Integrating the legal & compliance functions and advancing DE&I: An interview with James Ford, senior vice president and group general counsel at GSK
Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs

Integrating the legal & compliance functions and advancing DE&I: An interview with James Ford, senior vice president and group general counsel at GSK

James Ford, the group general counsel of GSK, discusses the evolution of the legal function and how he works to advance DE&I both within his organization and outside it.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Victoria Reese speaks to James Ford, the senior vice president and group general counsel at global biopharma company GSK. Ford discusses the evolution of the legal function over the past two decades and how it complements the compliance function, which he also leads. He also shares how living in many different countries made him into a better leader, what lessons he learned as a legal leader during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how he works to advance DE&I. Finally, he shares what skills will be most important for general counsels to lead into the future.

Some key questions answered in this podcast include:

  • (1:04) How would you describe the legal function’s evolution, and how have the internal and external stakeholder relationships changed over the years?
  • (4:16) You have held roles in the US, the UK, Singapore, and Hong Kong. How has having global experience helped in your career? Are there any specific skill sets or experiences you gained that you apply in your role today?
  • (8:14) In a global pharma business like GSK, there must have been significant complexity for a general counsel to manage in a pandemic setting. What are the lessons learned? 
  • (12:40) How do you see the evolution of the compliance function and how do you think it can sit successfully with the general counsel function?
  • (15:52) Can you share how you work to advance the DE&I agenda in your GC role?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Victoria Reese: Hi, I'm Victoria Reese, partner at Hedrick & Struggles and the global managing partner of the general counsel practice. In today's podcast, I'm talking to James Ford. James is senior vice president and group general counsel at GSK, a global biopharma company. James is based in London and has been with GSK for over 20 years, holding in legal roles in the United States, Singapore, and the UK. He started his career at Clifford Chance and DLA Piper.

James, thank you for joining us today. 

James Ford: It’s a pleasure. 

Victoria Reese: Throughout your career, you have held multiple divisional general counsel roles, and now a group general counsel role. How would you describe the legal function’s evolution, and how have the internal and external stakeholder relationships changed over the years?

James Ford: That's a great question, Victoria. I took my first divisional GC role about 16 years ago, and the world was very different then. Things have evolved enormously. And if I think about the various roles that I've had and where I am now, I would summarize it in two parts really. The first one is an overall modernization process, which you'd expect to happen. And that is partly a function of technology—which was there to some degree 15 years ago, but legal departments weren't really investing in it. Now it's very much table stakes; the law departments put money into the best databases, contract management. It could be IP management, but it's part of what we do, and we have a roadmap within our function as to where the investments go. 

But things like peer-to-peer benchmarking have also become extremely important—and sometimes very annoying as well, because you know that every couple of years you're going to be measured against McKinsey, for example, or the Boston Consulting Group, or against various other benchmarking measures. Whether you like those measures or not, they are a standard against which general counsels are held. And it's kind of a signal of aggressiveness, or our ability to evolve as businesses change.

So, that's the first big change and that, obviously, is here to stay. The second change includes the whole stakeholder management piece; it’s around the expectations of the role itself. And if I think back, probably more than 16 years, the legal departments, both in the UK and the US, were a little less proactive than they are now, and certainly less strategic, because prioritization wasn't as, I suppose, heavily scrutinized as it is today. These days, we have very much moved along, what I would term the value chain. So, in the past, where we may have done everything, there could have been a bit of a concierge, white-glove type of service. But a lot of what used to be done really didn't add a ton of value. Now, those things have been weeded out of the system, and either they just don't get done or self-service kicks in. So moving along with the value chain has required quite rigorous prioritization. It's required a real understanding of what matters—so, focus both from me and my leadership team, but right through the organization as well. 

And I would say that the final part of the evolution of the legal function in is a very clear expectation on the senior levels, at least, having strong external networks. I don't just mean the law firms you work with; it could be with regulators. I regularly meet with various regulators around the world. Whatever the agenda you are trying to shape happens to be, you need to be part of it, you need to influence it. And, overall, I would say it’s more professional. It is more demanding or probably a little less relaxed than it used to be. But shaping the agenda is big part of being a GC these days. 

Victoria Reese: Speaking of global networks, you have held roles in the US, the UK, Singapore, and Hong Kong. How has having global experience helped in your career? Are there any specific skill sets or experiences you gained that you apply in your role today?

James Ford: I think having global experience, if you're in a multinational environment, is essential. You only have to look at the composition of most C-suites to see that numerous people typically have lived in multiple markets over the course of their careers. It's also huge fun, and it's hugely enriching compared with perhaps sitting in one office for 20 years in the same location.

One of the main differentiators, at least in my experience, has been that working for a multinational versus a law firm has provided me with the opportunity to travel to most parts of the world and to live in various parts of the world as well. That’s been an invaluable experience. For me, it started when I was a very young lawyer in the late 80s when I went to Hong Kong for six months. I wasn't particularly worldly, but over the course of six months it literally changed my perception of what was available to me in the world. And it just shaped my global ambitions and my interest in different cultures. Following that, I spent just over 12 years in the US over two stints. [In that time, I took] the New York bar exam, which is a real pain to do in your forties, which is what I did.

From a professional development perspective, having strong US operational, transactional, and litigation experience, I think, carries enormous weight for any aspiring general counsel. And in the case of the pharmaceutical industry, where the issues we face are very complicated and often high stakes, I think the chances of advancing to the more senior levels within a legal function without a doubt increase if you have credible, strong US experience. For most of us, it's our largest, most profitable market, and certainly, in my world, it is, bizarrely enough, also our highest risk market because of the US court system. But it's also a market with an incredible ecosystem of innovation—probably an unparalleled ecosystem of innovation. So, having deal experience, being able to build relationships with all kinds of professionals, whether it's banks or accountants or other types of deal makers, is a really important skill set as you grow in these sorts of things. That's helped me enormously.

And then, before I became a general counsel, I moved to Singapore, where I lived for three years. And that was a bit of a shock to my three teenage kids at the time. But it was a very, very unique regional experience. It happened to coincide with the Chinese government investigating GSK’s commercial practices, swiftly followed by the US Department of Justice. The former resulted in a criminal prosecution and fine and the latter a [settlement]. To get to those points, it was an absolute cultural rollercoaster involving local nuances, but also heavy-duty FCPA experience, privilege experience, the sort of things that in some ways you see on TV. It was quite extraordinary, and it opened my eyes to different approaches and different styles. 

So, I would say [my international experiences have] had a huge and profound impact on my career. I look at the people I've worked with, many of whom had a similar path to me. I think what it gives you is a deep appreciation of diversity and a deep appreciation of different styles within the same profession. And it's very easy, I think, if you have a myopic view, to assume that all the great lawyers sit in the US or the UK. And that's not the case. Many of my lawyers in India and China, for example, are just as smart, just as well trained and just as valuable as my lawyers in the US and the UK. They're just different, and that difference is a valuable lesson for any aspiring general counsel coming through.

Victoria Reese: I think we could do a separate podcast on how to take the New York bar when you're 40.

James Ford: That's not a happy experience. 

Victoria Reese: It takes courage and discipline for sure. We release an annual survey of healthcare and life sciences executives from around the world on leading through disruption. An interesting point from the report was that 85% of the respondents think their leaders have been successful in managing their organizations through the pandemic, that their leaders manage the crisis well, and that the enhanced the reputation companies gained as a consequence of their response to the pandemic will become a competitive advantage. I can imagine that in a global pharma business like GSK, there was significant complexity for a general counsel to manage in a pandemic setting. What are the lessons learned? 

James Ford: Well, there were a lot of lessons learned. I think my first comment is that I'm not actually surprised that 85% of the respondents believe their leaders were successful in managing that crisis. When you think about it, the people that lead these complex organizations have had years of growing up very much with an agile and/or a business-continuity type of mindset. Clearly, the pandemic was at the outer extremes of all of that, but it played well into the skill sets of the types of leaders that you see across the life sciences industry.

From a general counsel's perspective, and I guess it is most granular, the types of issues we faced transactionally were team connectivity, like everybody else. [We also dealt with] things like ensuring statutory or core deadlines were met. At its most basic, it was working out who would go and open up the mail in the many jurisdictions around the world where court orders or court deadlines can arrive in mail rather than email form.

So they were simple and very practical plans that my teams around the world had to put into place quite quickly. And [we had to handle] remote negotiations as well. But all of these things were thought through. All of these things involved plans that were put into place, as you would expect. So that we could continue the normal service as best as we could. 

But as for the important learnings from it, I would say there were several. The first one is performance with care. And what I mean by that is care and empathy with your team are always important, but in a crisis like the pandemic, where you don't have that proximity, the physical connection with people in the same room, that empathy, that strength of relationship is really, really important at a human level, an authentic level. Often, at a time when people are anxious, they can be scared. People react in different ways, from a mental health perspective, and sometimes, unfortunately, have to confront personal tragedy. And I saw that with some of the people in my own department.

I think another key learning was that going 100% virtual is sub-optimal in a law firm and certainly a law department type of environments. Hybrid's OK. We've proven that hybrid is OK, but—and this is still a work in progress—it’s been very important to explain to our teams that coming together as a department or as a team for the moments that really matter will make a significant difference to the quality of our output, and also to the fulfillment of many individuals as well. We call it performers for choice at GSK. It is not an easy thing to navigate, but we are well along that pathway. 

The final [learning] is that organizations are enormously resilient and those that have a clear trust and purpose that sits intrinsically in their culture would've fared better, I believe. And it was very clear to all of us. The great resignation was a real thing, and we lost a few who reappraised the way they wanted to live their lives. Actually, very few. Some did. I know of other industries and companies where more people decided to try a new approach in their lives. But having that trust and purpose is the glue that will hold organizations together. And, in some bizarre way, I think defining our new normal is even more difficult than navigating the risks that we faced at the start, because people's thought patterns, their tectonic thought plates, if you like, have completely changed. Employers’ expectations are changing. Employees’ expectations may not be changing at the same rates. So, it has been enormously complicated. I don't think we are at a steady state, not by a long stretch, but we are constantly course-correcting our communication and our approach on this. 

Victoria Reese: I love the performance with care. I think that's very important. Switching to another topic, how do you see the evolution of the compliance function and how do you think it can sit successfully with the general counsel function? 

James Ford: So, the compliance function is a relatively new function. If I think back 15 years, I think GSK had one compliance person in the organization. I'm not really sure what that individual did. These days we are, on the compliance side, very professional. We have people that chose compliance as their first career option. They're coming in with different types of specialties—data analysts, control specialists, writers. It is a very, very different setup from what it was even probably five years ago. So, compliance now has a strong professional base. I would also say that, over time, it has probably gone past where the legal function is in terms of its use of tech. The really progressive compliance functions are heavily tech enabled. They employ people who are data analysts, primarily. The old days when you used to often finish your legal career as a compliance officer are absolutely over, and risk management is measured and benchmarked in the same way you would expect a good law department be.

[Legal and compliance] are very different functions. But they are also complimentary in how they look at the same problems but from a different angle. So, quite holistic risk management, if you like. And if I look at my own experience, I've been both a compliance officer and a lawyer all the way through. You know, now I have the compliance function reporting into me at GSK, and we run this as a separate department, a separate division. It’s very important to do that. It retains its own skill sets, its own microculture, and feels equally as valued as the legal teams. And I've seen huge benefits in having both the legal and the compliance streams under my leadership, under one umbrella. And the benefits are obvious things like less duplication, a more holistic approach. I think many of our lawyers can learn a lot from how the analytical process works on risk management. And I think many of our compliance officers learn a lot from the approach taken by our legal team. But they have fundamentally very different roles. In a couple of cases we have teams with both compliance and legal on the same team but in different roles—privacy is a prime example of that. But I think it works. It's something that I was never 100% on until the last couple of years. But if you look at the outside world, compliance is increasingly falling under the umbrella of the general counsel but is being held as a separate professional organization in its own right. Now, most regulators five years ago didn't really love that idea, and that was in a world where there were more consent decrees, there were more corporate integrity agreements, which kept them very, very separate. These days, if you don't have those types of constraints and you have adequate resourcing and a proper line of independent communication, if you like, from the compliance officer through to the CEO or to the chairman of the audit and risk committee, I think it works extremely well and I think it's the future.

Victoria Reese: I was on your website and saw a statement that stood out to me. “We want to be a diverse, inclusive organization that attracts and retains outstanding talent because this brings greater opportunity to create better health outcomes for the patients around the world who rely on our medicines and vaccines.” And GSK has once again been recognized as a best place to work. That's fantastic. Can you share how you work to advance the DE&I agenda in your GC role? 

James Ford: I think DE&I is very much a central part of culture within most organizations, and it certainly features very large in the DNA of our legal compliance group globally, not just in the US or the UK. It's well known that, again, like many of our peers, we have published gender and ethnic diversity aspirational targets, as one example, both for the group of companies but also for the legal and compliance function as well. In fact, our C-suite, including ourselves, are bonused, in part, on the progress that we make toward those aspirational targets. As you would expect in a global enterprise, we've got many, many different constituent groups of people and therefore support many different types of employee resource groups—gender groups, women's leadership, ethnicity, disability, or LGBTQ+ around the world. At a company-wide level, there's a significant platform for these voices to be heard. On the corporate level, I co-chair the group's global ethnicity council. At a functional level, the expectations from the legal and compliance teams are extremely high. This is something in which both myself and my leadership team play a very active part. We invest a lot of our personal energy and time into pursuing the goals that are set by the groups, but also the goals that are worked from the ground up across my organization.

I would summarize it as four key work streams. There are more than four, but there are four keys ones. These four work streams are led by full-time DE&I manager who we appointed last year, who's doing a phenomenal. The first stream is as basic as growing a diverse talent pipeline. And that is where we have a cross-functional group across the legal and compliance groups and representing a number of different markets, focusing on things like outreach and establishing or running internship programs. So, for example, in Philadelphia, every year we have two or three diverse law students coming through. It’s the same in Durham, in North Carolina, and we're moving to a new program where the idea is that after a period of a couple of years of internships, we'll offer at least one intern a full-time role with the company. All this is happening at the same time as building real outreach in the communities in which we operate as well. So that's one stream.

The second stream is, I guess, putting a bit of pressure on our law firms and other third-party providers. So it's third-party diversity. We are committed to doubling our spend with the NAMWOLF firms, and those are firms that are part of an association that is effectively run by women or minority law firm partners. And we are committed to doubling our spend. We are increasing the number of engagements to do that. We're spending real time at various conferences to support the purpose of NAMWOLF and other similar organizations. We're also doing things on a practical level, on larger-scale transactions or litigation, such as when we ask our firms to go into reverse auction process, we are now shifting the weighting of their diversity initiatives to 15% of our decision. Clearly, if they do nothing, that's a real negative in a world where pricing sometimes isn't always the differentiator. So that is putting real pressure in the system and I can already see quite tangible changes in the approaches of our law firms, both in London and in the US as well. 

And then we're also looking at increasing minority representation at senior levels, and this is GSK group-wide, but it applies equally within my own department as well. And that requires real discipline over things like ensuring a diverse slate of candidates, making sure that we’re walking the talk with our various teams, and that when we work with the outside recruiters, we're very clear that we don't want see slate of candidates unless there's credible diversity within it.

And then the final workstream would be around fostering an inclusive culture. And that could be providing our teams with the tools that they need for recruiting or developing people, practical training, guidance, education, if you like, but also things like diverse-reverse mentoring, which we're very big on within the legal and compliance function. Those are big-bucket areas internally, but externally really matters, too. And what I've learned over the last few years is that our internal teams are very proud of the external DE&I face that the company wears, and therefore the company has to wear it with conviction and put its money where its mouth is.

So, for example, and I’ll just draw two examples from my own area, we as a legal and compliance function are part of the European General Council's DE&I initiative. It covers a lot of things including outside council evaluations, spend, all that kind of stuff. But also we're part of the US Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, for which I've, along with many of my peers, published quite a detailed general counsel's pledge that covers both personal and organizational commitments, which are visible to my entire function, and which we measure. At the end of every quarter or every year, depending on what working on, with total transparency, I like to show my function the initiatives we're taking about, and share the progress we're making. This has to be a real, tangible, authentic way forward. It cannot be lip service at any point, and we certainly do not pay any lip service to this at all. And I think that having this commitment from both me and my teams is resulting and continuing to result in a very healthy, vibrant community across the legal and compliance function. And I think it's something that is now an expectation. It is part of what we do. So those examples are the types of things both my I and my team are actively involved in, and which we fully support. 

Victoria Reese: Very thoughtful, very strategic, and certainly a commitment. I can hear it. James, one final question. 

James Ford: Sure.

Victoria Reese: Looking ahead, which specific leadership skill sets and capabilities will be most important for your company to meet its strategic goals in the future?

James Ford: So I could give you a very long list, Victoria. But I'll try and keep it concise. I would say that some things have never changed. So, clear, compelling, communication and vision is always important for the leader. But these days, agility—the ability to pivot in situations and the ability to read trends early and move with them is—vital. That's all went and good, you have to have that, but you also need to have followership. I was chatting about this to one of my senior leaders today who, one day, would like my role, and they may well get it. Ultimately, if you're going to compete at the highest of levels as a GC, you need to have a lot of skill sets, but you also need to have people that want to follow you. And that followership is based on authenticity and trust, and good judgment. Some things you can't always train for, but they are a really important part of leadership. And then, I would say the final thing—and I've probably learned this over 30 years in my career—is that resilience continues to be vital. Resilience in the form of, there are going to be bumps in the road. These are tough, complicated jobs. It's good to be glass-half-full. But you do need to have a healthy dose of realism and positivity as well to really galvanize teams around you. But those are the sort of core areas that I'm often drawn to when people ask me a similar question. 

Victoria Reese: Fantastic. Well, we will end on that glass-half-full spirit. James, thank you for making the time today to speak with us. Very, very much. Appreciate it. 

James Ford: Absolute pleasure, Victoria. Nice talking to you.

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About the interviewer

Victoria Reese ( is the global managing partner of the Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs Practice; she is based in the New York office.

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