Talking Head with Sarah Clements, SVP Legal Corporate Affairs and Pharma Supply Chain at GSK

23 Nov 08:00 by Angela Floydd


The Laurence Simons Search Talking Head series continues with an interview with Sarah Clements, SVP Legal Corporate Affairs and Pharma Supply Chain at GSK and winner of the 2020 WeQual Award for the Legal, Governance and Risk Category.

Angela Floydd, Managing Director, Europe, at Laurence Simons Search, catches up with Sarah to discuss all things career, leadership and diversity related. 

Angela Floydd (AF): Congratulations on your award Sarah, very well deserved! How did you first hear about WeQual?

Sarah Clements (SC): I was approached by the WeQual CEO, Katie Litchfield, to apply for an award in the legal category. WeQual has been set up to increase the diversity of the executive committees in the UK’s largest companies. The awards identify successful women one level below C-suite as part of a mission to tackle the slow progress in appointing diverse women to executive roles. Katie told me that someone had recommended me although I still don’t know who that was!

AF: What did the process involve?

SC: Quite searching questions!  I had to submit a written application and complete an online questionnaire. There were 10 questions with a limit on the number of words per response.  My application was analysed by the WeQual judges. I was notified I had made it to the final round which involved an interview with the CEO of Coca Cola Hellenic Bottling Company, Zoran Bogdanovic. It was a 45-minute probing interview! There was a deep dive into parts of my career, testing my leadership qualities and investigating my involvement in coaching and mentoring of others. I was asked how I tackle roadblocks and deal with constructive criticism. I had to outline specific initiatives I’ve taken and my general approach to problem solving. I also had to give an elevator pitch.

The results were intended to be at a ceremony at The Savoy Hotel in London but due to the Covid-19 crisis, it ended up being an online event by zoom. I genuinely wasn’t expecting to win! It was a lovely surprise.

AF: How did the process impact you?

SC: It has helped to boost my confidence. When I went through the application, it made me realise I have achieved a lot during my career. I have taken on stretch assignments in new areas which were not purely legal, moved to a new country, worked in large and smaller organisations, developed new skills, overcame challenges, and delivered on business-critical assignments.

Women tend not to self-promote and talk about their achievements. From that point of view, it’s been a great experience to reflect on my career and an opportunity to develop a fantastic network of successful women.

AF: There’s no disputing the importance of promoting diversity and equality in the leadership of the world’s biggest businesses. In your experience, what practical steps have companies been taking to tackle the current imbalance and is it enough?

SC: It takes time and I think companies and law firms have been too slow. If I look at the statistics for the last 10 years, more than 50% of law graduates are women but that’s still not reflected at either partnership law firm level or at senior in-house level. Companies and firms are taking steps in the right direction.  I can see it’s happening as there was a time when it wasn’t happening at all. But it’s still slow progress.

AF: What kind of steps have you seen taken?

SC: There’s more emphasis on aspirations and targets for female representation in companies. For example, requirements to have a diverse slate of candidates in our processes. There’s been increased mentoring of women.  Companies are also moving more towards flexible working which benefits men and women. This is not something that should just be aimed at women, it is important that people can combine family and work life.  Traditionally, women have had to take a step back in their careers as it has been a stretch to juggle family and work, now, employers are generally more accommodating. I’ve seen the positive impact of these changes.

AF: From your experience of leading and developing a legal function, what’s been your approach to ensuring diversity within your team?

SC: It’s important for me to get the best candidates in my team. I do try and have a fair balance within my leadership team. For me diversity is about background and also diverse perspectives, it is good to have a healthy challenge that comes from having people with different outlooks. As I’ve held international roles, my teams have also been international.  I was based in Switzerland for nearly 11 years and was at Novartis for 6 years in different roles. One of my roles was Head of Legal for Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa, we had a huge team across a wide geography and I really appreciated the different cultural backgrounds and perspectives.  It was a very creative team. Some of the team were establishing legal functions in their countries from scratch, they had to be agile and use their initiative under pressure. There were some great ideas being exchanged across different markets and we were able to develop best practice from diverse experience, it was impressive how much could be achieved with limited resources, we had some very tech savvy individuals!  As a leader, I organised regular catch up calls, at least one face to face meeting a year as an opportunity to network and share best practices, and I encouraged lawyers in my team to take assignments in different countries and coach each other.

The team was very collaborative and loved talking! There can be a perception of some cultures less forthcoming, but I did not see that at all. When I was at US biotechnology company, Alexion, I had to build a team from scratch, and we had different nationalities in the team. We were able to leverage the range of experience within the team and we also encouraged rotations there.

At GSK, my team is primarily based in the UK, US and I have one team member in Colombia, the team is diverse in terms of gender and ethnic backgrounds. Part of my team is the global employment law team which is at the forefront of the company’s diversity aspirations and associated programmes.

AF: Inclusion is key for ensuring the benefits of diversity. In what ways have companies practised inclusion from your experience?

SC: Inclusion and Diversity training is very important, in fact, GSK has recently rolled out mandatory training for all employees on this important topic. I have also found unconscious bias training to be helpful. There is a free on-line test on unconscious bias through Harvard University and it is quite an eye opener about areas where you might have some blind spots, it gives you pause for thought and self-correction. It wasn’t mandatory but was recommended by one of my previous companies. The inclusion piece is so important, it is one thing to set diversity aspirations but if people do not feel comfortable and like they belong, there will never be a happy outcome for them or the company. This is often overlooked. There’s also diversity in terms of approach and different working preferences and styles, if someone has a more reflective style, you cannot put them under the spotlight unexpectedly, you have to adjust your style to the person. With my team, I encourage diverse perspectives and prefer to be in listening mode, so we are capturing the benefit of everyone’s contribution. The virtual world is a great leveller, everyone is on screen and can be seen and you can make sure that everyone takes a turn to contribute, and I can invite someone to comment or reflect on specific points. I have found I am getting more out of people this way; the online world has been helpful in making sure everyone is ok but also in getting more feedback from people.

AF: We’ve had a similar experience, with regular “all hands” virtual meetings during the Covid-19 crisis. Initially our CEO was chairing the meetings but decided to rotate the Chair for each meeting. It’s worked really well. Some of our colleagues who aren’t usually keen to take the spotlight make excellent Chairs!

SC: I’ve seen something similar. Some of my quieter team members have been able to participate more equally than might happen in face to face team meetings.

AF: Simon Zinger, the Group General Counsel of Dentsu Aegis Network has created a General Counsel Oath. The oath is to encourage GCs to be alert to acts of prejudice, discrimination, exclusion or micro aggression in the legal team or wider organisation. Also to take a zero tolerance approach to bullying and encourage the in-house team to do pro bono work and be a role model.

SC:  I had not heard of it until now, but I think these are principles we can all stand behind.

AF: You’ve worked in Switzerland and had very international roles in your career. Can you tell us more about your current role?

SC: I’m currently GSK’s SVP for Legal Corporate Affairs and Pharma Supply Chain. I manage a group of lawyers for supporting a range of corporate legal matters. This includes Group M&A and Business Development, digital technology, global privacy, global employment law, manufacturing, supply chain, procurement, trade sanctions and export control. There are approximately 60 people in the team, not just lawyers.

I am also transitioning into a new role as SVP and Legal Head, Group Transformation and Separation where I will be leading the separation and transformation of GSK from a legal perspective. Our consumer business is being demerged to create two separate listed companies. I have a varied role which means overseeing a diverse group of people with a broad range of skills, experience, and personalities.

AF: What has kept you in the life sciences industry?

SC: The mission, life-saving medicines and vaccines. I also get to work with brilliant people from different disciplines whether scientists, medical doctors, supply chain professionals, commercial, tech or legal experts, people who are top of their game. The industry attracts brilliant people, across all functions, I love the diversity of thought and capabilities and backgrounds. I also enjoy working in a commercial environment building a business.

AF: In-house counsel strive to be business partners. What is your advice for being a true business partner?

SC: Really learn about the business and be very practical, you have to see things effectively as a businessperson who happens to have a law degree. If you do not understand the business, you cannot give practical advice, or you might find yourself being too conservative or lead in a direction that might be too risky. I’ve had different roles that have given me exposure to different parts of the business, you have to go to the meetings, talk to finance to understand more about numbers, work with marketing teams to understand their objectives, and ask a lot of questions! I’ve been on sales visits with sales reps to see how things are done.  Becoming an embedded team member is important, it sounds obvious, but most lawyers sit on leadership teams and need to be an active participant, internal networking and relationship building with colleagues across different functions is essential.

AF: If someone is struggling to make those connections, mentoring can be a practical way for some people to develop. Do you do any mentoring in your team?

SC:  Yes, I am currently mentoring 6 people and am also receiving reverse diverse mentoring. Mentoring is so valuable but it is undervalued.  In a big organisation, I encourage mentoring of younger colleagues on how to network and manage difficult situations and stakeholders. It is usually more about the “how” - how to make an impact and be successful, navigating a matrix in a large company can be tricky. Christina Ackermann, the General Counsel of Bausch Healthcare was my mentor when we were both at Novartis, she advocated learning a new skill every two years.  My role involves lots of new challenges, building on prior experience.  I am working on a significant corporate demerger; I have never done anything quite like this before and I am learning something new every day!

AF:  Learning a new skill every two years is good advice! In this era of digital transformation and the impact of Covid-19 on working practices, we all need to be agile learners to keep up! Thanks so much for your insights Sarah, it has been a pleasure speaking to you.