are uncertain and there may be unknowns, while pointing out opportunity and roadmap ahead. It is ok to not have all the answers as long as there is a clear commitment and focus on moving forward
Be empathetic: Listen. Review. Educate yourself. Understanding what people do is the first step to support them meaningfully
Be humble: you may not always know best. Stay vigilant about your own bias. Seek diverse thinking as much as possible. Keep an inside AND outside systems perspective
Be collaborative: foster live, true co-creation. Relate and connect beyond the usual organisational boundaries
And a bonus tip: do not value strategy over implementation. One is meaningless without the other
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Asking yourself the question “what are you afraid of?” can be very powerful. Especially when you manage to answer it honestly and are willing to take action on it.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
AstraZeneca’s Niko Andre: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain &… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.