Strictly Business — Women of Influence
Sally Susman, Executive Vice President, Corporate Affairs at Pfizer
“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” — Abraham Lincoln
Imagine for a second that your job is to handle all of the global communications, public affairs (including high-level relations with the governments of all nations), corporate responsibility groups and all policy initiatives for the largest pharmaceutical company in the world.
Now imagine what such a person would look like, act like and sound like.
When we sat down in a cool conference room, generously shared with us by our friends at State Street, we had read countless interviews and corporate bios about Sally Susman, already imagining what Ms. Susman would be like when she answered the phone.
The voice that responded to our introduction, though, was disarming in its friendliness and the sincerity of its tone. The conversation that ensued was filled with invaluable advice on reputation, mentorship and the intricate, ever-nuanced world of corporate affairs.
You’ve held a number of high-level positions throughout your career and in a variety of industries, which role has been your favorite?
I tend to think the role I’m in is the most exciting one I’ve ever had. When you’re in the middle of something, hopefully you’re doing it in a way that’s really engaged and meaningful to you and it becomes, in its own way, the most exciting role. I’ve worked in three industries. I’ve worked for American Express financial services, for Estée Lauder in consumer products and now at Pfizer.
I never really thought about which one was more exciting because each of them were unique in their own way. It’s always great if you start a new job and find yourself even more engaged. Having said that, I absolutely loved the job I had with American Express when I was in London. I was leading the corporate affairs functions across Europe and had the opportunity to take a job and live in a place I hadn’t been before, working with people of a different culture. It was a transformative opportunity and one I recommend others keep an eye out for.
Thank you. What does it mean to be the chair of Pfizer’s Political Action Committee and what does that responsibility mean for you?
Well, when I tell you what it is, you’ll understand that it means people avoid me in the hallways. A Political Action Committee is an entity that is created by companies — they can be created by other institutions too — to support elected officials, on both sides of the political aisle, who understand and are interested in your company’s cause. The committee raises funds through individual colleague donations.
For example, at Pfizer it’s very important that our intellectual property, our research, is protected by laws and by trade negotiations. For my job, I go down to Washington, D.C., I meet with congressman and senators, and I inform, educate and ask them to support our cause.
The PAC supports those elected officials who understand and support our business model and our ultimate goal, which is to make sure patients have access to the medicines they need. By law, corporations cannot support federal candidates. Contributions have to come from the PAC, and the PAC is funded by voluntary contributions from eligible colleagues within Pfizer. I have to go around and ask colleagues to consider making a contribution to the Pfizer Political Action Committee and make sure their money is spent wisely on behalf of the company’s interests. People see me coming and are sometimes like, “Uh oh she’s going to ask me for money for the PAC,” but I’m very proud at Pfizer because we really have raised our participation level. More and more people are giving to the PAC because they understand the role a PAC can play in helping us to advance our interests in science, medicine, research and patients.
Thank you for that. My third question has two parts. The first part is what is it like being in such a high-level position in not only the male-dominated corporate world but, secondly, also in the particularly male-dominated science and pharmaceutical field.
That’s a very sophisticated question on both parts. I don’t have a science background. When I came to Pfizer, I realized that I needed to learn the science as best I could and I realized it was almost like learning a foreign language. You’re right that there are a lot of men in the science arena and I encourage girls and women to get involved in science because it’s such a great field. It’s a field based on facts and meritocracy. You’re also right that sometimes big corporations have a lot of men. On our Pfizer executive committee there are thirteen of us and three are women. Personally, I have never felt that being a woman has held me back. I think sometimes I’ve been at an advantage because many companies today want diversity of all types. I think people have wanted me to succeed and helped me to be successful.
I like to think about it that way because I try to maintain a positive attitude and believe that if I do as well and work as hard — if I make a big effort to be a part of the culture and fabric of a place — that it will go well.
One of our principal studios here at Artists for Humanity is the Graphic Design studio. The design team crafts brands, campaigns and identities for major clients. As a representative of corporate affairs for Pfizer, how do you view the importance of image in gaining the public’s trust and favorability of a product?
Design and visuals are extremely important. I learned that when I was at Estée Lauder. As a company that is very good with design, it creates prestige brands that are heavily based in the look and feel of the packaging, of the advertising and the spaces in which they work and sell their products. I was really lucky when I worked at Estée Lauder because the company was founded by the Lauder family, which is a great family here in New York. They are very generous and have given a lot to cultural institutions like art museums here in the city. It became very clear to me that style and design really matter. Personally, I am a word person, and when words and images come together, it is a really powerful combination.
We have a studio at Pfizer that I manage and oversee and we’re using more and more graphic content and visuals as an important part of the communications mix.
Professionally and personally, I also think it is important to round yourself out and not just study your work but also go to movies, plays, museums and try to see as much as you can so you can learn about different styles, what you like and what you don’t like. Of course, that also extends to one’s appearance.
It’s important that you realize with whatever you’re wearing you’re expressing something about what’s important to you.
Have you ever faced any discrimination as an openly gay female employee?
This question is similar to the women’s issue for me. Maybe there have been biases that I didn’t hear about and didn’t know of but I have felt that I’ve been able to be who I am and be successful at the same time. Of course, one of the things about being gay as opposed to being a woman or being African American or Latino or Asian is that it is not necessarily obvious that a person is gay. It required me to actually come out. I was very nervous about coming out in the early days of my career and you have to remember this was twenty-five…thirty years ago so it was a different world.
What I found is that at the end of the day, people relate to your authenticity and if I had not come out it could have really hurt me because people might have thought they didn’t really know me, that I had a secret and that I was probably uncomfortable with myself — which was a big lesson.
I sometimes feel grateful for having had the opportunity to be gay and to think deeply about how I wanted to handle it because, in doing so, being honest with people and telling them the truth about my partner or our daughter that we adopted, it gave me a rare opportunity to really connect with people on a deeper level.
In all of these questions about gender or race or sexual orientation, I think the key is to let your individuality come through so you’re not reduced to a label. I don’t want to be the gay girl down the hall. I want to be Sally and I want to be known for what I’m good at and I want to get better at what I’m deficient in. But I also want to be able to come to the office and be myself. That’s a really important standard to try to seek in your career.
Thank you, that was very inspiring. I liked that a lot. The second part of my question is do you have any advice for young gay females to make it in the corporate world?
Well, first of all I’d say go for it because thirty years ago when I was just coming out people didn’t think that they could have that kind of career. I have wonderful parents, really great parents, but when I told them I was gay they were very upset. I remember my dad saying to me, because this is what he thought was true, “You’ll never have a spouse, you’ll never have children and you’ll never have a career.” I knew he was feeling great pain in saying all that but I think he really believed that was going to be the case, that I was going to lead my life in the shadows and have to limit my aspirations to second, third tier and fourth tier types of jobs. It has been an incredible experience for me and I feel very grateful to be a woman in America at this time. I am married. I have a daughter who is 21 and I have a job I love.
My strong encouragement to any LGBT youth is not to narrow your vision. Let yourself try to be all that you want to be.
My first question for you is based on the commentary you wrote for Fortune on millennials. What is the most important skill or talent that millennials have that the other generations haven’t had and why is this skill the most important?
I’m fascinated by millennials. I really try very hard to spend time with people in this age group. In fact, later today I’m going to spend some time with our interns. I think millennials have some really unique advantages. Certainly their comfort level with technology is a great advantage and I’m trying to learn more about it. If any of you guys want to connect with me, I’m on LinkedIn and I try to put some ideas out there and look at what other people are talking about.
The other thing that I find interesting about millennials — and I hope they don’t think it’s a stereotype — is they seem very interested in purpose and doing things that really matter.
When I graduated from college, everybody wanted to get in a corporate training program and you were trying to get into a business career, a political career or something more traditional. I notice a lot of millennials like to move around and they like to try out different jobs. They don’t necessarily go to the highest paying job but they really have a deep sense of what matters to them and I think that’s a great north star to kind of guide a person in their career. I’m very hopeful about the role that millennials will play in our society going forward, and I’m waiting and watching to see what you guys are going to do.
As a former member of the New York City Commission on Women’s Issues, what was the most difficult issue to gain support for and how did you and other members approach this?
We found that the biggest hunger among women was for mentorship. I understand that because I have a mentor, but I wish I had five mentors.
It seems that, for whatever reason, women are wanting and in some need of someone to talk with to help them navigate various workplace situations or for them to open doors for one another.
We reached out to a lot of companies in New York and asked them to provide mid-level executives with mentors. A context that I like a lot is a peer mentor. I have some friends in other companies and people I know who I help and they help me.
It can be hard to find enough mentors so that’s why I really admire what you are doing with this series. I am happy to talk with you because women and girls and young people in general — we found through the Commission — do sometimes need more perspective. That was the big missing link that we tried to provide for women in New York City.
What is one piece of career advice you would like to offer our teens?
The number one thing I wish I had done more was to take the risk. Try the job you’re not sure you can do. Make the move to another city. Ask the person next to you the question you’re afraid to ask. I truly believe that no one ever regrets the risks they took versus the risks they did not take. I look back and the things that mean the most to me are the things that scared me the most. You really have to put yourself out there.
As a member of Pfizer’s executive leadership team, Sally Susman chairs Pfizer’s Political Action Committee and is Vice Chair of The Pfizer Foundation. Before joining Pfizer in 2007, Ms. Susman served as Executive Vice President of Global Communications at The Estée Lauder Companies, directing the global corporate affairs strategy for Estée Lauder and its 28 brands. Sally Susman has also held several high-level communications and government relations posts at American Express and expanded its presence as a player in the global marketplace.
Earlier in her career, Ms. Susman spent eight years in government service specializing in international trade issues. Her positions included Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs in the U.S. Department of Commerce and Legislative Assistant for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Sally Susman holds a B.A. in government from Connecticut College and also studied at the London School of Economics. She serves on the Board of the WPP; the Library of Congress Trust Fund and The International Rescue Committee.