The Greatest Positive Impact
Executive Vice President, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer
By Jennifer Dixon
Sally Susman’s resume knows noboundaries. Pfizer’s Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer has risen through the ranks of four industries in three cities during her 30-plus-year (and counting!) career. “There is no greater growth trajectory than changing your sector,” said Susman. She should know. After two government stints in Washington, D.C., she moved on to financial services, overseeing European Corporate Affairs for American Express in London. She then pivoted to personal products and the coveted role of Executive Vice President of Global Communications at the Estée Lauder Companies in New York before landing at Pfizer in 2007. The LinkedIn Influencer’s current position constitutes a triple threat, leading a 250-strong team of Communications, Government Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility employees for the pharmaceutical giant. PRWeek recently crowned Susman the top in-house professional of the last 20 years, and “the epitome of the modern CCO (Chief Communications Officer).” We caught up with the Matrix winner on motherly advice, her posse and the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.
YOU WEAR A LOT OF HATS AT PFIZER. TELL US ABOUT YOUR REMIT.
My role includes three areas: 1. Communications The press office, internal, external, digital and brand communications, and the annual report. 2. Government Relations & Policy The Washington office and employees at the state level, as well as colleagues overseas in large [world] capitals. Industry leadership on policy issues and stakeholder advocacy efforts. 3. Corporate Social Responsibility The Pfizer Foundation, programmatic work in healthcare, impacting global health and minimizing healthcare disparities. The most interesting part is the power of these three pieces working together and getting all of the elements moving in harmony.
‘I bring my true self to work in the hope that it will set an expectation.’
DESCRIBE YOUR MANAGEMENT STYLE.
It’s fairly personal. I bring my true self to work in the hope that it will set an expectation. I also encourage [my staff] to take risks and be creative. I like to innovate. I don’t know of any other Fortune 50 company that offers creative writing classes. And I had a 70-year-old intern. He held my position at Merrill Lynch, and after I watched the movie “The Intern” I asked him to come and work with us.
WHO WAS THE FIRST PERSON YOU TOLD ABOUT YOUR MATRIX AWARD?
Lisa Sherman, a fellow honoree. Lisa and I have been friends for a long time — we’ve known each other for over 30 years. We are in a posse together. We met in D.C., and we both longed to win a Matrix Award and the fact that we won together is thrilling.
HOW HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A GAY WOMAN IN THE WORKPLACE EVOLVED FROM YOUR EARLY CAREER DAYS UP UNTIL TODAY?
My professional career and adult life have coincided with the gay civil rights movement. I came out to my family in the early ’80s, and it was a tough response for fear that I wouldn’t have a career, a spouse or a child. And I really worked both personally and within larger society to make those things possible. The fact that I do have a successful career, a 30-year marriage and a 25-year-old daughter — I’m extremely grateful and proud. I marched in parades, worked with the Human Rights Campaign and came out in all my jobs. At the beginning of my career I faced a stark choice. Taking the road of being honest has, in the end, proved a gift beyond measure.
IF YOU COULD HAVE ONE CAREER DO-OVER, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
There have been times that I wish I moved more quickly and made decisions sooner. If I’ve faltered, it’s been when I’ve hesitated.
HOW DO YOU RELAX?
I love to walk and to read and to write. I’m a big fan of the poet Mary Oliver. She talks about nature. Walking stimulates my mind and spirit. I walk to or from work every day, and on the weekends I take hours-long walks. Just to think and breathe and exercise really stimulates my writing.
WHAT CAREER ADVICE HAVE YOU GIVEN YOUR DAUGHTER?
To embrace risk; trust your gut; marry confidence and compassion. Workplace evolution is a hot topic right now.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT AS YOU LEAD PFIZER’S RELOCATION TO HUDSON YARDS?
Doing anything in real estate in New York City is fascinating. I’m happy we’ve remained a New York City company. Pfizer’s first headquarters was in Brooklyn; this [Midtown] location is our second, and Hudson Yards will be the third. Being in New York is very special. You’ve got the brightest, most hardworking people.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR CHARITY EFFORTS.
I recently became the co-chair [with former Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner] of the International Rescue Committee. It’s the largest resettlement agency for refugees. It was started by Albert Einstein around World War II so that never again should people float around without a place to land. I’ve been on the board for eight years and am really humbled by the magnitude of the mission. The refugee crisis is the humanitarian crisis of our time. I visited a refugee camp on the northern border of Kenya. But sadly this is not limited to any one region, including the current crisis at the southern border of the U.S. It’s really important to me. If there’s one message I’m trying to convey, it’s that what I want to do and encourage others to do are those activities with the greatest positive human impact.
Jennifer Dixon is the Vice President of Finance Communications at Morgan Stanley.
Sally Susman’s 2019 Matrix Award will be presented by Albert Bourla.
Whether moving through the executive suites of Corporate America, working the corridors of power in Washington or Brussels, or leading a humanitarian relief mission in Africa, Sally Susman is equally at home. The New Yorker is known for influencing change and shaping public opinion in whatever arena she enters.
Business. As Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer, Susman leads reputation management and directs the company’s communications, public affairs and philanthropic activities around the world. As Vice Chair of the Pfizer Foundation, she oversees global public health initiatives and, as one of the longest-serving members of the health care company’s Executive Leadership Team, plays a key role in shaping corporate policies.
Currently, Susman serves on the board of WPP, the UK-based global advertising and marketing company.
When she joined Pfizer in 2007, Susman brought an extensive portfolio in business, government and communications. For the seven years prior, she was Executive Vice President of Global Communications at The Estee Lauder Companies, leading corporate affairs for 28 brands. Between 1990 and 2000, she held several high-level communications and government relations roles at American Express, including a posting in London with responsibility for all of Europe.
Civic. Public service has long been ingrained in Susman’s life. During eight years in government service, she focused on international trade issues – first, as Legislative Assistant for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (1984-1990); and later, as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S Department of Commerce (1993-1995).
In electoral politics, Susman has served on the Finance Committee of the Democratic National Committee. In 2013, she was Finance Chair for New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s mayoral bid. Among many philanthropic endeavors, she is currently on the boards of the International Rescue Committee and the New York Botanical Garden, and has been previously active on the board of the U.S. Library of Congress.
Influencer. Whether advocating for social justice or economic reforms, Susman can be found at the center of thoughtful discussion. Recently named by PRWeek as one of “The 20 Most Influential Communicators” of the past two decades, she was described as “the epitome of the modern CCO (Chief Communications Officer).” In 2018, Susman also was placed on City & State’s inaugural “New York Women’s Power 100” list. A LinkedIn Influencer since June 2018, she is a frequent commentator in newspapers, magazines and broadcast programs.
Susman holds a B.A. in government from Connecticut College and has studied at the London School of Economics.
She and her wife, Robin, and their daughter, Lily, live in New York City and Sag Harbor, NY.