Be humble, take risks and challenge yourself


By Jean-Gonzague Fontaine

I come from a very rational, scientific background. I studied in Strasbourg for a Chemistry Masters and PhD, which led to several patents and a clinical trial. Then I did a one-year Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Germany, followed by ESSEC Business School in Paris.

My mind naturally travels in straight, logical lines. But the Future Leaders Programme has challenged me to explore different ways of working and thinking, which has often meant going out of my comfort zone. This has really helped to open my mind to new ideas.

Developing a new vision

For example, when I was studying, I had a very clear vision of what ‘working in science’ involved. I saw myself working directly with vaccines or medicines in the lab. But my time at GSK has made me realise that there are many ways of helping the people who take our vaccines that don’t depend on pure chemistry.

Right now, I’m working to implement a new European Directive which will lead to better controls for products and clinical trials. This will have a very positive benefit for patients, as it will ensure higher standards of quality and safety. This work doesn’t fit with my original vision, but it has the same purpose: helping people to do more, feel better and live longer.

Engaging with hearts and minds

I first moved out of my comfort zone in the Future Leaders Programme when I took on a Voice of the Patient project. I was asked to canvass the opinions of a range of GSK colleagues on how their work contributed to our Patient Focus value. This involved asking questions such as: “If your job didn’t exist anymore, how would that affect patients?”

This was tricky as the people in the survey were used to talking rationally about evidence-based proof and processes, rather than talking emotionally about more abstract concepts. To be honest, I was more comfortable talking about rational subjects too.

My approach was to encourage people to connect with the idea of patient focus by first asking about how GSK products might affect those close to them, such as their friends, family or community. This made it easier for people to imagine themselves in the patient’s shoes.

I’m proud of this project. It made me engage in conversations I would never normally have had, and it helped to demonstrate the importance of focusing on patients in order to deliver the best possible products and medicines. Of course, we are all the centre of our own worlds. But it was very powerful to ask questions that made people focus on the patient, and consider how that focus might change the way they work in the future.

Managing 70 projects at once

My final rotation in the Future Leaders Programme seemed almost impossible when I first heard about it. I was working in production in Belgium, heading up a team of 10 people in technical services. I had no experience in production, no experience of technical services and not much experience of quality and quality standards or change management.

From a standing start, I was suddenly in charge of managing 70 different projects, which could be anything from carrying out a survey or vital remediation activities following an FDA inspection, to putting all the critical systems in place for a new air ventilation system at a production unit.

I did wonder if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Luckily, though, with the Future Leaders Programme, we have mentors and advisors who can give us advice. But it was up to me to convince my team that I had the right to lead them, despite my very limited experience.

My approach was to be humble and to put my faith in the expertise and competence of my team. I told them that I trusted them to deliver and my job was to make sure they had the right conditions to carry out their projects successfully. I also made sure that I was a credible leader by only promising what I could deliver, and by always delivering on my promises.

It was an extremely stretching experience, but I feel privileged to have had this opportunity to make a success of a very challenging mission.

Explore, take risks and challenge yourself

The Future Leaders Programme has given me amazing opportunities to try new ways of working and explore new ideas. So if you’re tempted to apply, here’s my advice:

  • Be curious - take the less obvious route and explore
  • Go out of your comfort zone - take risks and you’ll develop
  • Challenge yourself - if you fail, you’ll learn.