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News > Old Girls' Association > Spotlight on Dame Emma Walmsley (HH 1987)

Spotlight on Dame Emma Walmsley (HH 1987)

Interviewed for the OGA Chain 2022
Interviewed for the OGA Chain 2022

Dame Emma recently came to St Swithun’s to share insights into her life and career after leaving. It was inspiring to hear from an OG with such a distinguished CV - Emma holds an MA in classics and modern languages from Oxford University and worked with L’Oreal for 17 years in global marketing and general management roles in Paris, London, New York and Shanghai. She went on to be President and then CEO of GSK Consumer Healthcare and has been the CEO and board director of GlaxoSmithKline since 2017.

Here is our interview with her:

During your visit to the school you reassured our current leavers that you didn’t have a career path in mind when you left, and also that curiosity has played a guiding factor in your career path. Of all the roles you have held so far, which of them has piqued your curiosity the most and provided the most interesting challenges?

Both of those things are true - there was no master plan (you can only connect the dots backwards) but a hunger to discover, learn and stretch myself beyond what I thought I was capable of have all served me well. I would add that hard work, a great support system at home and a decent dose of good luck have also played their part. The older I get the more curious I get and every job has taught me something new: working in the headquarters of a multinational in Paris; moving to New York and being inspired by the diversity, creativity and ambition of such an extraordinary city; discovering what it felt like to truly live as a minority in Shanghai and lead a business for growth as China boomed; changing industry and company to come back home to the UK and build up GSK Consumer into what is now an independent FTSE 20 company and of course, most of all, the privilege and responsibility that comes with being CEO of a global biopharma company.

I also have roles as a Non-Executive Board Director and as an advisor, which I love and continuously learn from. So, I can’t choose one career moment above the others - they’ve all helped me grow and I’m just looking forward to seeing what the adventures ahead will bring - knowing, in the end, the role that matters most to me infact is still ‘mum’.

What advice or tips would you give to St Swithun’s alumnae who are striving to reach board level?

Mainly - don’t focus on getting to the board (I can honestly say it never crossed my mind as a personal goal). These opportunities arise because you have built a track record, expertise, and reputation in a certain field - for what you have achieved and how you’ve achieved it. So, focus on finding work that you can love and be motivated by, even on the difficult days, and be at stake for the enterprise’s success not just your own - this is more important than people realise. Take the opportunities you’re excited by but a bit afraid of. If you’re doing work you care about - not just what it is but why you do it - your success will follow naturally, including at board level if that’s what you want.

What is a typical day for you as the CEO of such an innovative company?

There is no such thing I’m afraid. The UK is around 3 percent of our business so I’m engaging globally all the time and travelling to the US in particular every few weeks. We’re over 75,000 people in 80 countries with most of our people in labs, factories, or frontline health system markets. I focus my energy on their output and our forward-looking growth plans as well as on core aspects of my role to set strategy, allocate capital, hire the right leaders and set and drive the culture. I probably spend 50% of my time internally, 30% externally and 20% on unplanned issues or opportunities to manage - which can turn up 24/7. It’s never boring and is a tremendous privilege.

How do you relax and stay clear headed when the pressures placed upon you are mounting?

Remind myself of what matters most - the purpose and values of the company. I seek to separate signal from noise and always make sure I’ve slept enough to make the big decisions. Physical and mental resilience are key life and CEO skills!

How challenging have you found it to juggle your career and family life?

It certainly isn’t easy and I haven’t always got it right. Everyone will have their own recipe for this depending on their personal circumstances. In my case I have been very lucky to be married to someone who is profoundly and practically supportive, and because we’re a big family (four children, two dogs) that’s lived all over the world, we accepted living in chaos and abandoning any kind of parenting perfection fantasy many years ago. A few top tips that have mattered for us are:

  • Communicate a lot with your children about what you’re doing and why especially if you can’t be somewhere that matters to them. They’re more interested and understanding than you think.
  • Have the shortest commute you can, even if it means compromises in other ways.
  • When you work hard, take your holidays properly with your family to recharge and reconnect (not loads of other people).
  • When things get hard try to be kind to others and yourself. Everyone’s trying their best.
  • Nobody does it all so get comfortable saying “no” to things so you can manage your own personal sustainability.
  • We all love our family, find work you love too. It makes it all a lot more manageable and the overwhelming sense among the chaos, is gratitude! 

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