ITV’s Dame Carolyn McCall and Emma Walmsley, of GSK, top Management Today’s executive poll and talk to Andrew Saunders
Emma Walmsley (left), the boss of pharmaceutical giant GSK, and ITV chief executive Dame Carolyn McCall have been named Britain’s most admired leaders in a poll of top business executives by Management Today.
Dame Carolyn McCall, the ITV boss, and GSK chief executive Emma Walmsley have been named Britain’s most admired leaders in a poll of top business executives. The duo, two of the just six women who lead FTSE 100 companies, came out on top in a survey of 234 board directors, analysts and City commentators as part of Management Today’s Britain’s Most Admired Companies survey.
This is the first time two women leaders have been named joint-top in the annual survey, which is conducted by Echo Research. Management Today sat down with each of them to get a sense of what life is like at the helm of two of the country’s most high-profile businesses.
Emma Walmsley, chief executive, GSK
When Emma Walmsley took over the top job at Britain’s largest drug maker, GSK, in April 2017, she was not only the first woman to run the company but the first woman to take charge of any major pharmaceuticals firm.
After 17 years at L’Oréal and several more running GSK’s consumer healthcare business, Walmsley wasn’t a traditional pharma specialist but a consumer marketer more used to selling Horlicks and toothpaste than life-saving medicines.
GSK’s shares dipped on the news, perhaps reflecting surprise and uncertainty in the markets. Would she have what it takes to perform one of the most complex and high-stakes – not to mention socially vital – roles that UK plc has to offer?
Eighteen months on and she has proved her critics wrong, having set about the task of streamlining GSK’s £80bn business with the levels of energy and laser-beam focus you’d expect from a noted yoga aficionado.
“GSK has a long track record of making a great difference to patients with our respiratory and HIV medicines. We are world leaders in vaccines and consumer healthcare, but I’ve made it our number one priority to strengthen our pipeline of new medicines further,” she says.
Alongside the company’s HIV medicines, new shingles vaccine Shingrix and established asthma treatment Advair, Walmsley wants to speed up commercialisation of the latest immunological research, which harnesses the body’s own defences to treat diseases.
Walmsley has a reputation as a no-nonsense leader who deals promptly with any failure to live up to expectations. One former colleague has described her as “nice, but utterly ruthless”. She summarises her own style slightly differently: “I’m very driven. I’m curious, I get lots of energy from expanding my knowledge and I’m results and people-oriented.”
She is committed to making GSK’s R&D even more productive – a drive that will call for some “tough portfolio decisions”, she says. In October she announced the termination of five underperforming early research projects to focus on more promising endeavours.
But Walmsley is under no illusions of a quick fix. The pharma industry operates on extended capital cycles, with novel treatments taking years and costing hundreds of millions to get to market. “This will not just be for 2019. We are a long-term industry and this will be a multiyear task.” On her desk, Walmsley has quotes from both Steve Jobs and Winston Churchill, because they both showed courage and commitment to their principles. But her biggest influence has been closer to home.
“Most of all I’ve been influenced by my dad. His career was largely spent in the military, and although business is different I still believe simply in hard work and disciplined execution, and that principles and a sense of duty are important.”
Dame Carolyn McCall, chief executive, ITV
Having vacated the pilot’s seat at low-cost airline easyJet at the end of 2017, Dame Carolyn McCall is now chief executive of ITV, the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster, and firmly established as one of the country’s most sought-after bosses.
It’s been quite a change – for one thing she has swapped the airline’s famously no frills runway-side HQ at Luton Airport for the terracotta splendour of the old Prudential Assurance building in Holborn, central London.
Despite the obvious differences between the two organisations, from a leadership point of view the role of chief executive is very much the same, she says.
“The people side, the board, shareholders, strategy – it’s all the same. As chief executive, you’re still responsible for all the risk; it’s just a different kind of risk.”
It helps that she cut her teeth in media, rising from ad sales to chief executive at the Guardian Media Group – so she knows the business and many of the people in it.
ITV – like easyJet – is a business facing more than its fair share of big challenges, from pressure on the traditional advertising revenue model and changing consumer behaviour, to the rise of deep-pocketed and fast-growing streaming media rivals Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube.
It’s important to keep an eye on the competition, but not to be distracted or intimidated in the process, she says. “Don’t try to be like them, just do what you do really well. YouTube or Netflix can’t be us and we can’t be YouTube or Netflix.
“As a leader you have to give clarity where you can, but you also have to absorb uncertainty for your people. You don’t want them distracted, you want them to be doing their best work.” McCall has been instrumental in leading negotiations with the BBC and Channel Four, among others, to establish a joint streaming platform to showcase the best of British TV – from dramas like A Very English Scandal to ITV’s summer smash hit Love Island.
For all their similarities, one difference between ITV and easyJet – at least when she joined the airline – is the number and strength of senior women. “Look at Siobhan Greene, the head of entertainment commissioning, Polly Hill, head of drama, Emma Gormley, head of daytime – we’ve got some amazingly powerful senior women here.”
But McCall – who has won the title of Most Admired Leader three times – won’t be resting on her laurels. “One thing we do still need to focus on is the pipeline of senior leaders to the management board, which isn’t quite so clear. That’s a long-term process.”
‘As a leader you have to give clarity where you can, but you also have to absorb uncertainty for your people’
Emma Walmsley, chief executive at drug maker GSK, and ITV’s Dame Carolyn McCall have been named Britain’s most admired leaders in a poll by Management Today