Leadership in Practice
A Conversation with Mark Swindell, President, Pfizer Vaccines
Q: Can you give me a two minute synopsis of how you got to where you are now?
A: My current role is president of Pfizer Vaccines. I joined American Cyanamid in 1983, which was acquired by Wyeth in the mid 1990s. Wyeth was acquired by Pfizer late last year. What got me to where I am now is three things: a little bit of luck, a lot of hard work, and the confidence on occasion to take calculated risks. I began my career in finance in the UK. I took a decision 5 or 6 years into my career to move out of finance and take a commercial role. I worked in sales and brand management for a while, and then had the opportunity to transition from the UK to the United States back in late 1997. Those risks by and large I think have paid off for me.
Q: How has your leadership style changed over the years? What have you learned?
A: When you begin a career, it is about what you can do, your technical or functional expertise. What you realize as you start to move north in an organization is that it is no longer just about you, it is about the people around you. You can’t do it all yourself. If you try to, you will short change yourself and your team. So, it is about agreeing on the goal, discussing an approach, and then giving people a little bit of room to walk right within certain boundaries. For me the boundaries are already set by whatever the organizational values are.
Q: What role does leadership play in those values?
A: Leadership is about setting a vision, which is much more motivating if it goes beyond simply saying we want to be the biggest or we want to sell the most. The vision that I have tried to establish with the vaccine team is that we want to be remembered as a company that has eradicated certain devastating diseases. That is a big stretch. The eradication of disease is something that sometimes takes generations to achieve, but it is something that the people in the company, and indeed a lot of our external stakeholders, rally around as an inspirational cry. Number two is to set the tone. Great leaders are role models for the people that they work with. They are authentic; you have to be yourself. If you are not authentic, you get found out pretty quickly. The other thing is the need to be situational, to recognize that, over time, situations vary and you need to modify your management style. You need certain consistency, but you need a certain flexibility at the same time, managing that yin and yang.
Q: Who have your mentors been, and what impact have they had on you?
A: The person who had the greatest impact on me professionally is a gentleman I first got to know when I was working at Cyanamid in the UK. He took an interest in me and he and I hit it off right out of the gates. He was a tremendous listener. We would talk about stuff that was going on in my world. I don’t think he ever came up with a solution. He was very good at helping me find the solution, to see the bigger picture, to identify the big pros and the potential cons of certain situations, and then to come to my own decision. I ended up actually working for him directly several years later and, as a boss, he was tremendous in terms of helping me appreciate the big picture, the importance of effective delegation and trust in people, and intense interest in talent development.
Q: What role does mentoring play in your own leadership?
A: Mentoring is something that I have benefited from myself enormously as I have grown and risen up the ranks of Wyeth and now at Pfizer. I make myself available to a selected number of people. I don’t think you can do this for tons of people, certainly can’t do it for hundreds of people, but for a few people to take that intense interest in where they are, what their issues are, and to help them weigh their options, but to always allow them to make their own decisions.
Q: How are you developing the next generation of leaders?
A: In my generation, there was more of a straight line through the organization. You could be a sales representative, then a district manager, then a regional manager, then head of sales. That is no longer the optimal way to develop your sales leadership. What we are trying to do is to give people a broad set of experiences, multiple functions, different geographies ideally, multiple different business units within the organization, so that you have a much more rounded set of experiences as you move through the organization.
Q: Was there anything else you would like to add about your take on leadership?
A: I think leadership is a tremendous gift when you are given the opportunity, and it also comes with tremendous responsibility. I think the people who thrive are the people that never underestimate the responsibility, but are truly motivated by the opportunity that the gift presents.
Note: This interview reflects the opinions of Mark Swindell personally and does not necessarily express the views of Pfizer Inc. This conversation does not constitute an endorsement of The Leadership Effect, its business or services by Pfizer Inc.