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The Value of Purpose

Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s group president of Innovative Health, and corporate strategist Jim Stengel on the keys to leading a purpose-driven culture in a public company.

The Value of Purpose

Employees at Pfizer can summarize why they come to work every day in two words: “Patients First.”


In an age when buzzwords often masquerade as strategy, you could be forgiven for assuming that Patients First is just a slogan printed on stationary and coffee mugs. But when Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s group president of Innovative Health, explains it, as he did to nearly 300 executives recently at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York City, it’s clear that these words are a deeply felt personal responsibility.

This is the power of a purpose-driven organization, a concept gaining so much traction that Jim Stengel left a highly successful seven-year run as global marketing officer at Proctor & Gamble in 2008 to study what it is and why it works. His findings became the foundation of his 2011 book, Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Largest Companies, and his 2017 book, Unleashing the Innovators, expands on this notion.

The insight that Bourla and Stengel share is that purpose is a summation of everything needed to make a company great. It’s a reflection of strategy, leadership, and ethos. And if your company cannot clearly define its purpose, it’s time to revisit your priorities.

Watch: Full Panel Below

Here’s part of their conversation on stage at the Innovation Festival.

FastCo.Works: Let’s start simply. In the context of business, what is purpose?


Jim Stengel: Purpose is why you’re in business. It’s the impact you’re trying to make. It is why you were founded. Great leaders never lose sight of that. To me, it’s the only way to do business, because it works.

FCW: Albert, at Pfizer your purpose is summarized in a very easy to understand way: Patients First. What does that mean and why is it important to Pfizer?

Albert Bourla, group president, Pfizer Innovative Health

Albert Bourla: “Patients First” is a catchphrase—on purpose. Because we want our people to remember. No matter how important your corporate purpose may be, it is very often forgotten in the middle of daily realities. But it is extremely important for any business to stay true to what their mission is, why they have been created, and why they exist.

In our case, our purpose comes very close to our cause, which is to treat people, to find the cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. We believe we represent the best hope of society to do that. That may sound lofty, but we are creating an aspiration for the organization. It’s making everybody do their best.

FCW: Is it too much to say that Patients First gives you a competitive advantage?

AB: The world is changing. The old model of pharmaceuticals, what was based on blockbuster medicines physician’s preference, or incremental innovation, is turning upside down.


The change is coming and nobody knows what it will look like. But I can say with certainty that what will make or break a pharmaceutical company in the next five years is to create significant, meaningful value for patients. Those who do not will struggle.

FCW: Implementing change in a corporate environment can be extremely challenging. How do you instill a purpose-driven culture within a large, public company?

Jim Stengel, CEO, The Jim Stengel Company

JS: In my experience at P&G, and in nine years since then going into more than 100 organizations as a consultant, you can’t do it if you don’t have what you just heard from Albert: You have to have the people at the top of your company believe in your purpose, live it, talk about it, activate it, and reward it.

To me it’s a real leadership challenge. Not that many leaders that I’ve experienced do this well. It’s whole-brain leadership because it calls for an emotional side that many people haven’t exercised. We need to create different expectations for our leaders. They need to see this as their work.

AB: I like what you just said. I think of culture in three parts: communication, symbolism, and authenticity. With communication, you have to be relentless. You need to keep conveying the message, even if you feel that you sound like a broken record. Every time employees hear you, they’re getting another bit of it, and they’re forming their own understanding of the concept.

Second, in big corporations in particular, you need to use symbols—behaviors that show everyone in the organization is that these examples are how we should be doing things.


And then you need to make sure you’re walking the talk—that you actually are authentic. All three of these are extremely important.

FCW: How hard is it to stay true to your purpose?

AB: A very top-of-mind criticism for everybody hearing from a pharmaceutical company saying, “patients first” will be, “Yes, we believe you. But the next time you need to help your shareholders, you will do what’s best for the shareholders and not for the patients.”

I had to go before everyone and explain our position on that. I explained that we’re in a privileged position. And the only way that our shareholders can profit is if we create value for patients. The interesting thing is that the environment for shareholders and patients is more aligned than ever.

FCW: Pfizer is known to work with outside partners—even competitors—toward manifesting your purpose. Is that good business?

AB: Especially in research, we are partnering with competitors, institutions, academia, lots more than we used to. In the past, for every unmet medical need, there was one, maybe two, known biological targets to address it. For each biological target, one, maybe two, pathways to attack. In that world, placing bets was a very compelling proposition.


Today, because of the explosion of science, for every unmet medical need there are zillions of biological targets known. And for each one of them, zillions of pathways. Placing singular bets simply doesn’t make sense. You need to partner. You need to allow the science to be open.

FCW: Albert, what does Pfizer’s purpose mean to you personally?

AB: I feel blessed because I’m working for one of the largest research organizations in the world, and I get to connect my personal values with my drive to win.

I want to be able to achieve things in life. When you know what you’re achieving with each of your wins—another stroke or heart attack that was prevented, another father or mother you helped to live long enough to see a daughter graduate or a son get married—that gives you a satisfaction that you cannot compare with anything.


This story was created with and commissioned by Pfizer.


About the author

FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.