Emma Walmsley is a prominent figure in the pharmaceutical industry, having made history as the first woman to become CEO of a major pharmaceutical company. She assumed the role of CEO of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in April 2017, where she has since led the company through a global restructuring program. Under Walmsley’s leadership, GSK has made significant strides in expanding its consumer health division. In one of her most notable moves as CEO, Walmsley led the $13 billion purchase of Novartis’s 36% stake in GSK Consumer Health. This strategic acquisition has further positioned GSK as a leading player in the consumer health industry. She previously held the position of Chief Executive Officer at GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare Pte Ltd., President for GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare Holdings Ltd., and General Manager-Consumer Products at L’Oreal (China) Co., Ltd.
Emma Walmsley was born in Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire (now Cumbria), England. Her parents, Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Walmsley and Lady (Christina) Walmsley, raised her alongside her two siblings. As a child, Walmsley displayed brilliance, dynamism, and a love for adventure. She says, “Growing up, I was always curious and loved learning new things, and I was fortunate to have a wonderful Latin teacher who inspired me to pursue my academic interests.” She motivated her to complete her Latin A level while finishing her schooling at St Swithun’s School, Winchester, in 1987.
Later, Walmsley pursued her academic interests and graduated from Oxford University with a Master of Arts in Classics and Modern Languages from Christ Church. After completing her studies at Oxford, Walmsley began her career in consultancy and later transitioned into marketing. In 2007, she joined L’Oreal as General Manager of Consumer Products, where she was based in Shanghai.
Reflecting on her time in China, Walmsley spoke about the challenges of leading in a new and unfamiliar culture. She recalled, “I had to learn to lead in a new culture where everything was different. I didn’t speak the language; I didn’t know the culture, nor did I have any friends or contacts. I had to build everything from scratch.”
During this time, Emma found out she was pregnant with her fourth child, adding to the already significant demands of her new role. Despite these challenges, Emma persevered and had a successful career at L’Oreal. In 2010, she became head of the Chinese consumer business for L’Oreal. L’Oreal was a company where she enjoyed working and stayed for over 17 years, executing her management and marketing skills in Paris, London, New York, and Shanghai. Walmsley looked after the company’s Chinese consumer products business, supervising global brands such as L’Oréal Paris, Maybelline, and Garnier, including Chinese skincare brand, Mininurse.
Walmsley was then offered a role at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK); she shared her initial hesitation in taking on the position, saying, “I spent a week persuading myself I would be insane to do it. It was unfair to the family. We were settled in China, and my husband’s new business was doing well.” Despite feeling guilty about leaving a company that had been loyal to her, Walmsley felt encouraged by her husband’s support and reminded herself of her past success in similar situations. She explains, “Every time I took a new role, I had constantly told him it was too big for me, and then he reminded me that in the end, I always managed fine.” Her track record spoke for itself, and within a year of joining GSK, she was promoted. Finally, in April 2017, she took over as CEO.
Walmsley’s appointment as the first woman to lead a major pharmaceutical firm was a significant achievement. Walmsley wasted no time making sweeping changes at the top after becoming CEO of GlaxoSmithKline in 2017. She reorganized 40% of the top executives and brought fresh talent from companies like Walmart and AstraZeneca.
In addition to her organizational changes, Walmsley has not shied away from large expenditures. In one significant move, she led the $13 billion purchase of Novartis’s stake in GSK Consumer Health, giving GSK complete control of products such as Sensodyne, Panadol, Voltaren, and Nicotinell. Walmsley says, “The proposed transaction addresses one of our key capital allocation priorities and will allow GSK shareholders to capture the full value of one of the world’s leading consumer healthcare businesses.”
Known for her direct and candid approach, Walmsley has been vocal about GSK’s need to improve in order to do more good. She notes, “GSK has led a lot on doing well by doing good, but we need to do better to be able to do more good.”
Expressing her satisfaction with her current role in the company, she says, “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,” Walmsley continued, “It’s a privilege to be leading a team working every day to help more people all over the world do more, feel better and live longer.” As the head of a team dedicated to improving people’s lives across the globe, Walmsley sees her role as an opportunity to make a meaningful impact and contribute to positive change in the world.
Walmsley’s advice to aspiring leaders is to be flexible and creative in their career planning. She says,“Focus on learning and expanding your skillset, and take on roles that bring you joy and fulfillment. Find a career that aligns with your values and allows you to contribute to something greater than yourself.”