How I made it: Dannii Portsmouth - Global Head of HR, Consumer Health R&D, GlaxoSmithKline

How I made it: Dannii Portsmouth - Global Head of HR, Consumer Health R&D, GlaxoSmithKline

For our latest inspiring stories series, 'How I made it', we're interviewing the cream of the crop across all facets of communications and marketing. This is where you'll learn about how the best in the industry got to where they are today and hopefully pick up some tips along the way to help your own career progress.

We spoke to Dannii Portsmouth, Global Head of HR, Consumer Health R&D at GlaxoSmithKine. Having held a variety of strategic leadership roles and led management teams internationally within the company since she joined in 2008, her expertise spans talent management, creating high performing teams, transformational change and cultivating deeply inclusive workplace cultures.

She told us about the big break that allowed her to show just what HR can do, the importance of being yourself and why music is a gift…

How did you get into the HR industry?

The original plan was to do a Maths degree. However, after doing Maths at A-level I decided that wasn’t for me long term, and I started to explore different options.  As someone who is fascinated by what makes people tick and why they do the things they do, I found myself weighing up two options; a degree in Criminology or a business apprenticeship. 

Keen for some hands-on experience, I decided to go for an apprenticeship and joined Compuware Ltd and gained experience in different areas of the company whilst studying Business and Finance.  After a placement in HR (I didn’t know what that was at the time!), I found an area I truly loved and count myself very fortunate to have essentially “fallen into” something I am truly passionate about. 

What was your big break?

My big break came when I got a job at a law firm. That was during a time when HR was seen as a “back office” function rather than a business partner. However, this was the perfect blank canvas role which allowed me to show just what HR– and I– could do. I had a great boss there, one of those rare people who sees something in you and works with it until it comes to fruition.

I think my second big break came just after I had my son and returned from maternity leave to GSK’s Future Strategy Group, a six month development programme in the CEO’s office. On the programme you work through an enterprise level challenge, the objective being to diagnose the problem and design a solution for implementation. At the same time, there’s a real focus on personal development. With the excellent support from the programme office, you commit to a development plan that is so specific you can measure daily progress. These development plans are on the wall for everyone to see and to drive team accountability for success.  It’s challenging to get so specific that you can make an assessment daily about your progress, but worth the effort. 

What keeps you sane on those crazy days?

I’m a real believer in having people around you that you can trust, to be able to have that safe space to talk about what’s on your mind, but who will also keep you accountable to tackle what’s at hand.

I love music too, any kind. And especially stuff that I can sing along to. I’ll often put my headphones on and walk as I try to determine the best way to approach things.

Do you, or did you, have a mentor?

I’ve had some great jobs along the way and worked with some fantastic people, who have helped me in my career and to develop into who I am as a person. 

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had so many mentors. The first person who inspired me to succeed was my mum. She’s an incredible woman, who from as far back as I can remember, taught me that if you only reach for the ceiling, you’ll never touch the sky. She gave me the belief that I could be anything I wanted to be and to this day, she’s still my number one supporter.

In particular, there have been three people who have really gone above and beyond in their mentoring support.  They are all very different people but the red thread is these people that offer the unique blend of providing support, challenge and who role model “whole person” living. 

Now, I act as a mentor for several people, and I feel like I get a great deal out of those conversations too. You can learn something new every day! 

What three words would you use to describe yourself?

Progressive. Warm. Creative.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

Be yourself. It’s really easy to flex and adapt in order to fit in. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t do all those things but we shouldn’t lose ourselves when we do it. I’ve had moments in my career where I’ve realised I’ve spent so much time trying to fit in, and maybe I do,  but I don’t belong.  Find an environment where you belong and that inspires you to keep growing and learning as a person.

What top three things do you think your industry could be doing to improve diversity?

I think the first thing is to allow space for diversity. It comes in so many different forms and while you can bring many diverse people together, you don’t have true diversity until people can express their difference.  For me, the key focus is about enabling people to share, noticing things like body language and providing a space where they can tell you what they really think.

Second, I think it’s important to really pay attention to the external environment. There’s a big world out there, full of very different people, and it can be very different to the world you live in. So I’d say get out there, see different things and constantly challenge yourself by asking “what can this teach me?”

Third, I think you need to be open to what diversity is. It’s not just about gender, or race. It’s about age, sexual orientation, your background. All of these things play a part in shaping people.

What is the one piece of technology that you can’t live without?

I’d say stereo technology – so headphones, radios, audio books. I love all of these things. Tuning in to the radio can give you a really privileged view into how other people think and even song lyrics are always telling some kind of story – that’s a real gift.

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