Look for the People Who Inspire You: Finding My Purpose and Passion

Sponsored by Pfizer

Sally Susman

Photo courtesy of Pfizer.

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Fairygodboss
April 17, 2024 at 8:31AM UTC

If you are looking to find purpose in your professional life, Sally Susman, the Executive Vice President & Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer, has advice for you! In her own career, Susman has managed to remain confident and persevere by finding her own passion and purpose. This strength has enabled her to excel as a working mother, member of the LGBTQ+ community and even when unexpectedly playing a key role in Pfizer’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Susman, helping others on a global scale during the pandemic fits her career-long goal, which is doing good with people who inspire her. But how did she find her way to this purpose, and how does she find the strength and resilience to persevere?

To learn more about how Susman achieved this goal, and tips on finding your own purpose, check out the abbreviated and lightly edited highlights from this inspirational talk at the Fairygodboss Inspiration Summit below. And, you can watch the full discussion here.

Throughout your career, purpose has been a main theme of your work. Can you tell us a bit about your career journey and your purpose? 

When I was a kid, I wanted to do good in the world and thought I would pursue a noble profession as either an investigative journalist or, maybe, the mayor of my town. So, when I graduated college, I went to Washington, D.C., and had my first job working in the mailroom of the United States Senate. I spent the next six years there working in government, slowly moving my way up [...] at a place that I thought, and still do, can do a lot to help people. But, for me, the pace felt slow… 

So, I left Washington [...] and, 14 years ago, I came to Pfizer, driven by this idea that I wanted to do good. I thought that a well-resourced, public facing, civically engaged company would be an interesting place to do that from.

Can you tell us more about finding your purpose?

Purpose isn't a singular activity. To find purpose, look for places where you could work with people you admire. In all of my companies, [I found projects where I could make a positive impact, like educating people on consumer credit, working on philanthropic activities and working on health equity and refugee relief and support committees.] 

There isn’t a single purpose that matters to me — there are lots of purposes that motivate me and drive me… One of the reasons I love working at Pfizer is that we are a company predominantly of scientists, and scientists are enormously purposeful people. They're trying to solve great mysteries, often without fame or fortune. They're driven by their compassion and their curiosity. So, my answer is to look for the people who are lit up, who are inspiring and who you want to be around. And, I bet if you poke around in there, you'll find some really great purpose.

When you signed on to Pfizer, you couldn’t have anticipated the major global crisis ahead — and that you would have such a personal and essential role in helping our world fight it. Can you talk about that experience? 

No one expects that they're going to find themselves in the middle of a global crisis. And I feel very fortunate that back in March of 2020, when New York was shutting down [...], my boss, Pfizer chairman and CEO, Albert Bourla, said we need to do three things:

  1. We need to take care of our nearly 80,000 employees around the world. 

  2. We need to ensure a steady supply of medicine to people around the world 

  3. We need to get a vaccine within eight months.

[For point number three,] we all thought we had misheard him. This is a process that takes eight to 12 years. But, we began working in a way that we called operation Lightspeed, [where there was no hierarchy and we all collaborated together equally]. I am eternally grateful that I had the chance to be in the room where it happened for these meetings and decisions because it is deeply moving every time I hear someone say: “Thanks to the vaccine, I got to see my grandparents for the first time in two years, or my son, or my daughter's going back to school.

It's an overwhelming feeling to be able to be helpful and purposeful in a crisis… As a close friend of mine said, “The only thing that's harder than being at the center of a crisis is being on the sidelines of a crisis.” And I really believe that's true. If you're at the center of it, at least you have the confidence and the hopefulness that comes with knowing you're trying to help solve the problem.

You identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Can you talk about how that has impacted your career experiences?

When I was in my early twenties back in the mid-1980s, it was very clear to me that I was a gay woman who wanted to live my life as I am. So, one of the first things I did was I went home to St. Louis to tell my parents. We grew up in a close family, and it was really tough when it didn't go particularly well in the beginning, although things have changed for the better.

I remember sitting in my parents' living room after dinner and telling them, and my father began to cry; he's my role model and my mentor. It was really hard to see him that upset, and he said to me, “you will never have a spouse, children or a career.” He said these things not to be hurtful, but because these were his fears. This was his reality and what he knew at the time. 

What ended up happening is that this experience planted the seed in me of wanting to achieve a life where I had those exact things. Now, I've been together with my wonderful wife for 33 years, our amazing daughter is 27 [...] and my career has brought me so much gratitude, so much happiness and so much learning. 

It was, ironically, a great advantage to me to be homosexual in the corporate world. That may seem counterintuitive, but, early on, I had to face the idea of being truly myself. The use of pronouns, the pictures I put on my desk and the stories I tell about my wife. Having crossed that bridge, I think people received me more authentically. There was more trust, and no  games being played or secrets being kept. Amazingly and surprisingly, even to me, I think being gay turned out to be an asset for me professionally.

You’ve also managed to have an extraordinary career while raising a daughter. Can you tell us how you’ve thought about work-life balance? What strategies can you recommend?

There is no silver bullet or template for how to do it. I am extremely fortunate to have a loving partner who has helped a lot, but that's not the whole answer and it's certainly not the answer for everyone…

You can take parenting one day at a time. Children don't come with instructions, and no two children are the same. So, you take it day by day. There will be some days you win, and there will be some days you lose. I'll never forget the day when, between all of us in my family, no one remembered to pick my daughter up at kindergarten. These things happen, but children are resilient — I think they're more resilient than we give them credit for. As we hobble forward together as families, we make some mistakes and we have some great successes. We need to take the mantle of worry off of ourselves that we're not doing something well — we are doing our best and that's good enough

How can we speak up for others, even when we’re not feeling completely secure ourselves?

There is nothing that is more strengthening and stabilizing than speaking up for someone else. I sit on the Pfizer executive committee, which I’ve been on for almost 15 years. There are many people on the committee who are less empowered than I am because they're new or they've just come to the company or they're just rising in their roles.

I make every effort to showcase their work and to speak to them publicly about their work… And to also privately circle back [with advice and praise]. 

You’ve demonstrated such confidence and perseverance over the course of your career. Can you please tell us about it?

I think about setbacks as just a wrong turn taken. We stumble into potholes in our personal and professional life. As an example, early in my career, when I was working back on Capitol Hill, I became privy to some confidential information. I was young, I was naive and I told a couple of people this information… One person told another, and the whole thing spiraled out of control. Something that should have been kept confidential was actually on the news. The finger pointed to me as the weak link in the chain of confidentiality. I was humiliated. I don't even have words for how badly I felt. I apologized, but things were never the same for me in the office after that. 

But — I never did it again. I became a citadel of confidentiality, which has been important in my career in leading corporate affairs, including communications and government relations. I am privy to all the confidential information here at Pfizer, and I would never make that mistake twice.

We all make mistakes, but we can be resilient if we take the time to learn from that misstep and turn it into a strength.

What it the #1 piece of career advice?

We're all warriors. Myself and my friends stay up late and ruminate over mistakes we made, like misspeaking in a meeting, or not writing something correctly… If I could give myself or anyone a piece of advice, it’s to give yourself a break. It's not as if one misspelled word on your resume is going to make you live a life of ruin — it happens. Let's not be so hard on ourselves and on one another



Fairygodboss is proud to partner with Pfizer. Find a job there today!  And, if you’d like to discover more insights from the Fairygodboss Inspiration Summit, check out this article summarizing the event!

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