At the BCIU Eisenhower Awards Gala, we gather to celebrate inspiring leaders, innovators, and global citizens who are making exceptional contributions to the world. In December, BCIU was pleased to recognize Pfizer for its role in fighting the pandemic and increasing health equity around the world by presenting Dr. Albert Bourla, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, with the Eisenhower Global Citizenship Award.

In addition to receiving the award, Bourla spoke with moderator Arianna Huffington and his fellow Eisenhower Award honorees about leadership, health equity, and building a purpose-driven organization.

Below are lightly edited and condensed remarks from Bourla.

Purpose Creates Value

When it comes to leading with purpose, Bourla thinks it’s a big misconception that what is good for stakeholders and what is good for shareholders is fundamentally at odds. “The reverse is true,” he says. “There is no other way a CEO can create value for their stakeholders without having happy customers, suppliers, communities, and employees.”

Bourla says that companies shouldn’t expect to create value for shareholders without creating value for customers or engaging employees. And while he has experienced this firsthand at Pfizer, Bourla believes that this concept is true for any organization.

“It’s easier to prove with businesses because they have the financial data – meaning better shareholder returns,” says Bourla. “But it’s true for all organizations, not just businesses: When academic institutions, international institutions, among others, stay true to their paradigms, they perform better.”

Purpose is for Everyone

The key, however, according to Bourla, is that leadership must emphasize what these values are, especially at larger organizations like Pfizer. “It’s very easy in a company that has thousands of people to lose the point of why we are here,” he says.

At Pfizer, Bourla says, the work is centered around improving patients’ lives. When an organization is clearly defined by its purpose and values, everyone can rally around the work – no matter what employees do at the company.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re working in legal or research or commercial,” Bourla says. “That’s all about creating value for patients. It allows us to rally people around the fact that it’s their work that will allow a father or mother with cancer to live long enough to see the graduation of a daughter or a wedding of a son.”

Leading for Impact

While developing a vaccine in record time during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pfizer faced a steep learning curve. One thing Bourla realized was that leading with purpose in the healthcare space is synonymous with being a leader in health equity.

“The priority has to be to make sure the investment can actually be used by the people who will see the greatest impact. We assumed if there were enough vaccines and it was affordable for all, the issue would be resolved. This was not the case,” he says.

According to Bourla, in 2021, Pfizer, in partnership with the U.S. government, committed to supply one billion vaccine doses at a not-for-profit price that the government would, in turn, donate to countries that may otherwise not be able to afford them. But many of the doses went unused and expired due to issues surrounding inadequate infrastructure, lack of healthcare messaging, and disinformation and conspiracy.

“Achieving equity is going to be more complicated than we think,” he says. “You have to do way more than, ‘Here’s our product to use.’ To make an impact … we’ll have to engage other companies and partners, so we can all build something better.”

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