GSK: Aiming to cure illnesses that were once considered a death sentence

5 Jul 2018

Eimear Caslin. Image: GSK

This week on Leaders’ Insights, GSK’s Eimear Caslin outlines her views on diversity in STEM and the challenges facing the healthcare industry today.

Eimear Caslin is the general manager of GSK’s pharmaceuticals business in Ireland.

Caslin has been working with GSK for 23 years, previously as commercial director as well as other roles in product management and marketing.

She has steered the business through a number of organisational and commercial changes, including the company’s migration to a more digitised way of working via the development of services and portals for healthcare professionals.

Caslin holds a bachelor of commerce in marketing from NUI Galway, a higher diploma in marketing practice at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School and a master’s in strategic management from Dublin Institute of Technology.

She is currently undertaking the Chartered Director Programme with the Institute of Directors in Ireland.

Describe your role and what you do.

As general manager, I’m responsible for shaping ongoing strategy for the business; as a member of the senior management team, I am accountable for achieving industry-leading growth by investing effectively in our business, developing our people and delivering flawlessly.

GSK is always challenging the status quo of how a healthcare company can contribute to global health through improving access and innovation, and it is my job to bring that to life, through both what and how we operate in Ireland.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Everyone at GSK focuses on three priorities: innovation, performance and trust. My first priority is business performance. We have a number of data sources we use to determine if our business is on track, versus our financial targets and customer perceptions, and those drive our weekly and monthly performance meetings. Those performance meetings are the backbone of my working life, and around those there are a series of operational and strategic check-ins with the leadership and extended leadership team to make sure we are investing our energy where it matters and our people are developing to drive performance.

Increasingly, I am also prioritising getting out and about, meeting customers face to face, and networking within the healthcare industry and beyond. I see bringing this external insight into our business as a key part of my role, but it also keeps me fresh and is vital to building relationships and trust.    

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

There is a phenomenal amount of innovation happening across the healthcare sector, and the pace of science is staggering. My colleagues in R&D are now talking about potentially curing illnesses that were previously considered a death sentence (eg HIV, AIDS) and, thanks to vaccinations, we have almost eliminated diseases such as measles.

The challenge we face is getting innovative medicines and vaccines to as many people who need them as possible, worldwide, at an affordable price. That is why we invest in scientific and technical excellence (to the tune of £3.6bn per annum) to develop and launch a pipeline of new products that meet the needs of players such as the HSE, as well as patients. We have a very high bar for the medicines and vaccines we progress through R&D, and only take products forward if they offer a meaningful benefit over what we call current ‘standard of care’.

‘No one else knows what’s going on in your head. If you can’t articulate it, no one can help you achieve it’

Another challenge we face is around the reputation of the industry. Ensuring the quality, safety and reliable supply of our products is the basic requirement, but we are also working hard to build trust through our approach to engagement, pricing, global health and being a modern employer.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on? 

Our biggest opportunity has to be ‘digital’. For lots of good reasons, we are restricted in the way we can share information with healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients, which means as an industry we have been very cautious of moving to digital platforms. HCPs have the same needs that we all do and when they’re seeking accurate, up-to-date information on prescription medicines, they need to be able to access it easily at a time that suits them.

That is why, last year, we launched a digital offering for Irish HCPs. By combining the benefits of our digital channels – including websites, webinars, emails, click-to-chat and analytics – with our face-to-face channels, we can greatly increase the numbers of HCPs we can speak with, engage and educate with real-time information about our medicines and vaccines. We hope this step change will differentiate us digitally as a reputable and trusted source of product information for healthcare providers. Early indications are encouraging.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I’m the third-youngest in a family of eight children and we were very lucky insofar as our parents were both very strong role models. Both my mum and dad, even though they had very different personalities, were very much in agreement that we should set goals and ambitions for ourselves, and that you have to go for what you want. This was for the girls as much as the boys in the family.

My mum influenced me a lot. She was a very strong individual who just got on with things. She passed on very strong family values and a rock-solid work ethic. She was working alongside my father in their restaurant business, at a time when it was quite unusual for mothers to have full-time jobs outside the home.

My father was a very vicarious character. He was passionate about his business, his family and GAA. His commitment to the community and sport is something that has influenced me greatly.

In 2004, myself and my husband moved to France for 18 months so I could take up a role there for GSK. I was creating European campaigns for our leading brand and it was a real boost for my career. My husband took leave from his job to accommodate the move and it’s something I’ve always appreciated. The time we spent in France taught me a lot about diversity, and how it’s key in terms of creativity and moving forward.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

One thing I have learned over the years is that no one is a mind-reader. No one else knows what’s going on in your head in terms of what you want, so if you can’t articulate it, no one can help you achieve it. During my career, when I became brave enough to put my hand up to say ‘I want to do that’, I found there were people who were very supportive of me within the business and they helped me along that path. Sometimes, you get knocked back – that’s part of life – and you have to learn from rejection and failure, but it makes you stronger. That’s how real life works. You are never going to get everything handed to you on a plate.

‘We are still correcting the legacy view that STEM careers were best suited to males’

How do you get the best out of your team?

Growing up in such a large family, teamwork is something I’m well used to. Whether it’s at home or in school, I’ve always been involved in groups and I’m often astonished at the power of the group and how effective teams can be when they work together.

From a work perspective, it’s when everyone comes together and aligns towards one common goal that you see positive results. I think it’s crucial to listen to everyone’s opinion – people with experience of diverging sectors often approach challenges from unusual angles, and it’s essential to make sure all voices are heard and opinion is taken on board. In some companies, the loudest voice is often regarded as the most important, but that’s not how we in GSK do business. We understand there’s a place for the thinker, the doer, the processor and, to achieve great results, you need all these people working together.

Don’t get me wrong – there will be times when you have to step up and lead from the front, but I believe moving together as a group is crucial. With consistent communication, troubleshooting and fostering a positive team culture, nothing is impossible!

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

Diversity is really important to me. It’s crucial to thinking creatively.

We are still correcting the legacy view that STEM careers were best suited to males, but I’m pleased to say at GSK we have made a concerted effort to redress the gender balance. Across our four sites in Ireland, GSK employs approximately 400 engineers and scientists, and some of our most senior positions in R&D and technical engineering are held by women. We encourage female employees to be ambassadors advocating STEM as a career path for school-age girls, and through our recruitment processes we actively seek both male and female applicants.

There is still work to be done regarding attracting ethnic and other demographics into STEM careers. However, attracting a diverse population into STEM is only the start. Although GSK is an environment where women are supported, I do feel that women have to be bolder and speak up. I hear women say they feel that it can be hard to get their voices heard in meetings. What can happen is women ‘overthink’ their contribution and they think to themselves, ‘I have to think of something more important to say.’ Women need to be given the confidence not to overanalyse, to make our point and move on. As women contribute more to meetings, the easier it becomes.

Women often feel that maternity leave can do detrimental damage to their careers, too, but in the long term, I don’t feel it does. I’ve had three maternity leaves over the space of 23 years in my GSK career – just two years in total and when you look back, it is a blip in time. I was promoted to our leadership team when I was five months pregnant and we had a very proactive GM who had come from the UK, where they are much more used to seeing women promoted while on maternity leave. Women need to start looking at their maternity leave as part of their career journey rather than a ‘step off’ the career ladder.

Who is your role model and why?

I’ve already mentioned my father and he has been one of the strongest role models in my life so far. He left school at the age of 12 but to look at him reviewing and tracking stock prices in his later years, you would never have guessed! He valued the importance of education and it was a priority for myself and my seven siblings growing up. He had a tremendous work ethic and strong sense of values, which underpinned everything he did. He built a successful business over the years, identifying opportunities and taking calculated risks along the way. Two sayings reflected his key philosophies in life:

“Those who can, may, but those who plan, do.”

“Always pay as you go and if you can’t pay, don’t go.”

(I could be better at practising the latter one!)

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I struggle to find time to read extensively but I love to lose myself in a good book. I’m part of a book club with a fantastic group of friends where I’m exposed to a really diverse range of genres. One book that struck a chord with me was the fiction novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It tells the story of individuals living in France and Germany during the World War II and how their lives were impacted – the lesson being that in war, there are seldom any winners, even with those on the victorious side.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week? 

The working week is usually packed both at work and home, so one of the essential tools I can’t live without is my electronic diary – it tells me where I need to be and the prep I need to complete to be at my most effective.

OneNote is a fantastic application and I’ve really embraced it over the last six months. Every morning, I will check emails on my phone to see what the hot topics for the day are likely to be and then I always check the RTÉ news app to see what’s happening in the external world.

I use a lot of apps to help organise family life, such as Teamer, which is critical when you have three boys at home who play multiple team sports. WhatsApp is great for connecting with school groups and family.

Fortunately, I have great support from my husband. We work as a team to ensure that both of us can balance the demands of our jobs while making time for family and friends. I’m also lucky to have a great network of friends and close family living nearby.

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