Chemie van leiderschap

The chemistry of leadership

A wide-ranging career in the pharmaceutical industry has given Dapo Ajayi an unusually broad perspective on the qualities that make a successful leader. She talks with us about passion for diversity, mobility and collaboration with HR.

Dapo Ajayi, Chief Procurement Officer at pharmaceuticals business AstraZeneca, didn’t consciously plan out her career with the objective of assuming the role. Until her appointment in April 2014, her career encompassed a range of interrelated disciplines, from manufacturing to supply chain, general management to global marketing, all working for AstraZeneca or one of its subsidiary businesses.

Up until 1995, when she had risen to a senior manufacturing role, Dapo had spent her whole career in the same country. She soon realised that she needed to branch out.

“I’d spent my entire career to that point in the UK, on a particular site, but there was a whole global business out there,” she says. “I had some exploratory conversations which resulted in me moving to a global role, still in operations.”


Yet her most formative experience came when she was offered the chance to lead a business on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, as President and General Manager of IPR Pharmaceuticals. This meant moving out of the UK for the first time in her career, along with her husband and young children.

In the two years she spent in Puerto Rico, Ajayi immersed herself in the local culture, getting to know her team personally as well as professional – something she believes is key to good leadership. “You learn about the differences in culture by taking the time to really get to know people in your team who live and work there,” she says.

She also found herself in sole command, learning to trust her own judgement. “When the hurricane’s coming – because it is in the hurricane area – and there’s a decision to be made around whether to close the site and send people home, everyone’s looking to you,” she recalls. “There’s no picking up the phone and talking to anybody; it’s your decision to make. I found that really empowering, and it helped me grow as a leader.”

Other elements of leadership, though, were more universal. “Individuals across the globe, regardless of culture, have similar expectations of what they want from leaders,” she says. “They want clarity of direction and vision, and they want leaders who are visible, who will take the time to engage with them and invest in them as individuals. That’s just as valid for somebody in Puerto Rico, China, Italy or the US.”

After two years, however, she felt the need to head home, driven partly by a desire for her children to re-enter the UK’s educational system, but also by the pull of a global strategic marketing position.

Setting vision, inspiring people

With this greater breadth of experience and her global and multi-disciplinary background, the move to head up the organisation’s procurement function three years later seemed like a natural step.


“My boss’s view was that I’d had recent experience of working with third parties and that I had the broader leadership credentials, in terms of my vision and strategy, connectivity with the broad business and ability to inspire people,” she says. “That, in my view, is a prerequisite for any senior leadership role.” New team members have also been recruited and will be joining the team. “It’s a continuous process as we move into 2016,” she says.

The business is currently investing heavily in the skills of its procurement leaders, looking to develop more relationship-based skills. “By the end of this year, we’ll have put more than 100 procurement leaders through a programme aimed at further developing business partnering skills.”

She’s also working to develop a procurement capability framework, to help staff identify where they are in terms of skills and any areas they need to improve on, as well as working closely with other business functions to simplify processes and come up with more efficient ways of working internally.

Diversity first

Diversity is another priority, particularly the push to get more women into senior management and recruit leaders from a broader set of geographies. “The first thing any business needs to do is reinforce that it believes that diversity makes good business sense,” she says. “Some of the most capable teams I’ve worked in have been those that have been diverse, whether in terms of gender, geography or difference of thinking.”


She’s also keen to stress the importance of mentoring for younger talent, including demonstrating to women that it possible to balance a successful career with other priorities. “Senior leaders, like myself, have a role to play in reinforcing that we’re just as human as they are,” she says. “Sometimes, when leaders earlier in their career look at us, they think that we don’t have to deal with the mundane, but I still have to make sure the fridge is full”. Organisations have to play their part too, she says, by genuinely embracing flexible working and ensuring that this does not act as a barrier to career progression.

Dapo is understandably reluctant, given the breadth her career has encompassed to date, to commit to any firm plans for the next few years. “I have never had a very structured career plan,” she says. “My career has always been about roles that have stretched and challenged me, and enabled me to deliver value to the business. The role I have now really excites me and I’m enjoying it at present. But I’m always going to be looking for opportunities that will continue to challenge me.”

This article was published in Hays Journal 10

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