Syed Nadeem Ahmed

MD, Searle

By Wali Zahid 2.02.2011

Your one-sentence description of yourself?

A man of hard-core objectives, with determination, persistence and consistency.

Your first leadership opportunity? When? What was it?

This was in 1991 when I became general manager marketing in Brookes pharma.

Were you ready for it? (H, M, L, no)


What was your readiness factor? (luck, will, skill, network)


How did you perform then? On a 1-5 scale?

5. Did exceptionally well. Highest annual growth (over 35%). Received The Best GM Merz global award.

Your all-time most significant leadership opportunity so far (if different from this)?

Current position with much bigger scale. Was brought in as DMD in 2008. For two years, MD. Took annual turnover from PKR 2 billion to PKR 5 billion. Now, Searle is 8th largest, 3rd largest in units sold, 1st in generating new products, 1st highest growth for three consecutive years (over 40% annually).

Wali was dazzled by these numbers, so asked Nadeem the secret behind this success.

Nadeem’s reply: I didn’t bring outsiders; kept the same team. Injected energy and enthusiasm in them. Showed I trust them (not here to inspect them). In spite of the fact that we are working in an established/set industry within a regulatory framework and cannot do much innovation, we went from negative 27% to 40% growth.

Wali digged more.

Nadeem: Human beings are emotional beings. As an MD, they are my medium and I need to understand the sentiments of the medium. Once you are able to do this, you can rule them. I was a young boss, an outsider. One-fourth of staff use to call me sahib, which I changed over a period. I personally take care of the hardship cases and if an employee needs financial aid.

With large PR, I network with contemporaries, have access to market intelligence, and generally quite vigilant and in focus.

Your ideal, future leadership opportunity?

Globally, pharmaceuticals are a $780 billion market. In Pakistan, this is $1.5 billion industry. China and India are big API suppliers; we cannot export medicines as no plant here is approved by European Authority. In India, Dr Reddy, Cipla (founded by Dr Abdul Hamid in 1986) is a $1.5 billion company with $600 million in global sales.

Wali asks: What’s the point?

Nadeem: We are the same clan. The only difference is that they want and we don’t want (to go global). We have no global ambitions. Although there’s a lot of talk about going global at PPMA, but no action.

Indian pharmas like Cipla is my model companies. I would want to do something like this in future. And it’s not just a business call; it’s a socioeconomic call.

All we want here is two or three cars, a lavish house, and sufficient income to their spending levels. And then they stop making the effort. Power class goes into politics. That’s it.

Globally, Indians have networked while Pakistani firms stand isolated. They are not just in volume market; they are in value market too. We might face an issue from Indians when we go global.

I would want to be a global head of a pharmaceutical or healthcare sector organisation.

Is it likely to happen in your remaining work years?

Yes, inshaAllah.

Today in your current role: Where are you on Wali’s Will-Skill Matrix (high, medium, low)?

High will. Moderate skill. I have converted my job into a hobby!

What drives you? (one-word driver)

I come from a middle class home. My driver is poor people and serving them. When I see an Indian going ahead with a scale, this gives me a kick. I dream of landing at home in a helicopter without becoming a thief or unethical.

Candidly speaking, have you been happy about growth numbers in the past decade?

Yes, happy. If ‘made in Pakistan’ tag was not an issue, I could have added a zero to our growth numbers easily. Although in this case, I need to be extra competent than my Indian counterparts.

In an uncertain and ambiguous world, how can you make sure that your plans are achievable?

I frequently travel to Europe and I see a positive change in the world.

I also notice that looks matter. Like we would want to work with all things white – American, European, east European.

When the Japanese succeeded in gaining credibility, all lookalike nationalities like Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans, Malays, benefitted.

Similarly, it’s India’s turn now. We look like them and if we want, we can benefit from the lookalike bandwagon.

How easy or difficult is it to manage the Gen Y/Millennials (people born after 1982)?

We have a lot of youth coming into the workforce. They are technology savvy, have information flow. We need to give regard to their competence. They then are easily manageable.

Your legacy? How do you want to be remembered? In your industry? In your organisation?

An honest, successful individual, known for his meritocracy and no favourites and who treated everyone equally.

What would you want to see in your leader (i.e. your leader to do)?

Trust. Liberty and space to perform.

Your learning: Where do you turn to for learning – both daily routine, and time-off for courses?

I attend a lot of global training courses. I also read biographies of people like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto. I also deliver guest lectures at places like IBA and PIM.

Are there sufficient opportunities for C-level learning here in Pakistan or in the region?


Learning and development of your team – what opportunities are available here? Your rating of these programmes? (1-5 scale)

Nothing special. Technical training? Yes. Training in selling, marketing, leadership? No. Perhaps available training providers help in articulation but we also need conviction.

What would you want different about these programmes?

Self-motivation for medical representatives is generated as they have quarterly targets and this may result in burnout.

What are three core competencies or skill areas you would want your team to develop for this year? Next three years?

For sales people: Communication and presentation skills. Understanding the doctor behaviour. Technical knowledge. For managers: All are able to act as leaders.

What is your biggest time eater at work?

1. Meetings! 2. To make others understand my point of view and persuade them.

Information overload: What is your coping mechanism?

I have developed no system yet. I am ‘drowned’ in information rivers.

Do you have a stop-to-do list?

No conscious list. Generally, cut on travel.

How can we give up control (and do more empowering)?

Develop a system. No need to spy on them or hover over them. Trust them. Develop an owner in them.

What kind of personal or social networks do you use to enhance your presence and the chances for success?

I have the company of highly intelligent friends. We about 10/12 friends (most pharma heads) meet at breakfast and discuss industry issues. I am also at PPMA and Pharma Club.

Faith? Is faith an inspiration for you?

Very important. It is particularly handy when we face failure. It keeps shadow over us.

Ever thought that how could the Prophet (saw)’s personality be a guiding factor for you in doing business, making decisions, empowering others? If yes, in what ways?

The Prophet (saw) was the best marketer and his promotional material was Quran.

CEO derailment? Have you seen colleagues derailing/going down? What was the cause?


Any other cause of CEO derailment in our part of the world?

Talk-action mismatch. Power and wealth bring their real ugly self at front. Sometimes wrong decisions because these are not whole-body (mind-body) decisions.

Your messages to new generation of leaders: What leads to success?

Hard work. Hard work. Hard work. In a smart way.

Your messages to new generation of leaders: Can you create your own luck? How?

Yes. God allows everyone success. Effort is critical and you need to have a hunger. Instead of Punjabi-gardi, Sindhi-gardi, go for Zahanat-gardi (high IQ).