Azita Saleki-Gerhardt - AbbVie

AbbVie HQ

Azita Saleki-Gerhardt
Company: AbbVie
Title: SVP and President of Operations

A scientist by training with a doctoral degree in drug development, Azita Saleki-Gerhardt has always been driven by an insatiable curiosity. And it is that yearning to constantly learn that led her on a circuitous path through Abbott Laboratories--one that eventually led to the top ranks of its spinoff, AbbVie, where she now reports to CEO Richard Gonzalez.

By making lateral moves to learn new areas and being willing to take on responsibilities outside of her comfort zone, Saleki-Gerhardt was able to pick up the experience needed to make the jump from science to business.

That courage did not go unnoticed, and she now has broad responsibilities covering quality and manufacturing; a supply network that spans 170 countries; engineering; security; and a network of more than 39,000 global suppliers. She tries to pay that forward by encouraging others, particularly women, to take the road less traveled.

“I joined Abbott as a scientist. That is my roots,” the 23-year veteran of the company said recently in a telephone interview. “As a woman scientist, I know women are trained to be really good as scientists, but we don’t generally have the management and leadership experience.

“But my personal interest was always to do something differently. Now, I encourage other women to stretch themselves and get more exposure.”

Saleki-Gerhardt was born in Iran in 1963 to parents whose influence on her later life approach was very strong and very distinct from each other. Her father gave her the encouragement to be or do anything she wanted regardless of gender. Her mother always raised the bar; she was so demanding that good was never good enough.

During her upbringing in Iran, Saleki-Gerhardt traveled to the U.S. often, and then moved to the States in 1983. She enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, where she earned her master’s and Ph.D.

Saleki-Gerhardt started her career at Abbott in 1993 in R&D, but her incessant curiosity was soon piqued by the interactions between scientists and commercial staffers. The two sides of the company spoke completely different languages--and she decided to find a way to bridge that gap.

That exploration led to jobs in process development and engineering, which in turn led to a chance to work on the international side, to support mostly manufacturing operations. From there she moved to head of quality. Abbott was expanding its leadership at the time and was looking for someone that was less science-based in the traditional sense, she said.

Then, in fairly quick succession, two quirks of fate put her in a perfect position for much more responsibility. When her former boss left, she became the logical choice to become Abbott’s president of global pharmaceutical operations. Soon thereafter, Abbott decided to spin off its drug development operations into AbbVie--and she went with the new company as a senior VP and president of operations.

Along the way, Saleki-Gerhardt developed a leadership philosophy that you want to learn from a position and then give back. “It is every day driving and being the role model,” she said. “The shadow of the leader is very important.”

She acknowledges she has a reputation as a “tough driver,” but she said that stems from her faith in those she believes in: “I trust you more than trust yourself, so I push.”

Saleki-Gerhardt is quick to credit her success to having a great team, but it is she who put that team together. She’s a big believer in finding the right person for the job, and from her own experience knows that one must sometimes look beyond the obvious to do that.

“Diversity of talent helps us succeed, so I look for a diverse set of talents. I don’t focus on a particular group, gender or minorities. I just want to give opportunities, but want to be inclusive,” she explained. “I am probably one of the biggest supporters of helping others, particularly women in science, because of the challenges they have bridging the gap,” she said.

Saleki-Gerhardt understands that diversity means many things, gender and race, yes, but there is more to it than that. Pharma is a global business that requires a world view. Her team reflects all of those ideas about diversity. For example, a woman is her head of quality, and her head of biologics manufacturing is a woman from Italy.

She also gives AbbVie credit for understanding the need for a diverse and inclusive workforce and for creating programs and paths that give employees broad experience to find the place where they will contribute the most, and then helping them achieve.

“When we have the right person with the talent, we want to make sure they have what they need to succeed,” she said.

She also appreciates the fact that AbbVie recognized that a foreign-born woman who started in science had what it took to become a top exec at a top pharma player. “I have been very fortunate that I work for a company that allows me to do what I love, to get where I am today,” she said. “Sometimes as women, we make assumptions of what we can apply for. I think we have to be willing to go outside of our own comfort zone, and this is company that allows the equation to be balanced on both sides.”

Azita Saleki-Gerhardt - AbbVie