All Articles Leadership Inspiration Pfizer's straight talk on culture

Pfizer’s straight talk on culture

5 min read


Pfizer, the multinational pharmaceutical giant, has become increasingly intentional about shaping its culture. You can see evidence of Pfizer’s commitment in Ian Read’s letter to stakeholders the year after he became CEO:

In 2011, we thoroughly explored what our culture is and how it needs to evolve. We engaged with leaders across the business and sought the candid input of approximately 11,000 colleagues globally. We concluded that we need a culture where colleagues behave like they are owners of the business, are not afraid to take thoughtful risks, deliver on their commitments, treat each other with trust and respect and work with integrity each and every day. Developing this ownership culture will be key to our success. I am personally proud of Pfizer’s colleagues. Pfizer people care. They embody our humanity and innovative spirit, and are determined to tackle some of the most pressing health care challenges of our time. We are committed to creating an ownership culture that unleashes the creativity of our colleagues around the world.

One way to grasp an organization’s culture is to look at the language, attitudes and behaviors that predominate throughout, from leaders to those on the front lines with clients and those in supporting roles.

Did you notice the word Read used to describe people who work at Pfizer? When Pfizer acquired Warner Lambert in 2000, it adopted Warner Lambert’s practice of referring to employees as colleagues. The word “colleagues” conveys a greater level of respect for people. By comparison, the word “employees” makes people sound more like a means to an end in order to achieve business results rather than unique individuals worthy of respect in and of themselves.

Pfizer explicitly uses the provocative phrase “no jerks” when it comes to behavior. This clearly communicates that disrespectful, patronizing, condescending or passive-aggressive behavior is not welcome. To make this cultural value of “no jerks” real, several years ago Pfizer launched and trained up to 80,000 colleagues worldwide on “Straight Talk,” an approach to giving and receiving feedback, as well as holding what might be a difficult conversation in a way that safeguards relationships and trust while bringing information forward.

Pfizer colleagues were given Straight Talk coins they can pull out and place on a table during a discussion when speaking up is necessary. The simple object is a tangible reminder to all present of the why and how behind the initiative. Although the coins are not used as much these days, according to John Young, president of Pfizer’s Global Established Pharma business, he hears colleagues around the world use the phrase “in the spirit of Straight Talk” before they speak up. Straight Talk has given Pfizer colleagues worldwide a common language to use and reinforces that it is OK — and actually encouraged — to speak up for the good of the organization. This is especially important in Asian cultures, in which the deeply embedded value of respect for elders and people in authority might otherwise hold people back.

In addition to encouraging Straight Talk, Pfizer seeks the opinions of its colleagues through its annual PfizerVoice survey. Pfizer colleagues rate various aspects of the organization, including Pfizer’s strategy, the division/business unit’s strategy, organization system and structure, the CEO and executive leadership team, division/business unit leadership, the respondent’s direct manager, colleagues with whom the respondent works, and climate/engagement. Feedback from the survey helps hold managers and leaders accountable.

Pfizer leaders cite “winning the right way” and “performance with integrity” that is the “shared responsibility” of all Pfizer colleagues. Leaders encourage taking responsibility, holding each other accountable, raising concerns and asking questions, “saying no when it is the right thing to do, regardless of the business impact,” and “maintaining Pfizer’s high standards in everything we do and everywhere we operate.”

Leading a global business means managing operations in some nations where meeting high ethical standards is more challenging given the prevalence of corruption in the local culture. In some countries, leaders spend as much time thinking about compliance issues as they do strategy issues. People are more committed and loyal to an organization that is ethical.

Absent intentional efforts to develop healthy cultures that bring out the best in people, organizations drift toward unhealthy cultures that are either indifferent to employees or may mistreat employees and breach ethical norms. Pfizer is an excellent example of an organization that is intentional about shaping its culture. Leaders have clearly focused on identifying Pfizer’s cultural values and articulating them in a way that informs and guides behavior and serves to connect the large global workforce.

Has your organization thoroughly explored its culture and identified how it needs to evolve? If so, is your organization being sufficiently intentional about strengthening its culture?

Michael Lee Stallard advises, teaches, and studies leaders of business, government, healthcare and education organizations. He is President of E Pluribus Partners cofounder of and author, most recently, of “Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work.” Follow Stallard on his blogTwitterFacebookGoogle+ or on LinkedIn.