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Sun 25 Aug 2019 01:57 PM

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Generation game: Mazen Altaruti on how he makes the most of his millennial workforce at MSD

Mazen Altaruti, assistant vice president (AVP), regional managing director - GCC at MSD said the biggest challenge with millennials is they go fast - delivering a rapid job turnaround

Generation game: Mazen Altaruti on how he makes the most of his millennial workforce at MSD
MSD wants to create an ideal workplace for millennials, says Altaruti

It’s a strange phenomenon when one of the greatest challenges in your business is also your greatest asset.

Mazen Altaruti, AVP, regional managing director – GCC, for pharmaceuticals giant MSD, beams with pride when he reveals the advances in technology that emanate from the region as it feeds into the global success of the company.

MSD GCC of the USA-based outfit is heavily involved in post-marketing clinical trials, helping to find medicines with the ultimate aim of combating, for instance, diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

It recently held a live orthopaedic simulation, whereby a famous orthopaedic surgeon conducted total knee replacement surgery live in the presence of another 150 orthopaedics across the region, via video technology.

More recently, the company was able to hold an e-congress, where 11 international speakers were brought in to talk about the latest medical updates in seven medical areas, to 1,300 HCP providers in the GCC, over two days, using digital technology.

According to Altaruti, this was all made possible because of millennials.

He tells CEO Middle East: “They are the majority of the current generation. They are the talent. They make up 78 percent of our workforce. They are technology savvy, they breathe technology. I’ve seen in one study, more than 50 percent would prefer losing their sense of smell rather than their digital device.”

As talented as they are, particularly when it comes to technology, working with millennials has involved a seismic culture shift for Altaruti. His loyalty to MSD is without question, he has been with the company for 19 years. Such longevity, however, is not the norm among the millennials.

He explains: “The biggest challenge with millennials is they go fast. There is a rapid job turnaround. On average, most of them will not stay in a job for more than three years. We try to live with this new reality that we have and make this environment more attractive for them.

“I have to live with it. I have to accept the new reality and I have to accommodate it in the best way.”

In order to do this, Altaruti says the company, which has its GCC base in Dubai but operates across all markets in the region, has introduced a number of initiatives, including flexible working hours and a programme of recognition, not through financial reward, but just simply by acknowledging a job well done.

“Globally the company launched a programme where everyone has the ability to recognise everyone in the company regardless of geography or position. I can sit here and recognise a colleague in Singapore for a job they’ve done and vice versa, thanks to the digital system in place,” he says.

And, of course, millennials and social media go pretty much hand in hand, a fact that has not been lost on Altaruti or the top leadership at MSD. He says: “We have a social media platform internally and externally. We created what we call a next generation chapter, a group of people, led by a millennial – and the majority of them are millennials – to actually tell us how they are going to transform the environment at work, to be more accommodating to the millennials’ ambitions and beliefs, and they feed into the ideas.”

According to Altaruti, what millennials want more than anything, in terms of the job they’re in, is to be doing something meaningful.

At the start of the interview, he calmly read aloud some sobering statistics – 17.9 million people die from heart diseases every year; there are 18.1 million new cases (and rising) of cancer each year; currently there are around 415 million people with diabetes globally; there are 71 million cases of chronic hepatitis C virus; 36.9 million people living with HIV. While the World Health Organisation (WHO) also estimates that the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria will kill 10 million people every year by 2050.

MSD is in the top five pharmaceutical companies in the region. The sector in the Arabian Gulf continues to expand at a rapid pace and is expected to almost double from $13.9bn (AED51bn) in 2018 to $25.7bn in the next decade as urbanisation, an ageing population and chronic lifestyle-related diseases boost demand for pharmaceutical products, according to a report from Fitch Solutions released earlier this year.

If millennials are looking for meaning in their employment, then it can’t get much more meaningful than finding a cure for all these diseases, something Altaruti stresses to all his staff.

He says: “If you keep reminding them that, when you wake up every day, no matter what you do in this company, you contribute in the process of making sure the right medicine gets to the right patients, which could potentially save lives. This has a meaning for them.”

Of course, it would be unfair to group all millennials under the one umbrella. That’s why Altaruti is such a huge fan of the ‘situation in leadership’ concept and how he can adapt to the challenges of each and every one of his employees.

“I will have to adapt the situation to the person in front of me, I wouldn’t go general in one style. When it comes to certain individual needs you will still have to adapt the situation in leadership but in general you have to make the environment more accommodating for them as we do, for example, in having social media in place, creating flexible working hours, creating a forum for them so they can continue to invent. We use technology in the way we conduct our business and we empower them to raise their opinions,” he says.

A campaign to increase the number of female workers in the company reaped rewards when MSD was recognised by the Women in Leadership Economic Forum, endorsed by the Ministry of Economy in the UAE, as one of the top three best women-friendly employers. Further testament to the work Altaruti and his team do comes in the form of certification from A Great Place to Work.

Unfortunately, however, the great work with employees does not extend to the recruitment of Emiratis into the company, nor the industry as a whole. This includes talking to graduates in university and bringing in interns. “But so far we haven’t been that successful, not because of our unwillingness, it’s because of the interest today is not in the pharmaceutical industry,” Altaruti says. “We want to keep being the great place to work while developing the right calibre. I am a big believer that the locals should be developed and empowered to lead this industry.”