Pharma, Phnom Penh and Parenthood: Deborah’s story

Deborah Gildea is based in Singapore and currently heads up our commercial Pharmaceuticals and Vaccines businesses in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. But this is only the tip of the iceberg in her career story to date.

Graduating with a Physics degree at Oxford University, I switched science for sales and marketing early on in my career following the completion of a Diploma in Marketing and a Sloan Masters programme.  I joined GSK in 2003 following an introduction at a networking event.

The early part of my career at GSK was spent in a variety of Consumer Healthcare roles. I then made the switch to our Pharmaceuticals business. Within a short space of time, I had been selected to undertake a secondment in our Future Strategy Group (FSG), a development programme for emerging leaders across the business who come together to work on a project determined by senior leadership.  While the project was my main focus, I was also expected to work on my  longer-term career aspirations, which in my case included an ambition to become a General Manager (GM) within our Pharmaceuticals business.

The FSG secondment opened a door for me.  On the back of the recommendations from my FSG project, a new Singapore-based role was created, and I relocated there in 2011. 

But it wasn’t just myself I had to consider – I am a single parent with a young son, William, who was just over 3 years old when I moved to Asia. When I first had William, I always thought that my career would remain in strategy roles. But my time in the FSG made me realise that if I wanted to achieve my long-term ambitions, I would need to work in other markets.

After two years in Singapore, I was asked to consider a collaborative Pharmaceuticals / Consumer Healthcare role.  It became clear that the role would require extensive long-haul travel which I felt would be detrimental to William, so I declined the opportunity. GSK was very understanding, and I was offered an alternative role which would support my personal commitments and my ambitions to become a GM.

The role was the newly created position as GM for Cambodia, setting up our operations in the country. I moved to Phnom Penh with William in 2013.  Today, our Cambodia business has around 90 employees and we are the largest Pharmaceuticals company in the country, something that I count as one of my career highlights. 

Recently, my role has expanded to include Laos and Myanmar.  I’m based back in Singapore, which allows me to assume more of a leadership role, and empowers my local leadership team to handle day-to-day operations.  I see myself an ambassador for my markets both internally and externally, and am more involved in developing and upskilling my workforce. This is hugely rewarding, particularly when I see the growth of some of the more junior women. Leading multiple markets means I do have to travel, but with my personal commitments I try to limit this to once a month. The company has been great in allowing me the flexibility to manage my working life around out-of-work priorities.

My advice to ambitious, working, single parents is not to assume that some career options are closed off. If you want to work abroad, start by thinking how you might create a support network for yourself. Taking on a regional role in Singapore before moving into a GM role in-market meant I could get used to ex-pat living as a single mum with a small child. It helped me establish a network of local support – very reliable childcare, friends and colleagues.

Parenthood is one of the most important personal development experiences I have had. I often say I lead two teams - one at work and one at home. I have learned to organise my time and plan my week, ensuring I deliver what I need to at work and reserve time for William.        

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