Dr Beulah Ji of GSK

    We Spoke to Dr Beulah Ji of GSK on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    As part of our series about the “**Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Beulah Ji, Vice President and China Head of Development, GSK R&D.

    Dr. Beulah Ji is currently Vice President and China Head of Development in GSK. Beulah leads the multi-functional Development organization responsible for the portfolio delivery of GSK pharmaceutical products and vaccines across all therapeutic areas in China. Beulah has had a diverse career in GSK over 20 years with strong team and project leadership experience in R&D and Medical Affairs both in China and globally. Her therapeutic area expertise focusses on immunology, nephrology and hepatology. Beulah has a track record of successes in leading global clinical development achieving regulatory approvals in the US, EU, China and Japan, optimizing patient access to new treatments, and advancing medical practice through scientific innovation. Beulah is a physician by training. After graduating from Capital Medical University in Beijing, Beulah served as a pediatric internist in Beijing Children’s Hospital.

    Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

    I grew up in Beijing. Both of my parents were scientists in engineering fields. As a curious teenager, I took interest in a broad range of things, including journalism, literature, law/ethics, biology and chemistry. I ultimately chose to pursue medicine at university for its direct connection to people’s everyday lives. My first job was at Beijing Children’s Hospital as a physician in Internal Medicine. The hospital setting was great for gaining valuable clinical experience, but somewhat limiting in terms of progressing scientific research. Driven by the desire to learn more about drug development that would provide benefit to a population of patients, I decided to change directions and joined the pharmaceutical industry at GSK China in 1997.

    Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

    In my early days in clinical research at GSK, I needed to deliver a scientific presentation to an external audience. I teamed up with a global speaker who presented in English while I provided further technical context in Chinese. I did my homework, thinking I knew the slides back to front and I didn’t bother to check for any updates. We were halfway through the talk when a slide came up on the screen that I hadn’t seen before and had no clue what the point was, and there was little text on the slide that I could lean on! My partner finished his articulation (for quite a few minutes) then looked at me expectantly. There was a pause as I was internally debating if I should make something up or just admit that I didn’t know. So I said, “I am sorry that I have not prepared for this one and have no idea. I will study it afterwards and let you all know the key points.” The audience laughed, they were kind and understanding. I was embarrassed. The lessons learned here are that communication is key to good teamwork and that when we don’t know something, being honest is more credible than pretending.

    None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

    While I was in the early days of my global clinical role in the UK, I had was privileged to have Dr. Yvonne Greenstreet as my mentor (she was the Senior Vice President & Head of Medicine Development in GSK R&D at the time). Yvonne helped me to see my potential and encouraged me to turn up the volume on my leadership voice. She was a great guide who supported me through my transition into a global role. As a female physician, scientist leader and ethnic minority with diverse professional experience who really made an effort to develop others, Yvonne was my role model, and her career journey was inspirational.

    I remember when GSK was exploring an external partner to develop BENLYSTA for lupus, immunology was uncharted territory for GSK and, historically, there had been no successes in lupus drug development. Yvonne decided to take it forward and I tried to understand the driver of the decision. Of course, there were considerations for science and business, but what jumped out to me was her sense of purpose in that we had an opportunity to improve the standard of care for a disease of significant burden to women, and her courage to innovate– if we don’t try, we don’t know.

    Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your department started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

    When I think of my personal purpose, I recall the start of my career when I was a young pediatrician. One of my lupus patients, a 13-year-old girl, had been on aggressive steroid treatment for eight months, as treatment options were limited at the time. She experienced significant side effects and this took a harsh toll on her self-confidence, self-image and hope for the future. This experience motivated me to play my part in exploring opportunities in the lupus space to bring better care to those who need it most.

    From the perspective of my work on BENLYSTA — which remains the first and only biologic approved for lupus and lupus nephritis in adults in more than 50 years — our purpose lies in addressing the significant unmet needs and improving the quality of life of this patient population. At GSK, we are committed to advancing treatment for people with lupus, building on decades of research and leading with a long-term commitment to innovative science. We believe in continued improvement and always reaching for new heights.

    Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

    Making a start in an area that had no precedence was challenging. Lupus as a disease was under-researched back then. We had a new therapeutic target, a first in class biologic and a heterogenous patient population. We needed to find a way to connect the dots to bridge science to patient benefits. With the experts’ help, I ran a series of “roll-up-your-sleeves” scientific workshops in immunology and B cell biology to develop the scientific capabilities of the team. I then led a patient insights session, interviewing UK patient representatives to get a first-hand understanding of what it was like to live with lupus.

    Aimed at illustrating the burden of the current standard of care treatment for lupus, I asked one patient how many pills she had to take each day. The answer was 21, which silenced the room. Hearing the patients’ need gave us an enormous sense of responsibility and motivation to beat our path forward and give BENLYSTA the best chance to become a viable medicine for patients.

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    The BENLYSTA pediatric lupus program was very challenging to run given the complexity and rarity of the disease in this patient population. Patient recruitment was extremely difficult and it required a great deal of commitment among patients, families, caregivers, doctors/nurses and researchers. There were those expressing concerns, criticism and skepticism, and asking us to take the easy way out by not pursuing the indication. However, the profound impact of the disease on children stuck with me as I believed that, with BENLYSTA, we had a real chance of making a difference.

    At a rheumatology congress, I was talking to one of our investigators for the research program about how we could better engage the wider clinical community to address recruitment challenges and which messages would resonate well. He told me what one of his patients involved in the research, an 8-year-old girl, said to him, “Your medicine makes me happy.” My eyes were wet. That says it all in terms of why we do what we do and the value of our work to patients. Difficult times like this needed a “can do” attitude more than ever.

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

    Reflecting on what I have learned from others and my own experience, at times of change, uncertainty and challenges, a leader holds the team together and navigates through the situation by providing clarity on vision and direction, staying laser focused, putting trust in and enabling others to do their personal best. One GSK senior leader once shared her view on what would make good leadership — know your stuff, stay true to yourself and always be in it for the greater good.

    When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

    We all have “wobbly” moments. As a leader, I go back to the core by reminding myself and my teams of the “why” behind our work — the purpose that brings us together and keeps us moving forward and aiming higher. At GSK, serving our patients and public health are our “why.” To inspire, motivate and engage, leading with empathy, honesty and authenticity is important for gaining trust and remaining connected with others. Only when we share the journey do we get to share the joy of success.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    When delivering difficult news, it’s important to first take a step back and try to envision the impact and sentiments that the people on the receiving end may experience. In empathizing with the challenges that your team or customer may face, it’s also critical to maintain a sense of transparency and let people know that their concerns matter and that their voices are being heard and respected. Even though the difficult news is not what people have expected, helping them understand the rationale behind it, and assuring them that they are understood and supported, are important.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    While living with the pandemic over the past year has proven the unpredictability of the future, we believe in remaining optimistic and always seeing the positive aspects and maintaining hope. Drug development is unpredictable as we continue to learn along the way. Lupus research is a good example for dealing with unpredictability, as the disease manifestations are diverse and treatment adjustments are needed on an ongoing basis. To deal with the unpredictability, I make it clear to my team what is most important — at a time of many uncertainties, what’s most important becomes certain. Scenario planning with a mechanism to adapt is necessary. To have the ability to adapt, I build and dynamically evaluate strategic resourcing.

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    “Drive a positive mindset” is my guiding principle. Being positive doesn’t mean one has to be happy all the time. It means that on hard days, it’s believing that there will be better days coming. I’m proud that my team continuously demonstrates resilience, focus and adaptability that has enables us to overcome challenges. We leverage everyone’s strengths to help us reach our common goals.

    Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

    • The drive and ability to innovate is limited by past successes: what worked in the past is not necessarily right for the future.
    • Leaders only care about numbers and stop caring about their people.
    • One-size-fits-all and there is no room for diversity.

    Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

    • Make the choice: dynamic prioritization by focusing investment and resources on the “bigger ticket items” that are future growth drivers, get ahead of curve.
    • Continue to invest in key talent to drive high performance and deliver strong business results.
    • Strategic partnerships to create synergies and a win-win situation.

    Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

    1. Connect Purpose to Action

    Think about the people that your work will help and take advantage of any opportunity you have to listen to them and understand the challenges they’re living with and how you’re able to help them. As I previously mentioned, knowing that the work we were doing in pediatric lupus was having a profound impact on just one child was all the motivation I needed to keep going and striving to succeed.

    2. Empathy.

    When I was leading a global team, I had to implement an organizational restructure that involved employees being displaced; I was not able to change the framework stipulated by regulations and policies. Empathy was the anchor of my actions in communication and execution that ensured we achieved the business objectives and provided the team with the best possible personal outcomes.

    3. Stay positive.

    The development of BENLYSTA for the treatment of lupus nephritis, a serious form of lupus causing kidney damage, was a long-time coming, significantly complex and challenging undertaking. The medical practice continued to evolve since the program was initiated, and there was a real risk that by the time the research was completed in its original design the data would not be clinically relevant. We were faced with the difficult decision to either continue and accept reduced value of the research or modify the trial design based on the practice with new risk of failure due to additional variables. I decided and advocated for the latter as I believed that the scientific rationale was sound and our teams were purpose-driven, committed, experienced, solution-focused and resilient to turn the corner. We took a smart risk with a positive mindset and it paid off. The clinical trial was a success, leading to BENLYSTA approval in lupus nephritis, the first in history.

    4. Connect to the external world for motivation/inspiration.

    Think about the people that your work will help and take advantage of any opportunity you have to listen to them and understand the challenges they’re living with and how you’re able to help them. As I previously mentioned, knowing that the work we were doing in pediatric lupus was having a profound impact on just one child was all the motivation I needed to keep going and striving to succeed.

    5. Lead by Example and be the one who create stars

    Just as I had a mentor early in my career to guide me and who helped me become the person I am today, it’s incredibly important for me to be that mentor to others who are in the early stages of my career. From my experience in clinical development to my interactions with the lupus community, I have an opportunity to guide an incredibly smart, hard-working team and a wealth of knowledge that I want to share with my team and help them excel. And this isn’t just me being altruistic. When each of succeeds, we all succeed.

    Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    I read the essay, “Three Days to See,” by Helen Keller when I was in school. One particular quote has resonated with me throughout the years: “Sometimes I have thought that we should live each day as if it were our last.” This sentiment speaks to a sense of urgency and responsibility to make a positive impact that we must embody and act on in our lives. Through my work in lupus, I strive to keep pushing myself and enabling my team to reach our goals and take advantage of the opportunities and resources we have access to, especially since the same cannot be said for others, including lupus patients. If we approach our work through this time sensitive lens, we will be able to continue to improve the way we develop new drugs and optimize the value of medicine to patients who are in need.

    How can our readers further follow your work?

    I am one of many scientists who contribute regularly to Please visit our Website for Behind-the-Science stories, R&D updates and more.