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Pfizer CEO on cracking COVID: ‘Companies that stay true to their purpose perform far better’

March 8, 2022, 10:52 AM UTC

Good morning.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla’s book Moonshot is out this morning, and it’s well worth reading for anyone running a large company. Bourla likes to talk about the power of science to solve problems, but the science behind Pfizer’s vaccine was developed by another company—BioNTech—and matched by a third—Moderna. What makes Moonshot a must-read is something else: how Bourla got his big, bureaucratic organization to rise to the challenge of the moment. Startups like BioNTech and Moderna are expected to be fast. Giant companies like Pfizer are not. Moonshot is the story of an unnatural act—making the elephant dance.

Anyone who has ever worked at a large company will easily spot points along the way where the effort could have bogged down in matrixed decision-making and standard-issue corporate risk avoidance. First among them was the decision to bet on mRNA technology, a risky and complicated option that involved partnering with an outside firm. Just getting the contract through legal would have eaten up a year at most companies—and, indeed, took nearly a year at Pfizer. But Bourla waived the rules and began work before the contract was completed. 

The need to store and transport the vaccine at extreme temperatures was another complexity that gave ample ammunition to internal naysayers. Making vast investments in manufacturing and distribution before the vaccine was proven undoubtedly caused fits for Finance. Yet Pfizer charged ahead. “Time is life,” Bourla told his team. “If we miss our budget for a year, no one will remember it the year after. If we miss the opportunity to do something for the world now, we will all remember it forever.” 

He writes:

“In all businesses, companies that stay true to their purpose perform far better than those that do not. When you align around purpose, you are sending very clear guidance to an organization with multiple layers. That clarity brings everyone much closer to what needs to be done and improves productivity. Now, take a situation like ours, where our purpose is to save lives—it’s a noble one. That adds passion that people rally around. This culture that we created gave us the appropriate mindset and allowed Pfizer to move with the agility and speed of a small biotech and bring to the world a breakthrough vaccine that is dramatically changing the lives of so many.”

The question for every executive who reads this book is whether Moonshot is an aberration, made possible by the unique circumstances of the moment, or holds lessons for other challenges—like tackling cancer or climate change. What’s needed in each case is not just a revolution in science and technology, but a revolution in management and culture. Bourla has shown the way; others should follow.


Also out this morning is American Express CEO Stephen Squeri’s annual letter. I saw an early copy, and found it notable for what it says about the company’s approach to the future of work—or what Squeri calls “Amex Flex.” 

He writes: “The majority of our colleagues in the U.S. have chosen a hybrid schedule, which means they will come into the office about two days per week, and work virtually for the rest, while more than 40% have opted to be fully virtual”—up from 20% before the pandemic. That’s a stark contrast to Squeri’s downtown Manhattan neighbor, Goldman Sachs, where CEO David Solomon has been outspoken about the importance of in-office work.

“David’s a good friend, but different businesses have different requirements,” Squeri told me last week. “I think this will work for us. For the last two years, arguably American Express has had its best run years…and no one has been in the office.”

You can read Squeri’s full letter here. More news below.

Alan Murray
@alansmurray

alan.murray@fortune.com

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Moderna’s rich-poor divide

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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by Bernhard Warner.

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