CAREER

Sally Susman’s Moment in History

How She’s Leading With Purpose as Pfizer Works to Develop a COVID-19 Vaccine

As told to Jennifer Dixon

Comms Corner: In our new series, we catch up with a communications leader and ask her to nominate a woman she admires for our next edition. First up: Pfizer’s Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer Sally Susman.

Sally SusmanWe (virtually) sat down with Pfizer’s Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer to discuss her servant-leader philosophy, the importance of the human elements of leadership and a vaccine that could change the course of history.

Sally Susman projects such an air of calm that it’s hard to believe she’s in the midst of the “biggest, most important moment” of her career. “Are you kidding?” she jokes of her perceived serenity. “The pressure we feel is enormous, and it’s on our shoulders every day.”

Susman heads up Pfizer’s 250-person strong Corporate Affairs team, which includes communications, investor relations, global policy, government relations, philanthropy and the Chief Patient Office. If a regulatory review in October proves successful, Pfizer will move on to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, with 100 million doses created this year and over 1.3 billion in 2021.

As Pfizer’s chief communicator, the 2019 NYWICI Matrix honoree finds herself in the spotlight frequently of late — sometimes in surprising places. On the day Pfizer announced the start of its Phase 3 clinical trial, friends and neighbors applauded the scientists working around the clock to develop a potential COVID-19 vaccine and treatment. For their part, Susman and her team were ramping up communications. “People really want to hear from us right now,” says Susman. “Information is key.”

Below, in her own words, Susman shares her thoughts on leadership and how to stay engaged in the days of Covid-19 and looks ahead to the future of the workplace.

Leadership

First, connect your team to a vision that has purpose. It’s very motivational for people. When we created our Pfizer’s purpose: Breakthroughs That Change Patients’ Lives, my team really liked seeing their work in the context of something so meaningful.

As far as managing my team, I believe in a servant-leader philosophy. It’s not my job to tell you what to do or to do the work for you. It’s my job to make it easier for you to do your own work: to clear obstacles, to get resourcing, to provide support—all in service of your ability to do your job.

Get Personal

The pandemic has given leaders a lot to think about. Without the daily interaction of chatting with people in the hallways or seeing somebody smile in the morning, things can easily become very transactional: do this, do this, do this.

It hasn’t been easy, and I’ve been far from perfect. But you have to make an extra effort to keep the relationship elements going. Take time to ask questions about family or have a little chuckle about something.

I was talking to a woman leader recently, and she said something I related to. The most basic human elements of leadership matter more right now. Strength, kindness, courage — people are looking for that.

Future of the Workplace

I’ve always had an in-office bias. I like working in the office because ours is a profession learned largely through apprenticeship. I learned how to do this by watching people more experienced than me do it. And I’m at a stage in my career where a big part of what I’m doing is teaching. I miss that most.

Office life will be changed forever. We’ve taken a test and we passed it — the test being can working remotely be successful, and it is. It does work, but it’s not perfect.

The ideal work formula would have some opportunity for remote, more than we’ve had in the past. But I still believe in the essential nature of getting together as a way of learning and working.

Advice for New York Women in Communications

Take notes and jot down observations or reflections. Most communicators are readers and writers at heart. This is a time like no other, and we will look back and we will want to remember how were we in this moment.

Stay tuned for our next installment of the Comms Corner featuring Sally Susman’s nominee AnnaMaria DeSalva, Global Chairman and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

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