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Emma Walmsley

President, GSK Consumer Healthcare

London, UK

People regret far more what they don’t do rather than what they do.

In 2010 I was living in Shanghai with David and our four children (all under ten) having a tremendous family adventure. I was head of the exciting Chinese consumer business for L'Oreal, a company I loved and had worked for all over the world for 17 years. Life was a constant juggling act, with never enough sleep but a huge sense of fulfilment. Our business was accelerating fast but there was so much more opportunity to grow. The family was settled and thriving after a challenging period of adjustment following our move from New York three years earlier. Being 40 felt good.

Then the opportunity of a lifetime landed.

I had been to a networking lunch with Andrew Witty the Chief Executive of GSK—someone I had long admired for his pioneering approach to the healthcare industry and reputation for values-based leadership. An inspiring conversation ended up spiralling into a job offer alarmingly fast. To be the President of GSK’s global consumer healthcare business, which operates in over 100 countries with £5 billion in sales and has thousands of employees.

I spent a week persuading myself I would be insane to do it.

  1. It was too risky. New industry, new company, new culture and a major career acceleration. Am I really qualified? 

  2. It was unfair on the family. We were settled in China and David's new business was going well. Why should my career take precedence again? How could a mum and wife take on something so big?

3.It was disloyal. I loved my company and had been given consistent career sponsorship for years.

  1. It would be really hard. The brief was a big change agenda: people, portfolio, results and culture. Change is good but the outsiders leading it aren’t usually the most popular.

But as my brilliant husband pointed out quickly: the huge opportunity was in the challenge. That was exactly why I should lean in. Everything was manageable between us. He also gently reminded me that in our 17 years together, every time I’d taken a new role I had constantly told him it was too big for me and then managed fine. People regret far more what they don’t do rather than what they do.

The leaning in felt like a bungee jump, a leaping more than a leaning into the unknown, but it remains the second best decision I have ever made (after marrying David).

Three years later, I’m amazed how much we've achieved in driving change and achieving results. I remain so excited about all of the opportunities ahead for the business and the wonderful people I work with. And I know my kids are fine with us doing our best as parents. They're proud of their Mum and although she's on a plane a lot, she makes as many school plays, matches and parent evenings as she can.

As for me, I'm starting to be convinced I have a right to be at the top table in business and am genuinely happy in my new company where I know I’m making a difference. It’s a privilege to be leading a team working everyday to help more people all over the world do more, feel better and live longer.

And David. Thank you.