A Canadian’s
Culture of Change

Montrealer Paul Lirette is leading GSK Japan’s journey for better health, teamwork and communication

Long before Covid-19 turned the business world upside down and presented the health-care industry with one of its greatest challenges, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) was transforming how teams work together — with a Canadian in charge of its Japan operations.

The UK-headquartered, science-based pharmaceutical and health-care firm’s global team researches, develops and manufactures innovative pharmaceutical medicines, vaccines and consumer health-care products.

Key areas of focus in the pharmaceutical business include respiratory, HIV, infectious diseases, oncology and immuno-inflammation. And during the current coronavirus pandemic, GSK has been playing a role in the pursuit of vaccines and drugs with great urgency and investment.

There are lots of challenges and opportunities, but it’s a very humbling journey. I feel very privileged to be in Japan.

Japan is an important market for the firm. As issues such as aging and lower birth rates present societal challenges, there are opportunities for GSK to make a difference in people’s lives to address unmet medical needs, including preventive care and to collaborate with stakeholders—including the government—to share best practices from the global market that can further shape and improve the environment and policy.

Two years ago, Montréal, Québec native Paul Lirette arrived in Tokyo to lead the firm’s Japan operations. Right away he began a journey to strengthen an already solid foundation and enable GSK to provide local physicians and patients with the best possible service and most effective treatments.

To learn more about this journey, as well as GSK’s Covid-19 efforts, we sat down with Lirette at the firm’s headquarters in Akasaka, Minato Ward.

What brought you to Japan?

Having spent many years in Australia and the UK, I came to love living in different countries and being challenged by different cultures. After five years back home in Canada, I was wondering what I would do next. So, I had a conversation with Emma Walmsley, our CEO, and she asked me what I would like that to be. I said that I’d like to have a more complex business to manage, and to do it in a very different culture. I wanted to be able to do what I had been doing, which was, basically, to enhance a culture and make sure that we have a business that is sustainable.

What I didn’t know is that I was describing Japan. But one Friday evening, I received a phone call and was asked, How about Japan? It was a big compliment for a leader, because the country is the second-biggest market regardless of the company you work for or the industry you’re in. It took me just one minute to say yes.

How does it compare with other places?

The challenges are very, very different. Australia was my first experience as a general manager. In Canada, as head of sales and marketing, I knew the market by heart. I even knew the key opinion leaders, having been born there. And I knew all the employees, so I knew which levers I could use. But when I moved from Canada to Down Under, I had no internal network and no external network. I had expertise based on knowledge, but not based on who I knew. So, without knowing the environment, I had no choice but to rely on leading people. I also learned the hard way to ask questions. So, it required different leadership skills.

Then, moving to the UK and leading our Central and Eastern Europe operations meant the people I worked with were very different again. They weren’t native English speakers, so I learned not to be judgmental based on language skills and I learned to slow down when I speak. I also learned that every market has different life cycles in terms of integrating innovations, culture and how you inspire people. The way you inspire the Polish, for example, is very different than the way you inspire the Czechs. Learning about their history and their role models is very important.

I’m applying all this here in Japan. I’m listening and learning every single day. The people are fascinating. I love my colleagues. I love the business. There are lots of challenges and opportunities, but it’s a very humbling journey. I feel very privileged to be in Japan. I couldn’t ask for more.

Tell us about GSK’s Covid-19 efforts.

Obviously, coronavirus is a top priority worldwide and finding a vaccine is critical to getting life and business back on track worldwide. Since the outbreak began, we have quickly turned our resources towards this challenge with our science and expertise while also protecting the health and well-being of our people. We are taking a comprehensive approach to three areas:

  • Prevention
  • Treatment
  • Disease management

Prevention is focused on the development of a vaccine. Globally, our primary aim is to develop multiple adjuvant Covid-19 vaccines using our innovative adjuvant technology, and we are collaborating with several firms and institutions around the world. This is the time for firms not to compete but to collaborate. We are in this together and are competing against the virus.

One of the most recent such collaborations is a global joint project with Sanofi, which we announced in April. They are a French pharmaceutical firm that has developed a Covid-19 antigen. We’re providing them with our proven pandemic adjuvant technology and hope to have a candidate vaccine that can enter clinical trials in the second half of 2020 and, if successful, be available in the second half of 2021.

The use of an adjuvant can be of particular importance in a pandemic situation because it may reduce the amount of vaccine protein required per dose, allowing more vaccine doses to be produced and, therefore, contributing to the protection of more people, sooner.

In addition to Sanofi, we are also collaborating with firms and institutions across the world, including in North America, Australia and China.

Alongside vaccines, we are also exploring therapeutic options. In April, we entered into a collaboration with the US firm Vir Biotechnology, Inc. to identify and accelerate new antiviral antibodies that could be used as therapeutic or preventative options for Covid-19 or future corona-virus outbreaks.

Through this collaboration, we’re combining Vir’s technology with our expertise in functional genomics. We are also evaluating their marketed pharmaceutical products, as well as medicines in development, to determine if any could be used beyond their current indications in response to the pandemic. This includes medicines with potential direct antiviral activity and those with possible utility in prevention or treatment of secondary complications of Covid-19.

Beyond vaccines and medicines, we are also making other contributions using our capabilities and expertise—for example, to support national testing centers in England.

In addition, we are supporting global and local community funds, including the donation of $10mn to the United Nations–World Health Organization Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund, to support distribution of essential supplies and personal protective equipment to health workers.

We have also made donations to contribute to healthcare in Japan, namely the Japan Respiratory Foundation, Japan Foundation and others.

As part of disease management in Japan, GSK also started an initiative using a telemedicine system that aims to enhance adherence to treatment. This could potentially protect asthma patients from Covid-19.

Finding solutions, such as vaccines and drugs, to Covid-19 is an unprecedented challenge. Supporting the global response to Covid-19 is at the heart of GSK’s purpose—to “do more, feel better, live longer”—and our business and portfolio are highly relevant and much needed.