Smiling Pair in an office
Sewanee: The University of the South Scholar Jenkins Darbney with his host, Pfizer Chairman and CEO Dr. Albert Bourla.

Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Dr. Albert Bourla

Winter 2024 | National

The Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows Program awards five exceptional Posse Scholars $10,000 each and the chance to spend 4-6 weeks during the summer shadowing and learning from a major industry leader. The interview below with Dr. Albert Bourla, Chairman and CEO of Pfizer, was conducted by Posse Scholar Jenkins Darbney, now in his junior year at Sewanee: The University of the South, who worked with Dr. Albert Bourla as a 2023 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

JENNKINS: What was your childhood like and how has that influenced your leadership?

DR. ALBERT BOURLA: I grew up in Greece in a two-parent household where my family did not have a lot but had enough to sustain us. I also grew up as a religious minority, which, because of my name, was evident to others.

I inherited my drive from my mom. I admired her bold go-getter spirit, allowing no limitation to stand in her way. My dad was more conservative. I took his thoughtfulness, being cautious of what I do, thinking through things and playing out how the actions I take affect me and others around me. Coming from a two-parent household that exhibited different personalities, “yin and yang” as I describe it, I took from both parents, merging their personalities to form my own and integrating that into how I lead. At the early age of 11, I gained some insights into business from following my dad to some of his work-related meetings for small real estate, land development, and apartment management, which allowed me to listen in on negotiations and conversations.

What were some of the things you did outside of your studies as a student and how has that shaped who you are today? Do you think it influenced your leadership style, and if so, how?

Outside of my studies, I was heavily involved in two things: the music team, which I was instrumental in building, and the student government, where I was president of my class all through and president of the school my senior year. I believe the reason I was elected by my peers to represent them was because of my willingness to stand up for what the group believes in and speak on their behalf.

The boldness I took from my mom allowed me to take charge and lead as needed, which I embedded into how I lead. My leadership development continued during my college years. There, I learned how to inspire my fellow students to vote for me, believe in me, my goals, and the story I was trying to bring to life, and how to compellingly deliver my message through speeches and debates against my opposition. Because my college was highly political, having several parties involved in the student government, I learned how to bring people of different beliefs to a consensus, agreeing on a single goal, which is another thing that has stayed with me throughout my leadership and my time as CEO. As a representative for students on the school governing board, I gained some insights into how institutions work, how the collective makes decisions, how to take minutes, and how to enact laws. It has all had an impact on my career.

Can you tell me about the first time you managed people? What were some of the ups and downs you faced, and what were some insights you gained and learned that you have carried with you through your career?

Before Pfizer, I had the chance to manage people while taking groups of Greek tourists throughout European capitals and showing them sites. I learned how to control my environment and prevent tension, read people’s body language to be proactive, and avert any accidents that could arise.

While serving as manager initially at Pfizer, I used similar principles: reading body language, discerning intentions, and noticing who each person worked well with.

The way I see it, there are stages to management in leadership. When I was an individual contributor, my work ethic got me noticed. While managing people, I had to know how to read my environment, pair the right people together on projects, and allow my team to shine. While managing large, multi-level teams, I had to find a balance between driving something myself or allowing someone else to take charge, something I struggled with since I was often the driving force behind everything I did.

Early in my career, I wanted to be the smartest in the room, but because I was managing others, I realized the need to make space for those I was managing to lead because they wanted to be seen as the smartest by their boss . As a way not to step in and hinder the development of those working for me, I had to be self-aware, step back, and look at the situation- which got me through the rough patches when I felt like reverting to my individual contribution mentality.

What was it like to transition into the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) position? What were some of the challenges you faced personally and at work? How did you overcome those obstacles?

I knew a year and a half before becoming CEO that I would be the next CEO, so I came in prepared. I had done all the jobs leading to my position, including the Chief Operating Officer (COO) position, where I ran everything while reporting to the CEO. I believe the only thing I was not ready for was being the last line for decision-making. There was no one to stop me from making a bad decision. When I was the COO, my boss could guide me when I had questions. For me, the feeling of having ultimate responsibility created doubts concerning every decision I was making. I overcame this feeling by reflecting on how I got into the CEO position: by trusting my instinct and judgment and not second-thinking every action I took.

What was your leadership style before the COVID-19 Pandemic? How did you have to adjust your leadership style during the pandemic, and what were some of the rapid changes you made to account for what was going on in the world?

Before the pandemic, I had already been on the job for a year. I had a plan in place to drive changes that created an innovative environment, including changing the portfolio of the business, divesting non-scientific-based projects, and changing capital allocation by giving more to Research and Development programs. Before the pandemic, I believed Pfizer was a different company.

Seeing the world we were in and knowing that my team had the expertise, resources and capability to create change, I focused on the innovative culture I established as the key to the development of the vaccine. I leaned on the skills I had acquired throughout my different leadership roles, including inspiring others to do what was needed to move innovation forward and creating a safe and innovative space that allows my team to think big, take risks, and have nothing limiting them from doing what was needed.

What leadership lessons have you learned from your time traveling throughout your career, and what laid the foundation for your leadership style?

I was appreciative for the opportunity to communicate and share ideas with different cultures because it allowed me to develop my understanding of leadership. When working in Germany, I knew I had to interact with people differently than when working in France. I had to do things differently to interact with people from different cultures to be accepted. Having experienced different cultures and acceptance in those cultures, I learned how to create an inclusive environment that is open and safe to everyone.

Equally important, a new role changes the leadership style necessary for success. The leadership required for managing a project is different from the management of a region.

Generally, what are the most important qualities when hiring, and what do you look for when building your executive leadership team? What is one question you would ask when hiring, and how would you answer it?

When hiring or creating a team, I look at a person’s character as a determining factor. I want people who care about what they do, someone who takes on responsibility and good people generally. I look for leadership, people who can create followership; who can communicate and engage others with them. I believe that being an expert and being able to come up with good ideas is one thing, but if you cannot follow through with those ideas by creating a space for others to follow, then that idea is in vain. I acknowledge the expertise needed for each job but look for people with good judgment who can make decisions.

When interviewing a candidate, a strategy I use is asking them disarming questions like, “How would those working for you, or a family member describe you?” This allows the person to speak to their true capability as opposed to what they think I want to hear. This allows me to see the person’s true self.

If you could give some advice in a commencement speech to a graduating class, what advice would you give to the students and why?

In a commencement speech, the advice I offer is not to follow what others want you to do, nor to take a job because of the money, but to do something you love. I believe that each person’s path to success is different and unique to them, encompassing a lot of variables. I believe a person doing what they love can become successful, but a person who does not love what they do won’t be successful because their work will be a burden to them. There will be no passion, nothing to drive them to be better.

From your 30 years of experience, what are some misconceptions about Pfizer or the pharmaceutical business you have heard, and how would you respond to them if you could?

One of the biggest challenges pharmaceutical companies is facing right now is the spread of false information, where a few groups or people with alternative agendas create doubts in the minds of those that trust them. It frustrates me that in the world of science, where there is clear evidence and proven facts, there are still people with doubts. Even with this, I still believe that we should not turn against those with opposing views or isolate them because that only separates us more, but rather we should help them understand by educating them. And to do this, I believe we need to go into these spaces, find leaders in these communities, explain things to them, and try to get them to understand.