Pausing to Reflect

For Natalie Woodford, getting her job right will be the difference between GSK succeeding or failing in its mission.

Justin Forsyth (left) Chief Executive, Save the Children UK and Sir Andrew Witty (right) CEO, GSK, visiting communities in Kenya to launch an ambitious joint partnership to save the lives of one million children. Credit Sven Torfinn/Save the Children.

Of all the challenges that pharma faces, managing your talent base may seem a little way down the list when compared with, say, reputation, R&D or the patent cliff. But for Natalie Woodford they are all linked. Appointed Senior Vice President, Talent, and Leadership & Organization Development of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) just over five years ago, she is responsible for identifying and developing what GSK requires from its workforce now and in the future. Get this right, and the company can execute its mission to ‘improve the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer’.

Radical changes

These are fine words and, to help back them up, GSK has made some radical changes to its modus operandi. Two years ago, the company announced it was to remove individual prescription sales from the bonus scheme it ran for reps; at the same time, it was going to stop paying doctors to talk about GSK’s products.

“We’re the first pharma company that has decided to look differently at the way they interact with HCPs,” Woodford explains to eyeforpharma. “Perception is important: reps are primarily there to talk to doctors, not to drive sales. We want to be much more of a trusted source of information for HCPs, finding ways of evolving our model to meet them where they want – for example, through greater use of digital technology. We have to show patients that we have the right relationship with prescribers.”

Qualitative judgments

This all means that field reps’ bonuses are not now based on sales targets but on ‘softer’ elements such as how they have built partnerships with doctors and on their knowledge of GSK’s products. This has entailed making more qualitative judgments about performance, although Woodford argues that it is no more difficult to do this with reps than it is with any other member of staff.

“It is important to have line managers who are able to see what good practice is and have the ability to coach,” she explains. “Do they understand the patient and the mission? When you’re doing training, you have to be able to take the GSK business strategy and make it make sense from a local perspective.”

Novartis transaction

In some ways, this is at the heart of what Woodford does: she spoke with quiet authority at FT Global Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Conference 2015 about leadership, skills and change management. She has had plenty of practice in all three following GSK’s 2014 deal which saw it acquire Novartis’ vaccine business in return for GSK’s marketed oncology products portfolio, with the two companies also setting up a joint venture in consumer health. “One of the most complex deals that’s ever been done in the pharma industry,” she told the FT audience, with understatement. 

One can imagine that whiteboards in meeting rooms at both companies must have been positively black with squiggles trying to work out the ramifications of how it was all going to look: 12,000 people came into GSK and 2,000 went to Novartis as the various elements were pulled together.

Business units in this sort of scenario have to be empowered to integrate themselves rather than trying to handle everything from the center, she believes. However, it is important that the deal is not treated purely as a transaction - as a series of products and synergies that can be derived from them – because the people side of it is vital too. Above all, in the chaos of change, it is important to stop and think. “What do we want to build as a result of this?” she asks rhetorically. “I am a great advocate of coaching: we try to do more of it here, giving people a chance to pause and reflect.”

Emerging talent

GSK used experienced Search partners – on the basis that they would be more objective voices – to assess the talent in GSK and Novartis for the new joint venture. “We wanted to make sure we had the best of both companies,” she says. Among the skills Woodford looks for in emerging talent is the ability to collaborate – something that also applies to companies themselves as pharma’s needs become more diverse and required skillsets expand beyond what could practically be contained within one company. 

If you believe in our mission, you put patients first.”

GSK has been regarded as an early adopter of patient centricity, and embedding that culture into the organization – an organization that is undergoing tremendous change - has been among Woodford’s key tasks. “The CEO has been committed to putting patients first,” she begins. “Innovation is important but so is access. We can’t just be selling white pills in developed countries, we must be getting them to those people who can’t afford them. Patient focus is one of what we call our core expectations – and employee performance is based not just on objectives but on how you perform to those expectations.” To reinforce this vision with its staff, GSK uses videos of patients talking about the effect the company’s drugs have on their lives. “It’s very moving,” she says. “If you believe in our mission, you put patients first.”

The whole ethics space is front and center now. Society’s expectations are changing and we need to think differently.”

‘Outside in’

GSK takes a cue from external trends as it gets to grips with its role in society, something referred to within the company as ‘outside in’. “The whole ethics space is front and center now,” she continues. “Society’s expectations are changing and we need to think differently.”

Even the most one-eyed pharma apologist might admit that the industry does have a reputation problem. GSK has had its own well-publicized difficulties in China. At the FT conference, Woodford admitted: “We’ve had issues – China has been all over the press and we were incredibly disappointed by what happened.”

But she insists: “Ethics and values are at the core of everything we do.” GSK has certainly been vocal about attempting to lead the way to a more transparent future – so how does Woodford think the company is now perceived? “It depends on who you talk to,” she acknowledges. “It has been recognized by a lot of NGOs and doctors that we are doing good things.”

Ways of working

It remains a long, difficult road, however. “It’s quite hard to change people’s ways of working,” Woodford goes on. “We’re trying to do things now in a very different way. You need to be very, very clear with people and it is important to work with the organization to explain what this will mean in practice in Asia, Africa or Europe – it has to be made tangible.”

The real difficulty in all this is in making the case for change and bringing people along with you. How much resistance has there been? “There have been the normal reactions you find in any change process,” she laughs. “People don’t tend to go ‘yippee!’ Instead, it’s more about making people understand why and how you are doing something. Once you start explaining, they get it – but you don’t do that by telling them. These things take time.”

Careful planning

Woodford has seen many changes in her time at GSK: she has been there for 20 years and knows first-hand what it takes to make significant change to an organization while continuing to push forward. Perhaps this is why she is a careful planner. “When you are leading big teams which have an organizational impact, your strategy needs to be thought out: it’s best not to wing it!” she laughs. 

The things that have influenced her are revealing. After grammar school in Chatham, Woodford became an undergraduate in the law faculty at the University of Oxford – yet despite her degree, a career as a solicitor or barrister simply did not appeal. “I was always quite interested in business,” she explains. However, moving from the dreaming spires of Brasenose College to the Dagenham car factory of the Ford Motor Company as a graduate trainee was something of a culture shock. “It was a heavy industrial relations role,” she recalls. “It was very forming for me: Dagenham was quite an edgy, conflict-filled environment.” After that, she was a recruitment consultant before joining what was then SmithKline Beecham in 1992.

Formulating arguments

“The common thread is that they are all great opportunities to see and experience new things,” she says. “Oxford was a great time to experiment.” It was also a challenging time, she recalls: “The tutorial system sees two of you trying to grasp very complex ideas with a tutor - that intellectual rigor helps you with synthesizing information and formulating an argument.”

Connecting to the mission

That training certainly helps her now, but there are other influences too: everyone in corporate life needs mentors and champions and Woodford is no exception. “I’ve had some great bosses who have guided and encouraged me,” she says. “You know the sort of thing, advising you to ‘do this rather than that’.” In turn being able to advise and help people is, she thinks, one of the most rewarding parts of her own job: “The great thing about being in a company for a while is that you see people you thought had potential coming to fruition – for example, a graduate trainee who has moved into a leadership role.”

She is also proud of GSK’s PULSE program, a skills-led volunteering initiative, which sends 100 employees each year to work for six months with NGOs around the world. “People bring those experiences back to GSK by sharing their stories of what’s happening at the sharp end,” she concludes. “This means we’re connecting our mission to the development of those individuals – and that gets me excited about my job.”

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