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An incurable optimist in China
Published on Friday, 05 Nov 2010
Al Gabor
Regional president for north Asia, Pfizer

Having been in the healthcare business since the early 1980s, Al Gabor has seen some dramatic changes in that time. Most notably, he has played a big part in bringing international standard pharmaceutical operations to the China market and is still guiding initiatives to provide better healthcare for millions of mainlanders.

As Pfizer’s regional president for North Asia, Gabor is also responsible for expanding the company’s activities in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Pakistan and Indochina.

His experience and expertise have led to a number of positions with influential industry bodies. These include being vice-chairman of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of America’s (PhRMA) Asia senior executive committee, and co-chairman of the body’s China task force. He can thus help to shape industry policies, expand market access, and improve operating environments to drive growth for the sector. He talks to Jan Chan.

What are the key management lessons you have learnt?
In my 20 plus years of work experience, I have learned a lot about how to run a successful business. Perhaps the most important lesson is that strategies and plans are important, but execution is everything. I see this reality almost every day in China, where many of our competitors are pursuing similar strategies. The ability to execute better, day in and day out, separates Pfizer from the pack.

How do you deal with criticism and setbacks? 
I have learned to accept setbacks and respect criticism. Both often help me to see things from different perspectives and to “recalibrate” for future success. Also, as long as I have a strong belief in my ultimate objective, I can remain confident in the face of setbacks or negative comments, allowing me to retain my peace of mind and remain motivated. There is only one way to go and that is forward, so I choose keep moving and focus on the future, with the firm belief that the patients we serve always come first.

How do you get the best out of individuals working for you?
Everyone is unique in terms of personality, interests, life goals and so on. I find it is important to respect them as individuals, take a strong interest, and help in their personal development. Sometimes, this is by coaching and mentoring. Often, it is just by rolling up my sleeves and working alongside someone toward a common goal.

In practical terms, how is it possible to make people enjoy their jobs?
This starts with ensuring they have the resources, competencies, and direction they need to succeed. After providing suitable encouragement, it ends with recognition for a job well done. I’m a big believer in celebrating success even when it is just small steps, because recognition has an amazing way of inspiring people and recharging their batteries.

How much did you need to adapt to the different culture?
Our corporate values are meant to work across cultures, but we realise that the best ways to translate these at ground level will vary. Ultimately, we need to respect cultural differences across communities, and the first critical step is a willingness to listen and adapt to local circumstances. That said, we do not compromise on certain aspects of our values. These include compliance with global and local regulations involving industry ethics and strict adherence to high quality standards and innovation in everything we do.

For you, what is the key to running such a large organisation? 
Success comes from finding the best talent for the job and then motivating and empowering them to get things done. This is true for any organisation, whatever the size, but is particularly important if you have over 10,000 people, as we do in North Asia. In such circumstances, you just can’t micro-manage, even if you wanted to. I’m fortunate to have some of the best people in the industry working for me, so I can focus much of my efforts on ensuring they have the resources and investment they need to succeed. 

How do you keep the company competitive?    
In a competitive marketplace, success depends on doing a lot of things right. But if you boil it down to one thing that would be understanding the company’s core competencies and always working to strengthen them. In our case, the fundamentals are quality people and innovative products. We realise that a highly engaged workforce provides a distinct competitive advantage and that the right products to address unmet medical needs at affordable prices makes a huge difference in any market.

Which experiences most shaped your attitude to work and life?
Living and working in China has probably been the most influential factor. The sheer size of the country and the magnitude of the changes have made me realise that, to make a difference, one simply can’t do it alone. You have to reach out and, in this respect, the company has been fortunate to establish partnerships with many key players in the healthcare arena. Seeing China’s remarkable emergence on the global stage has also made me an incurable optimist, believing that anything is possible with the right plans, partners, and investment.

What are the comparative strengths of young people today?
Our company’s young leaders are very clear about their career expectations. They also have a grasp of IT that connects them to much broader sources of information and knowledge than I ever had as a youth. Other very positive attributes are their awareness of issues related to corporate social responsibility and a willingness to take action in support of their beliefs. My general advice is to follow your dreams and be patient in making them come true. Success is usually achieved one step at a time, so make every step count.


By the way  

  • Gabor received the White Yulan Award from the Shanghai Municipal government in 2008
  • He believes that success in execution requires engagement
  • He is inspired by China's historic transformation

 

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