GlobeScan Dialogue: Recognizing Leaders | Kerry O’Callaghan, GSK

Kerry O’Callaghan, Vice President Global Brand Communications, GSK, is responsible for leading her team to define, develop and communicate the GSK brand.
GlobeScan co-CEO Chris Coulter recently interviewed Kerry to gain insight on the value GSK puts on stakeholder intelligence to help build recognized leadership in an uncertain world.

Some people think that the world in which business operates is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. What are the driving forces behind this shift?

Yes, we are clearly living in a world VUCA world!
The new digital landscape that is driving massive increases in information and knowledge, combined with human desire for the new and different is having a profound effect on the pace of change. Access to information is much more pervasive and things are moving at increasing speed, partially fueled by social media.
Further, there are swings in global economics that add to this sense of volatility and uncertainty. From the financial crisis, to the growing then declining strength of emerging markets, we are living through a time of great instability.
In addition, there are shifts in consciousness underway that are important to consider. Things like sustainability and expectations for corporate citizenship. Public attitudes are changing and expectations are increasing for more responsible business.
In order to be an effective global organization, we obviously need to understand the world deeply and this is becoming more challenging given the level of change we are all experiencing.

What role can leadership play in this context?

A strong leader in any organization is really important especially when things are volatile and uncertain. Good leadership sets the direction and inspires employees and stakeholders and gives a sense of confidence internally and externally.
At GSK, we are very fortunate to have an inspired leader in Andrew Witty. He continues to challenge us to be true leaders in areas of importance to our stakeholders and society. We are working hard not to settle for ‘good enough’ and trying to push our comfort levels. Being a leader this way is obviously the right thing to do. But more than that, there is an expectation and responsibility internally to be setting new standards and demonstrate what is possible in this new world. I think that is an exciting new form of leadership.
An example of this new leadership I am talking about can be seen in our partnership with Save the Children. In 2013 GSK and Save the Children joined together to form an ambitious, strategic global partnership combining our expertise, resources and influence to help save the lives of one million children. Our employee engagement campaign, Orange United, has been designed to inspire and engage our global workforce of 100,000 employees to raise £1 million every year and to volunteer for Save the Children.

To what extent does having a strong corporate purpose contribute to leadership?

Having a corporate purpose is critically important, especially for employees but also for external stakeholders. It is, however, quite difficult to articulate a clear corporate purpose in all places to all people all the time.
When you are building a company from scratch, you have the luxury to define what you stand for from the very beginning and in ways that are relevant for the world we are living in today. The challenge is quite different when you are already a massive organization with a long history. It can be daunting to reconcile who you were yesterday, with who you are today and with what you aspire to be tomorrow.
This is doable, but it is quite difficult and something that takes time to get right. We have always have had our mission at GSK, but how that has been understood and brought to life needs ongoing support and focus. We have started an important journey in the area of corporate purpose, but we have a long way to go to bring this into a meaningful narrative for our company.

Looking toward the next 5 to 10 years, what would be the top challenges that business in general will face to build leadership that is recognized by their stakeholders?

Looking into the future, I think managing and responding to growing stakeholder expectations is a key challenge. Greater visibility of corporate behavior via social media and increasing access to information places a new level of transparency and scrutiny on leaders. It is not a bad thing at all, but it does represent a new kind of pressure that companies must respond to.
Understanding these expectations, monitoring performance and setting targets helps to continually understand the shifting norms. This is why having strong leadership and a clear corporate purpose is so important.
Furthermore, listening is really critical. This is easy to say but very difficult to do well. Being receptive to what you hear and working closely with key stakeholders and using their knowledge to help inform the business should be a priority for business going forward.

Thinking now about reputation, is corporate reputation a useful construct in today’s world? Are there limitations to this framework?

I think corporations do indeed have reputations. Whether they have deliberately built them or not is a matter of debate, but we all have a reputation. I think the choice we are faced with is how to mold and craft our reputation. Understanding the gap in perception between how we are understood and what we want to be known for is a highly strategic thing.
And I think reputation is going to be even more important in the future. With this more transparent world, actions and performance will be even clearer to people. Actively managing reputation is critical because the alternative is that it will be managed for you. I believe that getting out on the front foot and being proactive is the best approach especially when combined with active stakeholder engagement that showcases elements that are most core to your purpose.