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Managing up: Advice from Pfizer and Xerox execs

July 28, 2011, 1:00 PM UTC

“How do you manage up?” asked a young woman from the audience at the Forté Foundation’s MBA Women’s Conference.

It was a bold question–and one that Kristin Peck, the fast-rising Pfizer executive who was on the panel that I moderated, answered unabashedly.

Peck knows from experience. She is Pfizer’s EVP in charge of Worldwide Business Development and Innovation, a perch that she reached only by surviving a slurry of management dysfunction and turnover over the past few years. (My colleagues Peter Elkind and Jennifer Reingold tell the full rich story in Why Pfizer’s CEO got the boot.) Peck, who joined Pfizer in 2004 from the Boston Consulting Group, was planning to quit in 2006, out of utter frustration. As she took on the question about “managing up,” she explained that she was a senior strategist inside an organization that “didn’t want to change.”

So she went to her boss and said: “I’d like a new role. And if not, I’ll look on the outside.”

“They were shocked, I mean dumbfounded,” Peck recalled.

In fact, she lined up a new job at Citigroup , heading strategy for its private bank. But on the very day she “quit,” in July 2006, Jeff Kindler, the lawyer who had joined Pfizer from McDonald’s , was unexpectedly named CEO.

Peck didn’t know Kindler well–in fact, she figured she would have been toast with him in charge. But Kindler called her that afternoon with a casual “Hey, how are you doing?” He got to the point quickly: “We really want you to stay. Give us 24 hours.”

Peck found the new CEO’s words amusing, nothing more. “This is a large corporation. Nothing happens in 24 hours,” she said.

But this time was different. Kindler and Co. offered Peck the role of chief of staff to vice-chairman David Shedlarz. This was a big job, with broad oversight of strategy and a great salary, beating Citi’s pay package.

She accepted the offer and stayed at Pfizer.

Four years later, when the Pfizer board kicked out Kindler, “I was definitely going to get fired,” she figured. But new CEO Ian Read promoted her again.

The lesson Peck learned from this: “No one should ever underestimate you because you could end up anywhere,” she says. “And you should never underestimate anybody else.”

Even as she discounted herself–as so many high-powered women do–Peck protected herself by building a network inside her company. “It’s not just managing up but managing across as well,” she says. “Being smart politically, I think, it’s critical in large organizations.”

Watch this video for more advice from Peck and Uta Werner, chief strategy officer at Xerox . Werner advises keeping bosses informed about all the things you’re doing. That is another thing that women, more than men, tend to be lax about.

Do you toot your own horn? If you don’t, do it once today. Practice.

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