Profile – James Ford, General Counsel and Senior Vice President at GlaxoSmithKline

James Ford has worked for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline – a company that’s one of many currently racing to develop a vaccine for Covid-19 – for 25 years. He speaks to In-House Perspective about the ethics of vaccine development, connectivity in a pandemic and staff development.

For James Ford, General Counsel and Senior Vice President at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), purpose is extremely important. He says ‘a lot of people, including myself, joined the company partly because of its purpose, to do good for society. You’re here for patients. You’re here for consumers. You have other reasons, too. But the overarching desire is to be part of something that contributes to good in society and public health’.

As GSK are among the pharmaceutical companies trying to develop a vaccine for Covid-19 as quickly as possible, that purpose has been reinforced to the nth degree.

GSK have joined forces with fellow pharmaceutical company Sanofi to develop an adjuvanted Covid-19 vaccine. Using adjuvants, which enhance the body’s immune response to an antigen, is of particular importance as it may reduce the amount of vaccine protein needed for each dose. GSK says this means more vaccine doses can be produced, thus contributing to protecting more people.

GSK and Sanofi are two of the world’s largest vaccine companies, and Ford says the partnership with Sanofi is part of a wider trend, as ‘the industry as a whole has collaborated to a greater degree than you would normally see among competitors’. He adds, ‘this is clearly a world problem that needs to be solved as quickly and safely as possible, so it requires lots of great minds and they exist in lots of companies’. GSK is working with a number of partners.

‘The pandemic is clearly a world problem that needs to be solved as quickly and safely as possible, so it requires lots of great minds and they exist in lots of companies.’

Although there’s no guarantee that companies will be able to create a safe and effective vaccine, Ford says ‘GSK is optimistic, bearing in mind that science and technology is so incredibly advanced, that vaccines will be found and therapeutics developed to tackle Covid-19’.

Before Covid-19 hit, GSK had already been looking to speed up the pace of pharmaceutical development through the use of artificial intelligence (AI). The company has recently built a new AI hub in King’s Cross, London, adding to a portfolio of hubs in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

GSK’s scientists and engineers in London will be collaborating with other pharmaceutical companies, and US technology company NVIDIA is said to be sending a team of engineers to the new hub to explore opportunities to collaborate and find new drugs.

Ford says the real value of AI for a company like GSK is found in drug discovery, which enables the company to screen potential drug targets at a much higher volume and faster rate than it has historically been able to do.

That work is vital, and could improve the pharmaceutical company’s efforts in the face of future crises. Currently, GSK and Sanofi are working to develop the vaccine at a significantly faster pace than usual: clinical trials began in September 2020 and it’s hoped the development of the vaccine required for availability will be completed by the second half of 2021.

Ethics and responsibility

Ford acknowledges that there’s some concern among the general public about the safety of a vaccine being produced at this pace. But he explains that despite the unprecedented pace at which vaccine development is going, the industry is committed to safety first. Although the process has been expedited, ‘it is subject to the same amount of clinical rigour as would ordinarily be seen’, highlights Ford.

For Ford, the reality is that responsible pharma companies are not going to be seeking approval without having gone through the right clinical testing and safety protocols. ‘We have an ethical duty’, he says.

That ethical duty extends to ensuring access to the vaccine for all, regardless of political wrangling to monopolise the vaccine.

In September, Oxfam reported that a small group of rich nations had already bought up over half of all of the vaccines that are expected to be produced in the near future. In fact, 51 per cent of the first vaccines that could be made available if successful will be going to countries representing just 13 per cent of the global population.

In May, the Trump administration drew international criticism after reports emerged of its efforts to monopolise a potential vaccine from German manufacturers so that US citizens received it as a priority.

But, as with any pharmaceutical produc­ed, Ford says GSK ‘should not be a political football’ when it comes to a Covid-19 vaccine. He highlights that GSK continues to be committed to affordable, globally accessible solutions.

In fact, for several years including 2018, GSK has topped the Access to Medicine Index, which measures how the top 20 pharmaceutical companies ensure their medicines, vaccines and diagnostics are accessible for people in low- and middle-income countries.

Connecting in a pandemic

Ford comes back to the reason he joined the company – that sense of purpose, and doing good. And although the pandemic has placed a significant amount of pressure on the company, Ford believes that sense of purpose has helped to anchor staff and provide a source of comfort. ‘We do need to remind our teams why they get out of bed in the morning, and this is good and important work,’ he says. ‘This is important for public health.’

Flexibility has been key, and Ford says GSK was already comfortable with people working from home before the pandemic but recognises the increased importance and necessity to be flexible at present. He’s also aware of and believes in the importance of leadership teams playing a pastoral role to support employee wellbeing at this time.

He says, ‘In terms of the communication from myself and my leadership team into the organisation, it is really important to let people know we are there, to let people know that we and the company care about them’.

‘In terms of the communication from myself and my leadership team into the organisation, it is really important to let people know we are there, to let people know that we and the company care about them.’

Connectivity for an organisation like GSK is vital given the company has 100,000 employees across dozens of countries around the world. The legal team is a sizeable function within that spread, with 600 staff globally, so GSK are fortunate that technology has enabled people to work away from their normal office and continue with connectivity in the same way during the pandemic.

But, even before the pandemic, the Director of Capability for GSK Legal had started an initiative called the ‘legal coffee shop’ to increase connectivity among staff. The intention was to pair up people who would not ordinarily cross paths for half an hour, to get a coffee and socialise. Ford believes this has been a very positive initiative during these ‘virtual’ times.

So, even during the pandemic, once every four to six weeks, Ford has a virtual coffee for half an hour with somebody randomly chosen for him by the Legal Operations Team. Recently, for example, he had a coffee with someone he didn’t know well in the trademarks department, who had also been at the company for a long time. ‘We talked about our lives and our children, and it’s that connectivity that, surprisingly enough, is stronger than when we were all in the same building together and we didn’t have that structured communication time,’ he says.

And, for Ford, although virtual connectivity is no real substitute for in-person interaction, there’s a huge importance in seeing people face-to-face so everyone knows it’s business – almost – as usual. He adds that ‘there’s also an ongoing need to continue developing our people and that takes real effort in a virtual world. Progress and advancement continues to be important across the organisation’.

One of Ford’s favourite aspects to his role is dealing with smart people and helping develop emerging talent across the Legal department. ‘One of our mantras is that we run legal like a business for the business and we do it as trusted business partners,’ he says. ‘The trust element is vital because an important part of our job is being a guardian to the corporation.’

‘One of our mantras is that we run legal like a business for the business and we do it as trusted business partners.’

‘We consciously and deliberately manage talent, we develop people and we have high expectations,’ he adds. ‘That’s what you do in business. I think at different times in the past, in-house departments haven’t always been seen that way. At GSK, we’ve changed that perception.’

Ford hopes he is creating a pipeline of talented people who could one day replace him, which he sees as a testament to the quality of people brought through the door. GSK Legal has recently created emerging talent programmes to take a structured approach to staff development, because ‘we want our best and brightest to fulfil their potential to become senior, powerful and impactful executives’, Ford says.

Expanding horizons

He acknowledges the breadth of experience it takes to do an executive role like his, given the range and intensity of the work. The calendar is always full but the days unpredictable, with the issues that come to him generally being the largest and most complicated ones.

He tells In-House Perspective that he sees his role as comprising of three main areas. First and foremost, he’s the legal adviser to the board and its various committees. And he runs a 600-person-strong legal function, across more than 50 locations around the world. He is also a member of the corporate executive team. Each of the executives have their own divisional general counsels, so Ford’s role includes helping to set the broader strategy and direction for the group, as well as helping with robust risk management across it. 

Ford believes it is important for all members of the C-suite to contribute as broader leaders across the company. ‘We tend to be quite good at managing and motivating teams and developing people,’ he says. ‘You need all of those skill sets to lead an organisation of a hundred thousand people. So I’m not there just as a lawyer, which adds an interesting dimension to the role.’

Ford has always been looking to broaden his remit. In 1995, having worked in private practice, he decided to join a multinational as a personal experiment, just to see what it was like. He gave himself two years, but has in fact stayed with GSK for 25 years so far. He says ‘I was pleasantly surprised that the people in GSK Legal were of similar quality to the people that I had worked with in the City.’

He believes that the real difference heading in-house is that, as a relatively young junior lawyer, you have a greater degree of empowerment and undertake much more sophisticated work than you would get in private practice at that stage in your career.

‘I came in as the lead lawyer for the UK consumer business and all legal issues that came through the door for that business were for me,’ he explains. ‘Of course you use experts and you ask for help when you need to. But it’s a level of empowerment and real accountability that drives a sense of ownership for what you do.’

The experiment paid off, and Ford has enjoyed plenty of opportunities and challenges in his time at GSK. One of the biggest challenges, he says, has been balance. ‘I've got three fantastic children and a wonderfully supportive wife who I have been married to for 28 years’, he tells In-House Perspective. ‘The big challenge is making sure you keep one eye at home and that you don't forget what's most important – your family.’

‘It doesn’t matter how busy you are, there’s always, always time to carve out for your spouse and children,’ he adds. ‘You lose the plot quickly if you don’t realise that.’

‘I say to my teams, take a risk on your careers because how bad can it be?’

But he acknowledges that work is also very important, and the trick is to find balance. For Ford, this has meant time away from his phone to problem-solve in the swimming pool three times a week, golfing with his son, and taking his family with him whenever work relocated him abroad.

His wife and three children lived with him in the United States for 12 years, and Singapore for three years. He admits it was tough to move countries, especially with teenagers. But, now that his children are older, at university and law school, Ford says ‘they’re really grateful for it because it’s changed their perspective on life and they are such international young adults at this point’.

He says he encourages all his colleagues to take up similar opportunities. ‘I say to my teams, take a risk on your careers because how bad can it be? It could be the best thing you've ever done and in the worst case scenario, you come home and back to a similar role. In a large multinational company like GSK, there is a lot of opportunity for our lawyers’.

Moving countries is always challenging, but Ford hasn’t regretted a day. ‘It was unique, and I didn’t like turning down unique.’