Emerging Pharma Leaders 2010 - Pharmaceutical Executive


Emerging Pharma Leaders 2010

Pharmaceutical Executive

Senior Vice President, Human Resources, GlaxoSmithKline

To Claire Thomas, life experience matters in molding the diversity of talent that enables a large organization to thrive as more than just the sum of its parts. "I'm Welsh; I was raised on a farm. My parents are entrepreneurial and have encouraged myself and my two sisters to be independent, different and brave in how we approached life. Today, as a member of GSK's corporate executive team, Thomas leads a staff of 1,700 human resources professionals; she uses this background as a tool to execute a new business model—one built around a more diversified product portfolio, a different contract with society, and a strong global market mindset.

Thomas notes she has a mandate from CEO Andrew Witty to drive change throughout the organization. One focus is the role of the country General Manager—the front line for engagement in an increasingly external-facing, customer-driven operating environment. He or she is the one responsible for leveraging a more complex product and operations structure to consistently achieve against plan targets and motivate people to perform above expectations.

The goal at GSK is as simple as it is specific: to ensure all colleagues have the skills to realize their leadership potential in a turbulent commercial environment. Business outcomes can be hard to predict; all this external uncertainty calls for an internal management structure clear on its capabilities, creating an atmosphere that fosters strong performances. "At GSK, we are putting more emphasis on delivering the softer strategic elements of HR such as talent and leadership development, strategic capability building and change management, while running an effective, efficient HR service organization across the world," she says. "We have established Centers of Excellence to design HR products and services for global application and we are consciously upgrading our function through skills training and different ways of working."

Communication is also a priority for Thomas, who believes that social media tools can enhance the relevance of human resources in creating a world-class organization—particularly those as big as GSK is today. "GSK has always had a rather paternalistic, top-down culture, which is inconsistent with the drivers that shape our prospects as a business today," she says. "New social media technologies allow the opportunity to tap contacts throughout the organization and lessen the dead weight of hierarchy."

Two key characteristics come to mind when Thomas defines an ideal leader at GSK. The most important, she says, is courage. "If an organization is serious about a commitment to change, people have to believe that there is no penalty for being a contrarian. We need people able to chart a path that leads us out of the intellectual wilderness of conventional wisdom." The other is self-awareness, a desirable personality trait when there are fewer fixed boundaries around which to set strategy and guide decisions. "Good managers have to be able to adapt. If your own internal compass is rigidly set in one direction, then decisions are not always going to mesh with reality," Thomas says. Assessment of this leadership skill is now being built into the "360 degree" feedback process for top managers. Part of this process is the "Ideas Engine" program that allows the company's employees to suggest and vote on ideas to improve staff engagement, morale and productivity. "It is proving to be a tremendous engagement tool," she says.

The bottom line? "We are a unique industry in that our business mission is linked to passion about the human condition. We don't make chocolates – we want to improve the state of public health. This passion is a competitive advantage. If we can overlay this with outstanding leadership and an engaged workforce we have a powerful recipe for success."


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