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Inside Out: Managing Legal for GSK in Asia

GC speaks to the in-house counsel at GlaxoSmithKline’s Asia regional headquarters to discuss the challenges of heading up a multinational legal team, innovation, and acting as guardians for one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

Managing Global Teams
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Tugbay Ekinli, VP and associate general counsel, emerging markets

Nicola Fell, VP and associate general counsel, head of legal operations international

Peggy Lim, senior counsel, Asia Pacific consumer healthcare


GC: As the leaders of international legal teams, what are the main challenges of managing your team from afar?

Tugbay Ekinli (TE): For me, the time zone is the biggest challenge. Between me and some of my lawyers, there is a 15-hour time difference, which means we are almost never live at the same time during the business day. My typical day looks like this: I start with China and my Southeast Asian teams. In the afternoon, I work for the Middle East, North Africa and UK-based teams. At night, after 9 pm, it is my Latin America time. We don’t have much of a work-life balance because of that, but it’s the same for Nicky and for all of us.

We are using several different technological tools to have our team meetings every month. We use Skype, WebEx and VTCs to connect with our teams.

Peggy Lim (PL): I think we make it work. Although there is technology, we do try to have at least one formal face-to-face meeting a month, and then individually we have regular calls on a wider team basis. For example, I have a call with the Asian Pacific Consumer Healthcare lawyers on a bimonthly or quarterly basis, where we use the opportunity to share common issues, emerging trends, lessons learned, things like that, so that we do try to connect that way using technology. I think that has worked.

Nicola Fell (NF): I have found that this requires a different source of management and leadership. In the past, I think my teams have largely been co-located with me, bar one or two exceptions. Now, it is very different. I’m having to think much harder about timing, the logistics of communication, and how to help the lawyers feel connected when they are a lot further from the centre and from each other.

GC: Between you, you are responsible for many lawyers in many different cultures and jurisdictions. How do you account for that as leaders?

PL: I think firstly, the hiring process and talent development are critical, because ultimately we need to be able to rely on and trust the teams in the market. Working at a regional level, you can never be the expert on the local laws and regulations.

From a cultural perspective, Australians and New Zealanders are quite different from, for example, your Southeast Asia and China colleagues, so just being aware of the cultural difference is necessary. And not just in the human-to-human interaction, but also the environment: understanding the business environment that presents itself in different markets is important for us to be able to provide practical advice, as well as the right type of guidance that the team needs.

NF: I fully agree. I’ll add to what Peggy said, as much as we all travel to be with our teams individually, we can’t know everything that’s going on in an individual market. That’s actually not what the role is. I quite often see it as being more of the glue. You’re helping your team members to access information, resources, and be central bodies of subject matter knowledge.

The fact that we’re well connected across the organisation means that if a lawyer in Australia has got a problem, and we’ve seen the same issue come up elsewhere, we provide that connection and make sure the knowledge is being shared. Or, if they need access to a subject matter expert who’s sitting in London, we connect them. That’s a big part of the role. Obviously, we can provide coaching and guidance and be there as an escalation point, but we certainly can’t be taking every decision.

TE: Our roles are really leadership roles. Under the three of us, there are more than 160 lawyers, and this team is managing the legal teams in more than 125 countries.

Our role is essentially managing those who are leading the legal affairs in those countries. Sometimes we are supporting them on some country matters or policy matters, but generally, our roles are managerial rather than operational.

GC: With the pressure to do more with less always a concern for in-house counsel, how important is innovation to the legal team?

NF: I think it is becoming increasingly important. It’s actually quite difficult to measure what is the value of your legal function, when a lot of it is about risk avoidance.

We have a philosophy that we call ‘business partner guardian’. We partner very closely with the business, so that we understand what they’re trying to do, and we try to operate in solution mode wherever possible. But we also have what we call a guardian function, which is ultimately to help manage the risks and, frankly, corporate reputation.

Our client is GSK, as in the corporate. It’s not an individual business leader or an individual business team. We have to navigate that interface, but I think because we’re so closely plugged in with the business, we’re very conscious that we can’t just be a corporate overhead, and we need to really feel we are adding value. I think that horizon scanning and trend spotting is increasingly an important part of the role.

I think in terms of trends for us, we’re starting to look much more as a function on what we call the digital agenda, the use of technology, which isn’t just in terms of our business units, but it is also how we can operate more efficiently within Legal.

For example, in a few parts of the function, we’ve developed chat bots to deal with frequently asked questions, not necessarily just around legal advice, but things such as: ‘What’s our policy on this matter? Who needs to sign this contract? What level of authority is required?’ We’re always trying to think of ways to reduce the need for a lawyer to spend any time on that.

TE: Innovation is at the heart of GSK. It’s our job as a company and, therefore, the legal function is also trying to innovate.

Sometimes, the innovation comes from the bottom, which, from my point of view is the best kind of innovation. In our LOCs, or local operating countries, the legal team are the people who know the daily operations best. Therefore, their innovations are generally much more efficient in terms of managing their daily workload. As leaders, we are always listening to them, and we are always giving them a chance to present what they have found, what they have innovated, and then trying to make those tools available in other countries where appropriate.

As a real-life example, in Pakistan, which is one of my countries, a very junior lawyer, 24 years old, innovated a very simple contract management tool. We let her develop that tool and are now using it in 35 countries in emerging markets, which has given us a lot of savings, both in terms of working hours and, of course, financially.

GC: Looking at the wider industry in which GSK operates, what trends do you see currently taking place and on the horizon?

NF: I think the whole digital revolution is definitely changing. Pharmaceuticals is just as much impacted by that. New digital platforms, new ways of trading, e-commerce, digital innovation – obviously, all of that raises a host of legal issues.

Sometimes they’re the same issues that we’ve always had in old ways of working, but you need to understand the new world and new ways in order to identify them.

There are definitely trends around digital, data privacy, in the same way that all our business units are innovating, and finding new channels to reach patients and consumers. That’s one very general observation.

I think we are a highly regulated industry. We always have been. But the regulatory environment continues to get even tougher. I think compliance plays a huge part in what we do, and with that comes increasing regulatory scrutiny, inspections, and investigations. This type of lawyering is not just traditional contracting and counselling.

I think in our industry specifically, almost every market and every government is going to be preoccupied with the cost of healthcare and the increasing burden of ageing populations. A lot of regulation varies, with different mechanisms in different markets, but the pricing of pharmaceuticals, reimbursements to governments, public healthcare and access to medicine – issues like this are a hot topic.

GC: How would you characterise the mission of the legal team for the next five years?

NF: At GSK, we’ve gone through an evolution where we’re trying to be less and less a disparate bunch of functions with our own mission statement. We’re actually all trying to align much more around the corporate mission.

We want to help our business to be more competitive, so that’s definitely been a shift in our philosophy. But we want to be competitive in the right way, aligned to our values. We’re very focused on the GSK mission, which is around how we can best serve the needs of patients and consumers. We’re quite focused on our roles to support the business, but it’s really aligned to what GSK is trying to do, rather than having our own mission to be the best legal function in the industry, or whatever that might be.

TE: I agree. Another is the continuous development for our teams in the next five years. Most of the young lawyers working in the local operating countries today will be the leaders managing the legal function tomorrow. We’re focusing more on their development, focusing more on people and developing them better, so that we can usher in the future legal leaders of GSK.

PL: I would agree with all of that, and add that we want to be the best business partner guardian we can be. Then of course, you have to peel underneath that and say, ‘What does that mean?’ It’s understanding your business, being innovative, and supporting the business in terms of the agenda it has, both from a patient perspective, and from a business perspective.

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