Earlier this year Larry Fink, of Blackrock investors wrote to CEOs of companies, including GSK, in a letter entitled “purpose and profit”. He said, “purpose is not a mere tagline or marketing campaign; it is a company’s fundamental reason for being – what it does every day to create value for its stakeholders.”
In my role as Chief of Staff to GSK’s CEO, Emma Walmsley, I have been part of a transformation process that has made our company purpose – to help people around the world do more, feel better, live longer – more embedded in our strategy and operations.
GSK is a business that has an inherent social impact – we make products that help improve health at a global scale. But it is still important that we have a clearly articulated and embedded purpose that guides our work. Even when the core of what you are doing is good there are always good and bad ways to do it, and it isn’t a given people will understand or trust your business.
I recently spoke at the Business Fights Poverty conference about how we are embedding purpose and building trust at GSK and here are some of the insights I shared:
1. Define purpose in terms of the business’ unique contribution
GSK’s purpose to help people around the world do more, feel better, live longer has remained consistent since the company was founded but we have now taken steps to connect that purpose more directly to our science. In a world with huge unmet need in healthcare and enormous financial and technical challenges to address this need, we must anchor with absolute focus around our unique capability as a business – which is to discover and develop new medicines and vaccines.
That is why we have fundamentally reshaped our pipeline to focus on medicines we believe have the greatest impact and highest chance of success. This has meant doubling down on our work in R&D whilst also streamlining it to bring greater focus on developing treatments we believe can bring the most differentiated and needed healthcare products to as many people as possible.
Our increased focus in oncology in the past year was one such decision and the benefits are starting to show, as the number of clinical oncology assets in our pipeline has more than doubled from 8 to 17. Just this month, we saw new clinical data on our ovarian cancer drug paving the way for more women to receive life-enhancing treatment.
We are also prioritising discovering medicines that help the millions of people with unmet health needs in developing countries. That means we are one of the few companies researching treatments and vaccines for all three diseases – TB, malaria and HIV – that are called out as priorities in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It has been inspiring to see our RTS,S malaria vaccine, the result of nearly four decades of research, now being implemented in a pilot programme in Kenya, Malawi and Ghana, with at least 360,000 children set to receive the vaccine each year over the next five years.
2. Set a purposeful framework for action and decision-making
Having a clearly defined purpose statement is not enough, for it to be authentic, it must be backed by a coherent action plan that everyone can work towards.
That is why every team and individual at GSK is working in alignment to three long-term priorities which underpin our delivery against our purpose: Innovation, Performance and Trust.
As mentioned, Innovation is at the heart of our strategy and is about bringing meaningful new medicines and vaccines to patients across the world. When we talk about Performance we mean how we are disciplined with our resources so we can invest behind growth, how we build the capability of our people and deliver effectively. And Trust is all about our actions as a responsible company, particularly how we commit to use our science and technology to address health needs, make our products affordable and available and to be a modern employer.
If Innovation is the driving force for delivering our purpose, focusing on Performance and Trust makes our impact sustainable for the long term. Questions can arise over whether Performance and Trust balance or compete with one another, but as time passes it’s clear that these priorities are mutually reinforcing, and that Innovation gives fuel to both. Taking this balanced approach has clear business benefits, whether in terms of helping us to be preferred by our customers, attracting and retaining the best talent, or being considered a partner of choice.
In the long-term unexpected business benefits can also arise. For instance, we invested in developing a malaria vaccine for societal impact, but it has gone on to have positive consequences for our commercial vaccines business, as we were able to transfer its design technology into our novel shingles vaccine, which has become a major contributor to business growth.
3. Support personal connection to purpose
Whilst a lot of people choose to work for a company because of its purpose, they also choose to work for people. Beyond a company’s strategy and priorities, purpose is truly made real when people feel it is embodied in their leaders and themselves, and when there are strong connections between the company’s goals and those of its employees.
This heavily depends on having great line managers that build trusted relationships with their teams, get to know people as individuals, and help them to connect their goals to those of the company.
That is why we are investing heavily in our leaders’ capabilities and focusing on building up those quality interactions between line managers and their teams. We also ask every employee to set their annual work objectives against our three company priorities, helping to clearly link their day-to-day work to the company’s delivery of its purpose.
When people both know and feel how they and the company are making a real and meaningful contribution to a purpose, that’s when you can create a special energy and achieve great things.