Pfizer’s Sally Susman on Her Template for Success

September 2020
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During a career that has included leadership positions in communications and government affairs with the United States Department of Commerce, American Express, Estee Lauder and Pfizer, Sally Susman has learned to take career risks without undue worry, to lead with compassion, and to have fun. 

Here, Susman, executive vice president and chief public affairs officer at Pfizer, shares her template for success.

What leadership tenets have driven your success?

I believe strong leaders follow a few basic principles. Hiring involves both the science of finding fabulous candidates with the core capabilities required and the art of recruiting for diversity of ideas, skills and experiences. Onboarding must be taken seriously and given careful consideration to position new colleagues for success. Their accomplishments are our accomplishments.

Over time, a leader’s job is to get the best from their teams, and to inspire and challenge individuals. People-management means knowing what individuals can and cannot do. I like the analogy that a person can lose five pounds, but they can’t grow three inches. It’s important to know the difference. If you have to let someone go, then do so with dignity.


You’ve been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ representation in our profession. How can public relations become truly diverse and inclusive? 

Most people readily agree that diversity is a significant strength for companies. The tougher question is: How do we actually achieve diversity, inclusion and equity? History has shown it’s not easy, that it demands a persistent, focused, determined effort to face down barriers of all kinds and consciously make room for all people regardless of their race, age, ability, gender and sexual orientation.  

For LGBTQ+ individuals, I encourage you to be open and out. When I came out in the mid-1980s, I was warned that my homosexuality would derail me professionally. In fact, being open, candid and authentic has been a great asset and strength throughout my career. 

You’ve talked about leaders being both “powerful” and “kind.” What’s your response to people who say those terms are mutually exclusive for leaders? 

I don’t see any contradiction between power and kindness, or between influence and compassion. Some of the greatest leaders in history have married those traits. Look no further than Eleanor Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, is a contemporary example of a powerful, kind and creative leader.

You’ve shared the career counsel “Go for the bold move and take a risk.” With the pressure they’re under, how can leaders do this? And how can we encourage such boldness in our leaders-in-training?

Several years ago, I was asked to write a letter to my younger self. In it, I advised 20-something Sally to worry less. In hindsight, I can see that most anxiety is wasted energy. It’s painful to see the epidemic of stress that has taken hold of younger people, even children, in recent years. They’re so afraid to make the wrong move. 

Some of the risks that I have taken in my career, whether leaving a good job in corporate America for a pay-cut in government or accepting an assignment abroad when my daughter was very young, were small steps of courage, which led to great leaps in my career.

You’ve said that one of your proudest accomplishments is the team you’ve built at Pfizer. What do you look for in new hires, and how do you retain top talent?

When I look at external candidates, I like to hire out of agencies. Agencies are great boot camps for the profession. You learn very quickly how to manage projects and relationships, how to juggle client demands. From an in-house perspective there’s the added benefit of seeing someone in action when they’re working on your business. 

In terms of retaining top talent, research shows that people enjoy higher job satisfaction when their work is connected to purpose. Over the past year, Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla has defined and prioritized a singular purpose for our colleagues: Breakthroughs that change patients’ lives

Sometimes it’s right for top talent to leave a company. It can be hard for managers to swallow, but the truth is that there may be external opportunities that supersede internal ones. If you’re truly invested in people, you must never be a roadblock to someone’s success. In fact, I’m proud that members of my team have gone on to great heights — including Karen Boykin-Towns, senior counselor at Sard Verbinnen & Co. and vice chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors; AnnaMaria DeSalva, CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies; and Kirsty Graham, CEO of global public affairs at Edelman.

What’s your advice for readers who aspire to C-suite careers? 

Don’t aspire to the C-suite. Aspire to do groundbreaking, purpose-driven, high-impact work. Be open to new ideas and opportunities and make friends along the way. Work hard, even when you think no one is watching, and never cut corners. Accept more than your fair share of the blame and give away the lion’s share of the credit. Take time to define your values and then live by them. You may end up in the C-suite, but don’t let it be what drives you. 


You believe leaders should have more fun. What do you do for fun?

Last year at Pfizer we announced four values that would root the company’s culture: courage, excellence, equity and joy. 

I believe that experiencing joy and having fun are essential. When the leadership team was thinking about “joy” as a corporate value, we talked about the importance of making time to be playful, of taking our jobs seriously but not ourselves, and remembering that laughter is good medicine, too. I thought that last bit was particularly meaningful coming from a biopharmaceutical company.

When I have free time, I enjoy taking long walks, reading novels, playing golf with friends, cooking, browsing farmers markets, and discovering new poems that move my heart.
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