Richard Easeman is Chief IP Counsel at GSK. Having previously served as Chief Patent Counsel, Richard took up the new role in February, in the midst of the current pandemic. Last week he sat down virtually with Julian Adamson as part of our latest LeadershIP series.
Richard, firstly congratulations on your new position as Chief IP Counsel at GSK. With IP now centralised under one function, what does this mean for the department going forward?
Many thanks. I have been the head of the GSK Patent department for 5 years and now I am honoured to lead the combined IP group which handles all IP matters including acquiring and defending those rights in litigation. There is a great sense of excitement in the team as a result of this combination – the group has broader responsibilities now and obviously that brings opportunities for people who want to learn new things and lead across a wider space. It makes sense to have all the IP experts together so we can develop talent, apply our resources where it most makes sense and think about IP issues in a more creative way.
When we first discussed your forthcoming promotion, you could not have foreseen the unprecedented global situation in which you would step into the role in 2020. How has this affected your transition into the role and what changes have you had to implement in light of COVID-19?
It certainly was unforeseen and it has created some issues in the transition for the team, but nothing that good communication and creative thinking did not overcome. The IP department was created in February 2020 and my first thought was to travel to meet the new people and learn what they do and why they do it. I managed one trip to North Carolina and was on the eve of another to Philadelphia and Warren, NJ, when the travel restrictions were enforced. I have been really pleased to see, however, how well technology has allowed us to meet each other and discuss what we can learn from each other.
Our immediate fear was that our filing, docketing and diary procedures would struggle in a completely remote, home-working, environment and without direct access to our post rooms we might start losing IP rights through missing deadlines. We quickly initiated our Business Continuity Plan (BCP) and we now have frequent BCP meetings each week, comprising all my team managers, so we can identify issues and solve them quickly. I am pleased to say that everything is holding up very nicely, issues relating to illness and technology quickly resolved and the team has not missed a beat.
As we move through a second wave of infections in some parts of the globe, our focus is on the wellbeing of the team, how it stays happy, healthy and talking about any issues which come up so that we can help, if we can. We find that the organisation can fulfil all its transactions very well working remotely, but what we miss is being together, the chance or overheard conversation which benefits someone in a different context, the connectivity between different subgroups of the department and the continued connectivity with what is going on in the business. Our managerial efforts will mostly focus on those areas going forward.
Are these changes here to stay post COVID-19? What operational benefits has this brought you that perhaps would not have been implemented otherwise?
Our department is working from home at the moment in most countries, with some exceptions, occasional trips into the office to process post and to collaborate in small teams of 2-3 people for business-critical projects. People appreciate the extra time in their days when otherwise they would be commuting. For example, I am really enjoying doing a bit of exercise early mornings and then having breakfast in the garden before the day really starts.
The direction of travel is very much to encourage more flexibility of working practices compared to pre-COVID times, in terms of where one works, hours of working etc, and find the balance of remote working and office working to retain the sense of team and connectivity we are starting to miss at the moment.
Have there been any managerial efforts or avenues that you are exploring to retain that sense of team and connectivity that remote working is missing?
At the outset I asked my team leaders to increase the frequency of their team meetings and everyone to increase the frequency of 1:1s with their managers. These meetings are to help workload and workflow, but also to do all we can to help people in terms of their wellbeing in these challenging circumstances. What we need to do now is to make sure the individual teams do not become silos which are isolated from each other and from the businesses we serve. We are now implementing monthly dialogues, modelled on a coffee meeting, where my leadership team and I just talk about what is going on, what is on our minds and sometimes being prompted by questions posed to us by the department on a question app. I would like to start inviting senior Legal leaders outside of our group, or leaders from the business, to bring that additional connectivity and communication. Colleagues of mine are also having on-line happy hours and games evenings, I hear that Pictionary™ is fun after happy hour!
You are in the process of restructuring the IP department globally. Talk us through the changes that you are trying to implement and the benefits that you can foresee leveraging from these changes.
GSK has announced its intention to split the current corporate structure and create two world-leading companies, one Consumer Health company and one Biopharma company. Our contribution to that future is to create the best IP organisation we can and prepare for the split. This means having the right number of roles in the right places, filled with excellent professionals who have exactly the right capabilities in each of those roles.
We are nearing the completion of a restructure process in order to achieve that. At the outset, my leadership team and I agreed that we needed to define exactly what the expectations are of each attorney job grade in the form of new job descriptions and role capability expectations. We then decided exactly how many of each role we needed and where we needed them. Our existing attorneys were assessed against those criteria and mapped onto the new organisation in light of those assessments.
This has led to a change in the total number of roles and about a quarter of our patent attorneys being offered different jobs than they used to have. Some people were offered roles at grades lower than they previously had and some were offered roles of a higher grade than they were used to. All restructure processes are difficult, but we can now say that we have a handpicked team of attorneys who are doing jobs we know that we need and they have the right capabilities to succeed in their new role. We are delivering savings in the cost base, but much more importantly, initial signs are good in terms of energy and enthusiasm, and we really hope this continues and the new team starts buzzing with creativity and passion for being a part of a great company which has such an inspiring mission.
A bold and courageous step to take 2 months into the new role and clearly one that was well received by the majority. On the flip side, how did you handle the disruption or anxiety that surrounds a restructure, especially given that you could not sit down with the individuals affected in person?
As I said, these are always challenging processes to go through, and doing it remotely only increases the challenge, for everyone involved. It starts with who is making the decisions. While I own the decisions, but it was my managers, once we agreed on what issues we were trying to address, who conceived of and delivered the plan. It is the managers who mostly deliver the process and communicate with individuals 1:1, and if they don’t understand or buy into the what and the why, then things are much harder for everyone.
It then helps to have as many communication channels open as possible, e.g. through the line managers, employee representatives, on-line question and answer sites, we also held weekly oral communication sessions throughout the process. We try to be clear about “why” change was necessary, clear about what the timeline would be (making it as short as possible but as long as necessary to be fair and respectful), make consistent and objective decisions with a mindset that if the entire team was in the room they would be happy with the discipline and fairness demonstrated, and stick to your promises. I have always been proud of the professionalism and resilience of my team and they are proud of their work and never miss a beat in terms of doing their jobs while going through processes like this, and I tell them that.
Returning to COVID-19, we see that it has accelerated and fundamentally changed the role of an in-house attorney, not least of all with the changes in client contact and self-motivation required by the respective individual. Does this alter your perspective on the profiles of the individuals that you are looking to bring into the team? What does the ideal in-house attorney look like for your organisation tomorrow?
I think that is an excellent question. One question that I have asked my leadership team is what is the difference between a remote in-house attorney and a remote private practice attorney, because an in-house attorney still needs to bring added value, even in a post-covid world. We are a company that is developing vaccines and therapies for COVID and so it is not surprising that GSK employees are feeling an even greater sense of connection with the GSK Mission at the moment. In terms of an ideal in-house attorney, assuming that remote working is a long-term practice, the ability to keep in contact with business strategies and with one’s peers will be critical in the future. What is not changed is our need for technical excellence combined with business acumen, energy, creativity and an enthusiasm to develop not only ourselves but everyone around us to get better at what we do.
The pharmaceutical industry is firmly under the spotlight at the current time, not least of all the vaccines sector. It must give you, more than ever, a great deal of pride to be leading the IP department of the world’s largest vaccines manufacturer but, simultaneously, increased responsibility during this time. What is your take on this?
If I broaden that out to healthcare as opposed to vaccines alone, it’s honestly why our teams come to work at GSK. If you can’t be motivated to be a part of a team who is developing a pandemic vaccine, or a new therapy for HIV or a new diagnostic tool in the consumer healthcare setting at this point in history, then you never will. COVID is a new challenge but it is not unique. My challenge remains the same, protect the innovations made by the company and in turn the company will make an enormous contribution to patients and consumers around the globe through responsible use of those innovations and IP. I am proud that GSK’s responsible IP policies have contributed a small part in GSK being ranked number 1 in the Access to Medicines index for many years in a row.
What will happen when a COVID-19 vaccine is approved. Will IP rights prove a barrier to the access or affordability of these?
Without entering into a debate about the premise of the question, the main barrier to access at the moment is the fact that the vaccines or medicines do not exist yet. Advancements in scientific knowledge and the clinical development process have to happen, both involving a huge financial investment. In this case national governments and NGOs are helping with both of those and discussions about access have been held from the outset.
Talking more generally now. IP is fundamentally important within the pharma sector, in turn giving you greater visibility and influence within the c-suite. What advice would you have for Chief IP Counsels within organisations where IP isn’t valued so highly – and the IP department therefore not as visible or influential – who want to implement change?
All Chief IP Counsels, in any business, have to run their teams like a business for the business. They have to be able to interact with senior leaders and demonstrate how the IP team helps them to deliver their objectives with the best possible return on the IP resource investment. For example, an R&D head may be measured on overall portfolio value, so asking them how we could together increase that measure normally gets their attention. I find that when trying to influence a change in mindset, a challenging question is sometimes more powerful than presenting an answer.
Years ago I asked my GC whether he knew if IP litigation would go up, go down or stay the same over the next 5 years. He did not know the answer and it shook him. A couple of weeks later he gave me the Chief Patent Counsel role and asked me to find out.
Brilliant. Outside of work, we gather that you are a keen car enthusiast and sailor. Is it difficult to strike a good work life balance? What advice would you have for others in similarly senior in-house positions struggling to strike such a balance?
Sometimes it is tough but that is no different for me than for anyone else. Generally I would say that it is important to make sure that the demands of work are in line with what is sustainable from a personal health point of view but also in line with the needs and expectations of those around you, in my case, my family. What we think is appropriate isn’t necessarily the same as other family groups, but it is important to know where you all collectively agree your lines are. After that, I hope that I am in a long term relationship with the company and in any long term relationship there are going to be times when I have to be flexible and put a little more investment in, and then I hope for the same flexibility and understanding from my boss at other times.
Working from home is really helping in this regard, and my time is better spent exercising or having breakfast in the garden, or having a meal with the family, instead of commuting. I do have hobbies, as you point out, and I know that some senior managers do not, but I need something to do to make my life about living and not just about working. You simply cannot think about work when you are sailing, and it can be such an intense experience that a weekend adventure feels like a week-long holiday.
Thank you for your time Richard, we greatly appreciate your input and look forward to witnessing GSK’s actions to support the global response to COVID-19.