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“Surround yourself with people who are comfortable challenging you”, Anisa Dhalla and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Surround yourself with people who are comfortable challenging you. Having team members that can give constructive feedback and who are comfortable speaking up are important for leaders to be able to understand what is happening with their teams and if anything needs to be addressed. It’s much easier to correct an issue when you find […]

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Surround yourself with people who are comfortable challenging you. Having team members that can give constructive feedback and who are comfortable speaking up are important for leaders to be able to understand what is happening with their teams and if anything needs to be addressed. It’s much easier to correct an issue when you find out about it early.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Anisa Dhalla the Head of Global Ethics and Compliance at UCB. She oversees, develops, and evaluates the effectiveness of UCB’s global ethics and compliance program. As a member of the U.S. leadership team and global legal leadership team, Anisa’s commitment to leading ethical and compliant behavior at UCB helps deliver value to patients.

Anisa joined UCB in regulatory affairs in 1998 and moved to the compliance team in 2010. She was appointed as chief ethics and compliance officer in 2016. Prior to joining UCB, Anisa spent twelve years in regulatory affairs roles at other companies performing a variety of roles. She was responsible for oversight of promotional material review, labeling, and global dossier management during her time in regulatory affairs. Today, Anisa chairs the U.S. and Canadian compliance committees and previously served as chair of UCB’s Women in Leadership Steering Committee from 2014 to 2016.

Anisa holds a B.S. in biology from Georgia State University with certifications in U.S. Healthcare Compliance (Seton Hall Law) and Regulatory Affairs (Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in Kenya and came to the U.S. to attend university. At that time, there weren’t many options for advanced education in Kenya. So, I moved halfway around the world by myself to become a student. I knew I wanted to pursue healthcare; I had always wanted to be a doctor, so I studied biology as an undergraduate. After completing my undergraduate degree, I decided to take some time off school and my career began in regulatory affairs, which for me was the perfect combination of healthcare and my educational background. I worked in Regulatory Affairs for more than 10 years, and then joined UCB in 1998 in Regulatory Affairs where I stayed for about 12 years. As the discipline of compliance started gaining traction, I stepped into a new role within the Ethics and Compliance function and this expanded my view of the industry. Over the years, the concept of compliance has evolved to focus more on ethics, which really appeals to me. I see ethics leading the way in the future, and we’re already seeing it play out today. In a recent meeting, one of my colleagues referred to 2020 as ‘The Age of Integrity.’ We’re all reflecting on the implications of the pandemic and ongoing racial injustices, and the compliance and ethics function has a responsibility to help leaders make thoughtful decisions. We’re analyzing and evolving every day to support our colleagues, the providers we work with and the patients we serve.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your team?

When I look back on my time with UCB, certain moments stand out, but all of them have one central theme — courage. You face situations in your personal and professional life that test you, and you can grow each time. At a certain point in your career, you realize when you come to the table with vulnerability and humility, people are willing to listen to you and your opinions. It can be hard as a leader, especially a female leader, to do that. One of our culture pillars at UCB is resilience — the idea of pushing forward with energy when difficult situations arise. In my career, the times I’ve leaned in and pushed through those challenges have been the most rewarding.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started in Regulatory Affairs at another company prior to UCB, I was approached by a man who walked through the department and asked for my new boss. I shrugged and said I did not know where she was and continued working. Later that day, I was with my boss in the cafeteria and I pointed the man out saying, “That guy came by looking for you earlier.” It turned out “that guy” was the CEO!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

You must surround yourself with true advocates. Sometimes that means a little tough love and receiving the feedback you need to grow and move forward. A lot of people have shaped and supported me along the way, but Patty Fritz, Vice President, U.S. Corporate Affairs at UCB, is top of mind. I worked for her for 12 years, and our relationship grew even stronger once we worked in separate departments. She has been a fantastic coach and mentor. She’s been able to have tough conservations with me, but she’s also been a shoulder to cry on. Watching her lead is an inspiration to me.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I’m not very good at that — I carry a lot of stress with me, but people are kind enough to say it doesn’t show! I try to exercise every morning, spending an hour on the treadmill to reflect before I start my day. For me, it’s important to have a network of people willing to listen and that you trust. We all need the opportunity to talk to someone, to share our worries and triumphs. I’m lucky to have people like that in my life, those who listen without judgement.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Companies that prioritize diversity yield stronger business results. As a minority woman, I’ve learned how to persevere. We have all had moments in our career that make us reflect on the impact of words and actions. I can remember people saying my position was given to me because I was a minority candidate. Comments like that are so demeaning as a professional. What I’ve learned from those moments is that you have to keep going. You can’t always take time to think about those remarks because it can completely derail you. For me, the last few months have been challenging as I’ve been forced to sit back and unpack some of that. The conversations that are happening are important, and I hope we continue to evolve these discussions. It’s a journey and people, myself included, have to be open-minded. Diversity comes in so many forms, but for me diversity is about more than the numbers. Ensuring an inclusive environment is even more important. An analogy I love is, ‘Were you invited to the party or did you feel welcomed when you arrived?’ We’re sending the invitations, but if we’re not good hosts, we’re not getting the true benefit of diversity and inclusion.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Efficiency and speed are engrained in us, but we shouldn’t rush right now. Instead, now is the time to slow down and reflect on our next steps. I always encourage my team to focus on listening to hear, not listening to answer. That’s where we are right now at UCB; we’re offering and seizing opportunities to listen. As employees progress in their careers, especially women, the job becomes more challenging and that’s where the disengagement could creep in. It begs the question, ‘What’s happening? Why is it so hard?’ The most difficult thing for me is seeing women not supporting other women. There is a certain competitiveness at play among women. There may be a perception that there are limited slots for women, and in some organizations, there are limited opportunities for women and even minorities. So, that’s where the inclusiveness comes into play. We have work to do there.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

UCB has created a framework for us to lead in a way that’s authentic to each individual. Your leadership style does not have to be the same as your colleague’s. For me, it’s important to be connected to the reality of the business and my team. I like to be hands-on. I like to talk to everyone on the team. I’ve started having fireside chats with diverse groups of team members to provide an opportunity for them share their ideas or talk about their struggles at work or at home. As an executive, you have a responsibility to keep your team productive, but I want the work to be as meaningful and engaging as possible.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

One myth is that we’re not real people. It’s interesting because the perception often comes from the same people who were once my peers. We’re regular people doing the best we can. People assume when you become an executive that you’ve gained new power to fix things that weren’t fixable before. But it’s not that simple. We’re all navigating the same struggles — working from home, staying safe and healthy through this pandemic — and at the end of the day, we’re all human.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

UCB is committed to an inclusive environment, and the teams I work with are engaging and welcoming. However, there can be a more subtle disconnect between male and female executives. For example, you may find that there is existing comradery between male leaders, and it can be challenging for some women to feel included. I would say it’s those things on the fringes of the professional world that are the hardest to overcome.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I thought it would be a lot of tactical leadership, and for me, it’s more about thinking about the future and articulating the company’s vision. It is really important to create alignment on goals and priorities. People are really looking for direction and want to understand where ethics and compliance is going as a function. There are a lot of expectations from people about what plans you’re going to set for the future.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

The key UCB leadership traits are authenticity, adaptability and resilience. How do you react to what’s in front of you? For people who can’t adjust as they go, being a leader may be exceptionally challenging, especially in today’s world. It is also important to be vulnerable at times and share the challenges that you are facing. Courage of conviction is also important. Taking a stand for the things you believe in can garner you a lot of respect. You should be willing to fight for the things you believe in.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Listen to your team. Recognize what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis and be empathetic to their daily reality. Also, don’t be afraid to make a decision. Leaders can get stuck in the swirl, but at the end of the day, you have to make the decision and move on. And if the decision is not the right one, take accountability for it and change it.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

It’s been a journey of self-discovery, and I’m always trying to understand how my own values ladder up to what we bring to the world as an organization. I think our approach to ethics and compliance is a bit different than traditional compliance departments. There’s a misconception that the compliance team is only looking for the flaws, but I’m a firm believer in finding what people are doing right. I want to help them accomplish their business goals in a way that also reflects the company’s values.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Be yourself. Many of us spend years thinking that we need to lead in the same way as other leaders around us. If you aren’t authentic, that will come through and people will recognize that. It’s hard for people to trust someone who is not being sharing their true self.

Surround yourself with people who are comfortable challenging you. Having team members that can give constructive feedback and who are comfortable speaking up are important for leaders to be able to understand what is happening with their teams and if anything needs to be addressed. It’s much easier to correct an issue when you find out about it early.

Trust your instincts. I have learned the hard way that when I do not follow my instincts, I end up in situations that can be more difficult than they need to be. If you feel like something is not going right, address it quickly and don’t talk yourself out of it because there is no evidence.

Be grateful. Spend a few minutes each day to think about what you are grateful for. We spend a lot of time fixing things or chasing goals that never seem to be reachable, so it is easy to get frustrated at times. Spending some time reflecting on things that are going well can help to put frustrations in perspective.

Protect your energy. It is important to remember that we all own our energy and it is important to use it on things that are meaningful. It is easy to get distracted by challenges at work or by people or situations that are stressful. We have the power to choose where we spend our energy and it should not be on people or situations that are not constructive or respectful.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I want to inspire my colleagues to live up to our ethical ambition. I’ve spent the last few weeks focusing on how we can be more intentional. We’ve always had the ‘tone at the top,’ which is the executive perspective on ethics. Then there’s the ‘mood in the middle,’ which focuses on the middle management leaders talking about compliance, but an emerging concept that gives me a lot of energy is the ‘buzz at the bottom.’ If you’re doing all the right things at the top, people throughout the organization will recognize that. I want to create a campaign around those elements, to highlight the role of each level and each department in achieving the company’s overall mission.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve had a few over the years, but one of my favorites is a Maya Angelou quote: “Do the best you can, until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” It rings true to my perspective as a leader. All we can do is our best, and it’s a journey of learning together.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of the pandemic. You do the best with what you have, but at a certain point your morals and values have to take over. I would love to speak with Dr. Anthony Fauci. His strength of conviction has propelled him to a different level, all because he had the courage to stand firm in his own beliefs.

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