This month’s Member Spotlight

Helen Tomlinson

September 2018 

General Manager Iberia at GSK Consumer Healthcare and member of the LEAD Network Spain Chapter Committee

Can you tell us a bit about your background and your role?

I was born in the UK, in a small village in Lancashire, and I had the privilege of growing up on a farm and spending most of my childhood playing in the fields and the countryside.

I hold a BSc degree in Agribusiness Management & Food Marketing. Since leaving university I have worked predominantly in FMCG companies in areas such as category management, customer marketing, brand management, and sales.

I joined GSK in 2006 because of my passion for the Ribena brand, [a blackcurrant-based soft drink], which my mother used to give me and my brother as a treat when we were kids. Since that moment I have held various positions starting in my home country, a cluster role for Romania, Adriatic and Balkan countries, to finally become the General Manager of the Consumer Healthcare business in Iberia, where I have been happily living in Madrid since January 2017.

This role gives me the opportunity to run a dynamic business, with 25 fantastic brands that many Spanish and Portuguese people are familiar with, in fact 1 in 4 Spaniards consume our Consumer Healthcare products. We have over 280 employees in the region and I feel proud to work with such a talented team, who everyday strive to help people do more, feel better and live longer.

I must admit that I enjoy the variety of the role, which combines multiple disciplines such as strategic resource management, people leadership, financial management, brand and customer strategy, understanding regulatory environment and risk assessment and management. What really motivates me to do this role is the fact that I can make a difference for our consumers, customers and the people who work at GSK.

In my free time I love to travel (recently discovering the heritage and cuisine of the Iberian Peninsula), challenge myself by doing triathlons (this year I will complete my 20th) and relaxing by spending time with my friends and family.

Why are you passionate about the mission of LEAD Network?

I am passionate about LEAD Network because I believe it is important to drive diversity in our business. We have seen multiple studies that show that diverse teams, especially with female diversity, can increase performance. Just as an example, a recent McKinsey study proves that companies with more gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

Personally, I am lucky that I had somebody who sponsored me and encouraged in my career and I want to pay that back and help to inspire and support other women, both at GSK but also in the broader industry. The LEAD Network gives me opportunity to do this.

The LEAD mission is very powerful. Thanks to LEAD we have a chance to build new professional relationships, share successes, learn from each other and implement best practices. This is pivotal to accelerate the diversity journey in our businesses.

What would you say is one of the most adventurous or riskiest moves you’ve made professionally?

One of the most adventurous and riskiest moves I have ever made professionally was moving to Bucharest to become the GM of Romania and Adriatic’s cluster. It was in many ways a first-time experience: first time working and living alone outside of the UK, first time ever being in Romania (about which I knew very little before moving there so I had to do some Googling in advance!) and my first GM role.

I was excited and apprehensive at the same time. My Mum was worried and thought I was crazy, I knew that I was going to a new country, with a different culture, moving to a role with high responsibility and sometimes also an isolated role… and I didn´t know anybody there. It was risky, but I had nothing to lose and the worst-case scenario would be going back home if it didn’t work out.

So, I took on this great challenge, which turned out to be the most powerful development experience, both professionally and personally, I have ever had.

For most of the first six months I was completely out of my comfort zone; the fear of failure and the drive to prove myself kept me going. I had to quickly develop courage and confidence, because that was the way to start moving things forward.

I am proud that during my time in Romania, GSK Consumer Healthcare won Employer of the Year in the Aon Hewitt Awards and I was recognized both internally as the Consumer Healthcare GM of the year and externally by Forbes Magazine as one of the top managers under 40 in Romania.

This move showed me that taking a risk in your professional career pays back; once you overcome your fears, the benefits you can reap are fantastic and you develop very quickly. The opportunity to work with colleagues with diverse cultural background is also an enriching experience. It forces you to have a fresh approach to the business and keep your mind open. I would highly encourage any professional aspiring for senior positions to get international experience once in their life.

Can you give an example of a failure or disappointment you experienced and what you learned from it?

When I was starting my career, I wanted very much to work at one specific top FMCG company.  It was my dream, because I loved their brands, they had great scale and power and they were offering some fantastic graduate training. I had a First-Class Honours degree from university, support from my tutor and business mentors and I understood that my profile fitted well to that organization. So, I sent my CV and waited impatiently to enter the recruitment process.

The next thing I remember was sitting on the stairs of my student house, with an open letter from that organization, saying I was rejected at the first level, not even reaching the interview.

I was absolutely devastated and just couldn´t believe that it was happening.

That was a pivotal moment, when I had to decide what to do next and find a new path. Failing at the first step towards your dream is tough, however the experience taught me a good lesson, that results alone are not enough. You need to be able to inspire and enhance your own qualities and strengths to stand out from the crowd. So, I had to learn how to take a more holistic approach to my career and get better at representing myself. The experience made me more determined to succeed.

I would encourage anyone who faces a failure or setback in their life not to let it derail you – just pause, set a new path or objective, take the learning and move forward.