- 3 years ago
7 May 2021
Kelly Griffiths remembers well when Emma Walmsley was appointed global CEO of GSK in April 2017. Griffiths was Head of Legal in the Australian arm of the pharma company after moving from a law firm to cover for a person on maternity leave 14 months earlier.
She was planning a return to private practice when then country head Anne Belcher offered her the Head of Government Affairs and Policy job.
“Emma was the first female pharmaceutical CEO and a lot of people were asking how she did it,” Griffiths explains. “Her advice was, don’t get hung up on the hierarchy. Go for it and say yes. Essentially, say yes to every opportunity.
“I was planning for a career at the bar because I’d been a litigator pretty much my entire career. I’d been preparing my whole life for that but now I had this new approach and thought, if I don’t take this opportunity now, I’ll never get a chance to do this ever again.”
At the time, GSK was working to get its meningococcal vaccine BEXSERO listed on the National Immunisation Program. “I can be a lawyer, I’ve done it for over a decade, but when do I get a chance to have a really significant impact?” she said.
“This vaccine was something I felt very, very passionately about. I thought if I could have a small role to play in helping bring that vaccine to the Australian people, I really wanted to be a part of that. So I took the job. If anything, my move to GSK was more of a happy accident than a plan.”
Saying yes leads to new path
After several years at GSK, Griffiths says a baby and the pandemic again challenged her to reconsider her career path and once again the “yes to every opportunity” mantra came into play when she was offered a partnership at law firm Gadens.
“I spent most of my working life in private practice so it kind of feels like coming back home,” she says. “My heart has always been in the law and I was very privileged to be offered a partnership at an incredible law firm.
“I knew it was an opportunity that I’d probably never get again. Partnership, particularly at such a pre-eminent firm, is one of the highest honours you can achieve in the legal profession. I had to say yes.”
Yet Griffiths says leaving pharma was not easy, particularly as she professes to having a “great love” for GSK and the people who work for the company.
“Pharma is an industry that has, at times, an undeserved reputation. Once you’re inside it, you realise it’s an industry that is full of these amazing intelligent people who get up every day because they really believe that what they do makes a difference and that what they do will save people’s lives.
“I spent five amazing years at GSK and feel very lucky. I’ve made some lifelong friends and I’ve learned a great deal from some very, very smart people. The reason I became a lawyer in the first place is I have a very strong commitment to social justice and I knew that in my career, what I ultimately wanted to do is make sure I left the world a little bit better than I found it.
“I recognise the enormous privilege that I’ve had growing up in this amazing country. I’ve been given privileges that a lot of people around the world will never get, and I want to make sure I repay my community accordingly.”
Griffiths says as a lawyer who spends her days before the courts, she hopes to ensure government programs like the PBS “are always administered fairly in accordance with the law and that their purpose is met”.
“The purpose of the PBS ultimately is to ensure equity of access,” she says. “Essentially, we have to ensure we have a system where, regardless of your socioeconomic status in Australia, you will get access to the care that you need. There’s actually quite a tremendous impact you can have there so hopefully, I can play my role.”
Griffiths says while Covid made flexibility the norm and helped her believe she could take on a partnership with a young child, GSK gave her the confidence to push herself forward.
“If you asked me five years ago would I be a partner with a young child, I might not have jumped into this frankly, very big job as readily as I would now. But Covid opened up opportunities, particularly for women,” she says.
“If you look at the leadership team at GSK, it is 50:50. There’s no question around gender, it’s equal women and men in leadership positions. There’s diversity – and they’ve got Emma.”