To make way for the changes, Sir Colin Corness, the incumbent non-executive chairman, is to retire at the annual meeting in May after just two years in the job. Sir Roger Hurn, already a non-executive director, will take on the deputy chairmanship from Sir Richard.
The management changes were being signalled by Glaxo yesterday as part of its long-term succession planning, with Mr Lance earmarked as heir- apparent for the top job.
The group stressed that Sir Richard had not given any date for his final retirement. The moves confirm that Robert Ingram, the head of operations in North and South America who currently reports direct to Sir Richard, has been by-passed in the succession.
A South African, Mr Lance was appointed to his present position in October as part of a management reshuffle which saw the business divided into five business regions around the world.
\He is appointed to a new position of chief operating officer with immediate effect, taking responsibility for the Americas as well as Glaxo's operations in the rest of the world.
Sir Richard will add the role of chairman to his functions as chief executive until the 1998 annual meeting, when Mr Lance moves up to the chief executive's position.
Sir Colin said he had completed his aim of restructuring the board following the retirement of seven non-executive directors and aligning the company's corporate governance with UK best practice.
On a day when the pharmaceuticals sector was already showing good gains, Glaxo's shares added 14.5p to 974p yesterday, with analysts generally welcoming the management news.
Stewart Adkins of Lehman Brothers suggested the changes at the top could see a tougher approach to the business. Mr Lance had experience of the South African market, which was more like the US market in being dominated by private healthcare management organisations rather than government controls, as in Europe.
"He is one of the few people who has had direct experience of these markets. So maybe we will see a more hard-nosed approach to these markets, whereas Richard Sykes was a research and development man."
Paul Diggle of Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull said the moves were "recognition that the group needed a senior figure and a senior spokesman alongside Christopher Sykes".