My Key Leadership Lessons During COVID-19

Earlier this year, in the midst of the pandemic, I changed roles from the Regional Vice President of APAC and took on my new role as the Senior Vice President of the global Cardiovascular Metabolism and Endocrinology franchise for Merck Healthcare KGaA. Normally, this would mean I would be travelling around the world meeting my colleagues and attending meetings, spending countless hours on flights and airports away from home. As we all know, Covid-19 had its own plans for us.

Fully adjusting to a global role virtually isn’t something that can be achieved within a week or two. Many of us, like me, are beginning new roles remotely, and doing our best to acclimatise through our computer screens, swapping business conferences for Microsoft Teams calls or Zoom Calls. Over the last six months, I’ve made a huge shift from a “Jack of all trades” RVP operational role, to focusing on the long-term strategy for the Cardiovascular Metabolism and Endocrinology franchise. This has been a valuable opportunity to take a fresh perspective on being an authentic leader, and what it means to empower the people you work with.

My transition from a regional role to a global one has been challenging, and retaining the leadership qualities that are most important to me, such as authenticity, flexibility and the empowerment of my team all whilst working from home, has required a major adjustment in my approach to being a leader. How do I nurture a culture of debate and discussion between colleagues when I’m often greeted with silence during conference calls, especially when it’s hard to read body language through a screen?

Working across time zones from Beijing to Sao Paulo, and finishing at 10pm most nights, can be difficult. There are, however, huge benefits to the technology at our fingertips, and being able to connect quickly with colleagues, supporting them without needing to hop on an international flight, makes the late nights worthwhile.

Challenges of shifting to digital leadership and adapting my leadership style
Despite advancements in technology enabling me to continue my leadership responsibilities from afar, there are practical, human elements that cannot be replaced with technology.

I think all of us, in some way, are missing human interaction. As an Australian, I like to have a good talk, and I want my team to also have that dialogue. I like to get a feel for people and build authentic relationships through trust. The monotony of relentless digital interaction has forced me to adopt certain coping mechanisms such as self-discipline and enhanced flexibility, to ensure I don’t lose sight of my goal of helping colleagues who are all battling with the same digital fatigue as I am.

I have truly learned the value of flexibility during these unprecedented times, recognising the challenges and uncertainty we’re all facing on an individual level, and why that requires me to show greater patience and understanding. My focus on quality of output rather than quantity of hours worked, enables my team to be more meaningful with their working day because they know I don’t watch the clock. A ten-hour day means little if your output doesn’t show it.

Another complexity I’ve faced during my adjustment period is establishing effective working relationships when there is no inherent trust as we are all new colleagues.  Ensuring my colleagues are connected and engaged is challenging but listening and taking a step back to absorb what my team are saying is critical for me to fully understand any issues they could be facing, and to ensuring they receive the right support from a global level.

The pandemic has really forced me to further hone my listening skills, and now when I talk, I ensure it is meaningful and constructive. I try to cultivate open discussion and debate with my team by using open questions and by inviting every person on a call to participate with their own thoughts. During these moments, I take a step back from my role as a moderator and instead absorb the things being said by my team.

I also ensure I continue to make time for one-on-ones with colleagues and have found this variant of personal interaction to be effective in helping establish working relationships with those I cannot see in person. This allows me to move beyond a transactional call and really make an effort to develop unique connections, which is often unachievable during a TEAMS call with a dozen participants.

For me, there is an obligation to be an authentic leader. I have found that my team are the best versions of themselves when I am the best version of myself, which means a being authentic, ensuring I am constantly self-aware and transparent. Staying true to my character by also using a little humour, to connect and create a relaxed atmosphere, helps me keep engagement levels up. It is, however, just as important to be conscious of your intent versus your impact. At times the use of humour, especially in a virtual environment can potentially derail your goals, and this is something I keep in mind.

Importance of giving feedback as a leader during Covid-19 and how to build a “feedback culture”
Covid-19 has presented a rare opportunity to reflect and refocus on self-development. This is a personal mission for me, which I believe will be strengthened by showing vulnerability and a willingness to continually learn and improve. Early on in my global role, I declared openly to my new team that “I don’t have all the answers”. My goal here was to lead by example and demonstrate to my team that it’s okay to ask for guidance.

Allocating time to receive feedback from my team by asking them things like “how can I help you be more effective?” has opened the door for honest conversation and has contributed to an environment of empowerment, with colleagues who are confident to make business decisions and who are ready to take risks, especially when they’re not in the office. At Merck, colleagues underpin the company’s success, with their unwavering dedication facilitating the kind of innovation able to make a positive difference to millions of patients and caregivers. This is why my team must be confident risk takers, supported by my belief in them.

Forward thoughts on the bigger picture and my purpose at Merck
My personal purpose of wanting to have a positive impact on everyone I interact with feels even more important during this period, when we are all enduring so much. Be it through a smile, a gesture, or simply time spent with others, my goal is to herald flexibility, authenticity, and trust for my team. To achieve this, I know I must take time out for myself. Fundamentals like exercising, eating healthily or diving into a George Orwell novel are integral parts of my routine. Because of Covid-19, I have recognised even more so the importance of self-care from an entirely different perspective. There is no silver bullet for leadership during a pandemic. This is a time for reflection and adaptation, a time to nurture the connections we have with people and a time to consider our actions and why we’re in our roles. My purpose at Merck is to make sure as many patients as possible have access to our medications, and this can only be realised by having a team who are confident to make decisions, who feel valued and trusted, and who are proud of their achievements.

About the author

Andre Musto

Andre Musto

Merck Group, Senior Vice President, Head of Global Cardiovascular Metabolism & Endocrinology Franchise

Andre, a believer in the philosophy of servant leadership, is passionate aboutthe power of people, partnerships and innovation. In his career of more than 29 years, he has led successful teams across geographies and continues to be intrigued by evolving business models and talent-led transformations.

Currently, Andre is the Senior Vice President and Global Head of the Cardiovascular, Metabolism and Endocrinology Franchise for Merck Biopharma.  Prior to this Andre was the Regional Vice President for Asia Pacific where he led a team of more than 1000 colleagues and was responsible for the commercial operations for 12 countries across APAC.

Having started his career as a Medical Representative in Australia with Astra Pharmaceuticals, Andre subsequently moved into various marketing roles with growing responsibilities in Australia, Singapore and Europe. In July 2014, Andre joined Merck Australia as the General Manager & Managing Director. He then relocated to Singapore as the Head of Developed Markets APAC in 2016, before taking over the mandate for APAC in 2018.

Andre holds a Bachelor of Science with a major in Pure Mathematics from the University of Sydney as well as an MBA from the Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney Australia majoring in Strategy and Management.

Currently based in Singapore, Andre likes to spend his time with his family and pursue his interests in healthy living. Once a competitive swimmer and an active triathlete, Andre continues these sports in his free time. Andre is also a cycling enthusiast and a huge Star Wars fan.

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