Albert Bourla says he never planned to become a CEO. When he joined Pfizer in 1993, after earning a Ph.D. from a veterinary school in Greece, Bourla says he knew his calling was industry, not academia. He said clarity about his true passion has been one of the foundations of his success.
“I’ve never seen someone who became successful without liking what he or she was doing,” Bourla said.
Bourla shared insights about his career and about leading Pfizer during one of the most critical periods of history with Dean Bill Boulding as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Developing Leadership Perspective
Bourla’s first job at Pfizer was in the animal health unit. Bourla said because the unit was a smaller division of the company he learned how to work quickly, with fewer resources and in a customer-oriented way. Bourla said the smaller division also had a strong sense of pride in belonging.
“The division was very important for us, and we were important for it,” he said.
Bourla said he took that lesson with him when he moved into the pharmaceutical side of the house. “People are hungry, thirsty for feeling they are part of a greater good.”
Bourla says that moving to pharma also taught him humility in leading work versus going deep in the weeds and doing it all himself.
“From a leadership perspective, it taught me how to rely on others to get things done, which wasn’t my style when I was working in animal health,” Bourla said. “I had to grow and learn to manage the work of others, because I didn’t understand their work.”
Creating Diverse Teams
Bourla says he learned to appreciate the power and beauty of difference as he lived in nine different cities in five different countries during his career at Pfizer. He realized that building the best team meant increasing diversity.
“Diversity is about bringing people from different backgrounds inside Pfizer and trying to recreate the diversity of society within the organization,” Bourla said. “Inclusiveness is having the conditions that they feel welcome.”
Bourla said he found people within the company who shared his beliefs.
“Slowly, slowly, we started building this culture all over the company,” Bourla said. “When it is top of mind you can change things, and it was always top of mind to improve diversity.”
Bourla says since he became CEO in 2019, Pfizer has increased the percentage of women in vice-president or higher roles from 33% to 42% and the percentage of minorities within the company from 19% to 28%.
“I think this is what fuels the high performance of the company,” Bourla said, “when everybody feels welcome, feels that they belong, and that they are not outsiders.”
Encouraging innovation post-COVID
Bourla says the strong sense of mission kept Pfizer employees working around the clock during the pandemic to develop one of the first COVID vaccines.
“I treasure the fact the because of COVID, we became known in every single corner of the earth,” Bourla said. “Right now the recognition of Pfizer’s brand name is as high as very few brand names in the world.”
Bourla said that level of recognition also brings great responsibility to continue innovation – pointing out in the next 18 months, Pfizer plans to launch 19 new medicines.
“The best days of Pfizer are still ahead of us,” he said.
Bourla says he hopes governments will do more to unlock innovation in life sciences industry post-COVID, but said he worries part of recent U.S. legislation will have the unintended consequences of driving companies to the research options that will be most lucrative for them.
“The lesson (of the pandemic) was that we had a thriving life science industry that was able in record-time to come up with diagnostics, then respirators…then vaccines and then oral treatments,” Bourla said. “That’s why we’re here.”
Advice to future leaders
Bourla believes that there’s no single recipe for success, and each individual’s path is different.
Many people, he said, plan their career years in advance. Bourla said instead he only focused on “doing a very good job and doing it right now.”
“It is unmistakable. You do a good job, they see you,” Bourla said. “You do it twice, more people see you. They will give you an opportunity to do it somewhere else… a better job. This is how careers are.”
Editor’s note: To read more about Bourla’s thoughts about polarization, disinformation, and when business should speak out on societal issues please see this piece.