In the years that have followed the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be hard to remember the size of the challenges the world faced. Angela Hwang, however, remembers it with crystalline clarity.
As chief commercial officer of Pfizer and president of its global biopharmaceutical business, Hwang was responsible for marshalling her colleagues to deliver a vaccine in record time. She recounted that experience at a Talks at GS session with Jerry Lee, a managing director in the Global Healthcare group in Goldman Sachs Investment Banking.
“In March of 2020,” Hwang said, “I don’t think any one of us even thought this whole idea of making a vaccine and being able to do it in this amount of time was literally possible.”
But Hwang knew that Pfizer’s culture and history gave it the resources it needed to accomplish what seemed impossible. It’s “what we were made to do,” she said. Hwang pointed to Pfizer’s work in WWII, when the company quickly started manufacturing penicillin for the US war effort. That history would inform the way she led teams to develop a vaccine in the face of a pandemic that would ultimately claim more than 7 million lives. “The culture of our company came to life,” Hwang said. “What are we here to do? Why were we here in the first place? What put us on the map?”
Hwang says she learned a lot during the experience about the nature of leadership in a situation characterized by enormous pressure—and huge unknowns. Traditionally, consistency in leadership is considered an asset, but in this case, when so much was changing on an ongoing basis, leadership was aided by flexibility and improvisation, even if that meant going back on earlier actions. “In this case, I undid every single decision that was made because literally, what we thought we were going into by the afternoon wasn't that anymore,” said Hwang. “By the next day, it had changed.”
Those circumstances not only required deploying different leadership tactics, but also embracing new values, Hwang said. “It was an important time for leaders just to put themselves out there and be willing to be vulnerable. To say, ‘Okay, well, based on today we're making this decision,’ but maybe knowing that tomorrow you may have to undo it because something else happened.”
This episode was recorded on May 30, 2023.