The Purpose Blueprint: Q&A with Albert Bourla

Sustainable LeadershipLeadershipDigital TransformationHealthcareSustainability OfficersTeam Effectiveness
min Podcast
October 16, 2020
17 min
Sustainable LeadershipLeadershipDigital TransformationHealthcareSustainability OfficersTeam Effectiveness
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla says his company has a new determination to lead with purpose and to become one of the most purpose-driven organizations in the world.


RRA Healthcare interview series “Healthcare Leading Forward: Sustainable Leadership in Action”

Albert Bourla is Chairman and CEO of Pfizer, a USD 52 billion multinational pharmaceutical company based in the US. Prior to taking the reins as CEO in January 2019, he served as Pfizer’s COO, responsible for overseeing the Company’s commercial strategy, manufacturing, and global product development functions. A doctor of veterinary medicine by training with a PhD in biotechnology, Albert has held a diverse range of roles since joining Pfizer in 1993, including leadership roles in Pfizer’s Animal Health divisions around the globe. He is on the executive committee of The Partnership for New York City, a trustee of the United States Council for International Business, and a member of the Business Roundtable and the Business Council.

Recently, Albert spoke with Jacques Bouwens, a Senior Partner in the Global Healthcare Sector, and Sarah Galloway, a co-leader of the Sustainability Practice at Russell Reynolds Associates. He shared how Pfizer’s recent decision to lead with purpose has transformed the way it conducts its business.

The interview presented below has been edited and abridged for clarity.

Jacques Bouwens: Albert, it is a real pleasure to speak with you today. As Chairman and CEO, you lead Pfizer in its purpose, or “Breakthroughs that change patients’ lives.” But this purpose is only two years old. Can you please talk about the thought process behind choosing a new purpose for a 170-year-old company?

Albert Bourla: First of all, let me say how grateful I am for the opportunity to speak with you and Sarah. To answer your question, I do not think that Pfizer’s purpose is two years old. Pfizer's purpose, its reason for existing has always been what it is today – to bring medicines to people. What is new, however, is our determination to lead with this purpose, and to become one of the most purpose-driven organizations in the world. The reason we decided to do this was because, in general, companies that stay true to their purpose are able to perform much better than those that do not. In our particular case, with a purpose that can inspire thousands of employees who are working day and night, bringing it front and center gives us an additional boost to deliver on our promise to society. 

When I took over, I knew that I had to build upon the great work of my predecessor. During his time, in the previous decade, Pfizer had a tremendous turnaround in its R&D and scientific capabilities. That allowed me to be able to reshape the company to be more science- and innovation-focused, by finding better homes for businesses that were more driven by other characteristics, such as our ability to manufacture, our ability to commercialize, etc. 

When we decided to be a purpose-driven company, we knew that we would have to express our purpose in very simple terms, so that it would be communicated clearly and easy to remember. This is why we have chosen these precise words – Breakthroughs that change patients’ lives. 

Every word was carefully selected, and each one was debated for months. “Breakthroughs,” for example, is there to indicate that our reason for existence is not to bring incremental innovation; our reason for existence is to bring disruptive innovation. And, in fact, breakthrough innovation is not only about science, but also about how we do business – this would be commercial innovation, because it is very clear that the pharma business model needs to be revised. 

The word “change,” again, is speaking to the disruptive nature, to the magnitude of impact that we are aspiring to bring. We are not just thinking about bringing something that will “improve” patients’ lives; “change” patients’ lives means that we are aiming for things that only seem impossible; we are bringing about change through transformation. We are aiming for cures rather than incremental improvements. 

And, lastly, speaking about “patients’ lives” – it is very clear, that we do not refer only to the people that are suffering, but also to the people that are suffering together with them. We need to change not only the life of a child that, for example, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, but also the lives of the parents and the families. 

That was the whole idea of creating something that will become the filter through which we make the decisions on everything we do in this company. And that becomes something that will be remembered every day, every hour, by everyone in this company and that will inspire everyone, every hour, in this company.

Sarah Galloway: How are you anchoring purpose in what you do as a leader day-to-day? And how are you ensuring your leaders integrate purpose into the business? 

Albert Bourla: This is one of the most important questions, because the worst thing you can do is to launch an inspirational phrase and then demonstrate to all that you do not mean it. It starts with being able to walk the talk. When you say, “we are all about breakthroughs that change patients’ lives” and everything will be driven through these few words, you need to make sure that everybody, every day, sees that you mean it and you do it. This is extremely important. 

By saying ‘Why’, we refer to why we exist – and that is the purpose. But this is not enough. We need to speak about ‘What’ needs to be done to be able to accomplish the purpose. Unlike the purpose that is a very durable concept – one that is here to stay for decades, the ‘What’ is changing and typically will change every five or ten years. 

In our organization, we think about the ‘What’ in broad terms with a horizon of three to five years. It is what we call our bold moves, and this is our strategy for the next five years. Many people call it strategic imperatives. For us, we have five very clear directions, very meaningful in terms of business and expressed in a way that would be easy for everyone in the organization to remember. Those five things are the following: First, we need to ‘unleash the power of our people’, meaning we need to have an organization that people can thrive within. Second, we want to ‘deliver first-in-class science’, meaning we need to be innovators in science. Third, we need to ‘transform our go-to-market model’, to improve it. The fourth is to ‘win the digital race in pharma’, recognizing that digital is going to be extremely impactful, and that it is a race. Everybody is trying to [win that race], and one day, someone will – I want it to be us. And the last is to ‘lead the conversation,’ meaning we are affecting people's lives, and therefore, people's perspectives and perceptions about us are extremely important. Our reputation is by far the most valuable thing for the organization, and it starts with giving people their health. 

A little bit later, because we wanted to get it right, we took a much deeper dive into the ‘How’, which is the culture in this organization. And again, we wanted to create a culture that is the right culture for the moment, as well as the right culture for the Pfizer of the next decade. We summarized it in four key values. The first is ‘courage’. This organization needs to dare, this organization needs to be able to speak up, this organization needs to think big because innovation and breakthroughs favor the bold. The second is ‘excellence,’ because when you have the lives of people in your hands, you need to operate at your best. The third value is ‘equity,’ because when we speak about health, we cannot differentiate human beings. This is very important as a driver of how we do things. And the last is ’joy’ – a little bit less corporate but one of the most important values for us. It speaks to the new generation that is coming up and to what their expectations of a working environment are. They want a working environment that has meaning, they do not just want to be part of a company that pays a salary and ensures a career path. They want to be part of a company that has an impact in the world, and that gives joy to them and, of course, is fun. 

These were the steps that we took. Altogether, we call this the ‘Purpose Blueprint.’ It is the purpose of ‘why’, ‘what’ needs to be done and ‘how’ we are going to do. And I do not think it would be exaggerating for me to say that this one page – ‘Pfizer on one page’ – sits on the desk of literally every single Pfizer employee. 

Sarah Galloway: That is very clear, thank you. And, Albert, what role does diversity play in helping Pfizer realize its purpose? 

Albert Bourla: I think we should ask what role diversity plays in innovation to understand what role diversity plays at Pfizer. You cannot have innovation unless you have diversity. New ideas always come from the collision of different ideas, different points of view. So, you need to have diverse points of view across the entire organization to be great at what you do. That is the fundamental reason why we think it is so important for organizations to be diverse. 

Of course, it is also because it is the right thing to do, because right now not everyone in this world is treated equally, particularly when it comes to racial equality, gender equality, and sex orientation equality. We know very well that things are much more difficult for some people than for some others. 

For our company, this is a core value. Equity is one of the things that we are looking to ensure. It is very important for us to make sure that we not only improve diversity of our company employees, but also improve the diversity of our patient population. We want to make sure that our medicines are accessible by more and more people all over the world. It is also extremely important that our clinical study population is diverse. When we research new medicines, for example, we do not always focus on Caucasians, as was the case until a few decades ago, but we also include diverse groups. This allows us to test how the medicines are working in various populations, so that they too can benefit from the breakthrough. Equity is very important from all aspects – for business success, and also being at the forefront of doing the right thing. 

Sarah Galloway: Thank you, Albert. That brings me to the next question. If you were to look at diseases that affect everyone at this planet, how has purpose driven Pfizer’s efforts in the battle against COVID-19? 

Albert Bourla: When we realized the magnitude of the problem, we felt that it was our obligation to jump onto it. This is what one should expect from a company that has the scientific and manufacturing capabilities that Pfizer has. We tried to understand very quickly the areas where we could make an impact and we selected three at the beginning. We then focused on two areas – the development of the vaccine and the development of an antiviral treatment. Both of them are progressing very nicely. The vaccine has advanced to phase three clinical studies. I am cautiously optimistic that it will work, but we will have to wait for the study data. 

In terms of how that has affected us, our organization has never felt more proud of what we do. We recently ran a survey of close to 60,000 employees to measure engagement in our organization. The question “Are you proud to work for Pfizer?” received a 95 percent ‘Yes.’ It tells me that our purpose-driven culture is working, and people understand why we are here. Employees are engaged because of this purpose-driven culture. I hope that we will soon see successes from Pfizer and many other biopharmaceutical companies that are working on [COVID-19], because we will need multiple options to battle the coronavirus. 

We are all looking forward to the day when we have a vaccine. As one of the largest and most influential pharmaceutical companies globally, what role do you hope to play in advancing and enhancing the overall purpose of the industry? How does that purpose help shape the perception of the industry? 
We can play a major role. I see us as equals among many. Like many other companies, we are active in forums within the pharmaceutical industry, and in forums where multiple industries are cross-pollinating, like The Business Roundtable (BRT). 

We are playing a positive role. A recent example was the declaration that the BRT made changing the paradigm of a corporation’s purpose. For decades, the purpose of corporations was solely to support the interest of the shareholders; now it is to take care of the interests of multiple stakeholders. We were proud to not only co-sign, but to also take action in this direction. Being able to have the trust of society is extremely important to us, because individuals need to trust us and our medicines to save their lives or their children’s lives or their parents’ lives. 

There is nothing that counts more than this trust. We need to make sure that we are part of the community and share transparently with them what we are doing – how we conduct our research and business, how we strategize and plan, and most importantly, how we walk the talk. 

Sarah Galloway: Thank you, Albert, for an inspiring and visionary conversation. On behalf of Russell Reynolds and our team, we would like to thank you and your colleagues at Pfizer for everything you currently do for patients out in the world. It has been a pleasure speaking with you. 
Thank you very much.