The Health Management Academy
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Episode 5

Applying ‘Lightspeed’ Behaviors to the Pandemic & Beyond

Episode Description

In this episode, Angela Hwang, Group President of the Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group, joins Renee at The Table. From her experience working on the COVID-19 vaccine, Angela shares how Pfizer was able to shorten the creation timeline and global collaboration across the scientific community. The conversation also covers key principles of effective management and well-being in a stressed workforce.

About Our Guest

Angela Hwang, President, Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group

Angela Hwang is a member of Pfizer’s Executive Team and Group President of the Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group, which is the commercial organization of Pfizer. Her organization of 26,000 colleagues across 125 countries is responsible for bringing over 600 innovative medicines and products to patients. Angela has been with Pfizer for over 24 years, working across all geographies and therapeutic areas. She is motivated by the common purpose that all Pfizer colleagues share, to bring breakthroughs to patients, regardless of where they are in the world.


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Renee DeSilva 0:07

Welcome back to The Academy Table. I’m Renee DeSilva, CEO of The Academy and your host. This week, I had the pleasure of welcoming Angela Hwang to The Table. Angela currently serves as president of Pfizer’s Biopharmaceutical Group and has been with the company for more than 25 years. We covered a lot of ground in our time together, but fundamentally, we anchored on Angela’s leadership journey, and of course, the incredible work Pfizer has done throughout the pandemic. Within that we covered key factors that enabled success in vaccine development and Pfizer strategic partnerships – and looking forward, how their learnings from the pandemic can be instructive to how we all approach our work.

It’s hard to distill it all down to just three takeaways, but here’s what landed with me. First, Angela and I are both strong proponents of career pivot points, and how our professional lives often unfold in unexpected and often nonlinear ways. As we explored, companies and senior leaders can differentiate themselves by fostering a growth culture, and encouraging employees to push boundaries on capabilities and interests. Next, we spoke at length about how Pfizer coordinated with many partners and stakeholders in developing and distributing their COVID vaccine. What resonated most with me is that many of those relationships were iterative. They required a solid foundation and a shared mission, but still enough flexibility to adapt and change direction at a moment’s notice. And finally, Angela shared that Pfizer’s codename for the vaccine project was ‘lightspeed’ and I loved hearing her talk about five themes of a ‘lightspeed’ mindset that we can apply to our work and behaviors. Listen for Pfizer’s dedication to setting and then never moving a deadline: they worked backwards to establish milestones and would adjust solutions or approaches instead of changing the endpoint.

So with that, I hope you’ll join me for a very special conversation at the Table.

Renee DeSilva 2:21
Angela, so happy to have you at the Table. Thank you for joining us today.

Angela Hwang 2:24
Thank you, Renee. It is an absolute pleasure to be able to spend this time with you.

Renee DeSilva 2:29
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know you across the past year and I’m just struck by the scope and magnitude of your work at Pfizer, so talk a little bit about your current role over the Biopharmaceuticals Group. I’d really be interested to hear more about some of the early forces that shaped your career journey.

Angela Hwang 2:48
Today I am the Group President of the Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group. That is the unit that is the commercial arm of Pfizer, meaning this is where all our business units are located and this is where all our medicines are distributed and marketed. We have six different business units that really stretch across all parts of the world to 225 countries, and we have approximately 26,000 colleagues that work in the Biopharmaceuticals Group today, so it’s a real privilege to be the leader of such an incredible portfolio of products, but also such a talented group of colleagues.

To the second part of your question, Renee, which is what led me to this. Your question gave me a little time to reflect on what were some of these pivot points in my career and what were the choices that I made that led me to this moment? Some of it goes back to my background after college. I graduated with a degree in microbiology and biochemistry. My first job was actually a research scientist studying yeast physiology and it was my role to use and to study yeast fermentation, and in that way, to really help produce beers with consistent flavor profiles. And while that may sound very interesting, unfortunately, for me, it was not my passion, and that led me to this first pivot point, which was where to from here? If not a research scientist in beer fermentation, then where do I go? In 1992, I made the decision to come to Cornell University to do my MBA. And it was in the two years that I was in Ithaca that I had the privilege of being in a course, it was called industrial policy. And this was now 1993. So for those of us who were around at that time, we will remember that Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton were working towards some healthcare reform. As part of this industrial policy course, it was our role to really analyze the policy proposals that Hillary Clinton had proposed, to critique them, and to provide solutions or alternate approaches to what was being discussed. And actually, I found that to be an incredibly fascinating course. There were many parts of my MBA that I really struggled with because I could not relate to it relative to my old science life. But this course really brought to the forefront a realization of the complexity of the healthcare delivery environment, and the huge unmet needs that patients faced. And for me, I found it to be a perfect convergence of my past in science, but also what I realized now to be my future in business. And so that was my first pivot point, which was I realized that healthcare would be an avenue and a career that I would pursue. And that led me to the second pivot point in my career.

So after Cornell, I had joined a consulting firm, but three years later, it was acquired, and it led me to now a new crossing the road, which was do I stay? Do I go? And if I go, where do I go? It was a very vibrant time at that point, where there were a lot of biotechs, lots of new technologies that were emerging much like today, but I was also really interested in equity research. And so I was confronted with so many enticing opportunities. And then one day, I got a call from Pfizer, and an ex-colleague of mine from the consulting firm had gone to work in the Strategy Group at Pfizer, and she asked me to come and meet with some of the leaders in that group. And so without really any intention about joining Pfizer, I found myself really drawn to the mission of what this company stood for, the people that I met, that I just immediately enjoyed and clicked with. And I thought to myself, maybe a larger company would offer many more opportunities and you could have various experiences and lots of different experiences in one place, rather than having to go to multiple companies. So without a lot more deep thought, I joined Pfizer in 1997. And ended up being absolutely true, that here I am 25 years later, and I’ve had 13 different jobs and 13 vastly different jobs that have given me just an incredible world of experiences that I’m so grateful for. So let’s think about that as sort of like the second big pivot point.

Renee DeSilva 7:56
I love the concept of pivot points, and how sometimes our careers unfold in ways that we don’t expect. And just the, I think of that, for even the small couple that we’re building here at the Academy, the ability to create a platform where people can have a very long career, but every couple of years be doing something different. I mean, I think that is unlocking a lot, I think it makes it makes up for a special place to work. So it’s really interesting to hear you say that. And then one other fun fact, while you were in Cornell and Ithaca, I was down the road at Syracuse, and I was taking a similar course around the health care reform that Hillary and Bill Clinton were trying to drive through. We were kind of doing some similar work around that time period so it’s good to reconnect with you all these years later.

Angela Hwang 8:38
It’s incredible how some of these experiences become so formative and so fundamental, instead of switching the way you think and the way you pursue opportunities. And I would say that even here, at Pfizer, the 13 different jobs that I had, each and every one of them had a different meaning. And they brought different things to my world and my life experience. And, and you make choices in that too. I chose to be in the work on big blockbuster brands, that was sort of the bread and butter of Pfizer at that time and what was well known for. And that gave me the opportunity to learn how to run big businesses, scale businesses, which obviously to this day is super helpful. But equally, I took the opportunity to work for very unknown businesses, or you might call them underdog businesses. And that was not a popular thing at the time. But for me, I just thought, why not? I would learn something different. And then if I didn’t like it, you can always make a change, but why wouldn’t I go and try something different. And so, honestly, I think I am really grateful for those different and unconventional experiences that I did have because they were the ones that truly pushed me in terms of the boundaries of what I thought were even my own capabilities. I’d never would have discovered so much about myself, had I not put myself in that position to try difficult things, to try unpopular things, to try things that were incredibly complex and challenging. And through that I learned so much about it on my own capabilities, but also my leadership style. And importantly, I think that it also gave me the opportunity to create a very different and differentiating track record, and a different resume, which then helped me to leapfrog in so many other opportunities and roles at Pfizer. So you just never know where things take you.

Renee DeSilva 10:48
That’s really powerful.

Angela Hwang 10:52
You just have to believe. You have to follow your instincts, you have to do things that you’re passionate about, things that you’re interested in. If you’re interested, you’re impassioned, you’re going to have impact, and then the rest falls into place.

Renee DeSilva 11:04
Yes, and embracing being uncomfortable, too. Trying the things that make you a little bit like, palm sweaty, but you kind of be pushed forward because growth is often on the other side of that comfort zone.

All right, so I want to go to, you mention this, just part of what has kept you at Pfizer for 25+ years is his mission. And I think we saw this relentless pursuit of breakthroughs that change patient lives come to play most recently during the pandemic, so let’s just talk about the complexity that, as a country, we’ve really faced. I think the work that your team was able to drive through, the speed at which you were able to create the vaccine, probably required you to think about the work differently, work with stakeholders in a different in kind way. Just bring that to life for our audience. What were some of the key factors that allowed you to shorten the timeframe so drastically when it was such a crucial moment for the country?

Angela Hwang 12:02
When we consider what happened and what enabled us to move so quickly … I think that it begins at, if I step back and really consider what made it different for us? Because so many companies tried and what made it possible for us to do this in 248 days versus the typical five to seven years that it would take. I would summarize it into these two categories, Renee. The first is the strong culture at Pfizer. And the second is the ability for us to work and to collaborate with a global scientific and innovation ecosystem.

So let me start with the first one, the culture. Now, over the last 10 years or so, both our previous CEO, Ian Read, as well as our current CEO, Albert Bourla, have really focused on the culture of our company. We’ve had long discussions about how every company has access to talent, right? Every company has great people, every company will find a way to bring and to create opportunities for great people. And so, if you believe that to be true about every company, then what could make it different, and what could make you stand apart? And the answer to that was always our culture. We believe that having a strong culture, and one that was focused on the right things, would bring people together and help them to rise to the occasion in a very different way. And so throughout the years, whatever words we use to express our culture, what has always been universally true, is that our culture has been values-based, was always patient-focused. So we never lost sight of who we were working for, and it was purpose-driven to deliver breakthroughs that can change patients’ lives. And so these things are always at the forefront of what we do. And so any decision that we take, every Monday morning, when we wake up, whenever it is, it’s super clear why it is that we come to work and who we’re working for. And so if you think about the intensity over the last two years of what has happened, you could argue that in many ways, it could have broken us. So much happened, there was so much pressure, we did so many things that we’ve never done before. And it actually could have been very challenging for us. And it was challenging, but it turned out in a completely different way. And we rose to the occasion, we became ultra solutions-oriented, it brought people together. And it was our culture because for years and years, our culture had conditioned us to put patients first. So we were relentless about finding that solution, it had created an environment where we expect the teams to work together and to work together respectfully, to be able to agree to disagree. And we also created a culture where our colleagues felt included, needed, and valued. And so as a result, what we had in front of us at this moment, when we had to step up, was a company and a large group of people who, yes, every single day work with rigor and excellence, and great science, but the differentiating thing that they also had was heart. They brought their heart to work. And they did their work every single day with hope for the world because by the way, we didn’t know that we were going to have an answer. And equally, we were suffering as people in society, right? We have family, kids, parents that we had to take care of, and like everyone else, desperate for a solution. And so that’s why, Renee, people brought their best selves to work, they worked day and night. Some of our colleagues even left their families and they lived in a bubble for nine months with other colleagues, so that they could do heroic things to pull off this impossible task. In the end, this heart of the company is what makes us different, because yes, we all knew that coming up with the vaccine, as impossible as it was, was something we all needed to do. But more importantly, it was something people wanted to do, because of how deeply we felt about the mission of our company. And how we knew that it was our responsibility, but also our hope and our desire to step up and to do good for the world.

Renee DeSilva 16:37
Absolutely. And then you also mentioned that a big part of it was just the global collaboration across the scientific community. So talk more about combining that with a strong mission and cultural orientation that you all had embedded.

Angela Hwang 16:50
Over the years, we’ve always collaborated with companies or universities or academic institutions around the world to share scientific knowledge and to build off of that. But in fact, our relationship with BioNTech was a key one and a partnership that was actually forged in 2018, long before we knew that there was going to be a thing called COVID. At that point in time, we had forged this partnership to apply mRNA technology to developing a flu vaccine. So, in fact, that was what we were doing in the beginning of 2020. When scientists together with BioNTech realize that, you know what? Instead of flu, we could pivot this technology and pivot our program into COVID. And so that was a decision that we made in March of 2020. And so you could imagine, if we didn’t have this partnership, how much longer it would have taken us to figure out this vaccine. But equally, even when you think about the mRNA technology, the application of mRNA technology in vaccines was completely new. And that was pioneering, but mRNA technology was not. In fact, it already had been studied for decades in oncology. And so there was already a lot known about the approach, the mechanism of action, which again, were all the things that could be applied to the development of this vaccine. And is what helped us to start from scratch, but not all the way from scratch. And so the value of these partnerships and the research and the scientific communities, it goes deep and it goes wide. But when there is a vibrant scientific community, you can call on these, and they then enable us to step up when the moment arrives. And then just to give you a sense of how broad these partnerships are and how far they run, the actual vaccine comprises 280 different components, sourced from 86 different countries across 19 – excuse me, 86 different sites across 19 different countries. So you can just imagine, again, the scale of those partnerships, and what it took to pull all of this together, I’ll also mention that, and this probably is a little less known, but in the spirit of partnership, while we were busy making the vaccine and developing it, we also freed up our lines, to help other manufacturers make antiviral treatments for in-hospital use. And so it was a partnership that went both ways. What were the technologies and the expertise that we needed for our vaccine? But equally, what expertise and what capabilities that we had, that we could loan, and we could give to others. And so I think that this pandemic has really been an incredible moment to bring together different sectors – public, private institutions – to really bring our best to the forefront to solve a huge global problem. And I think it underscores the importance of nurturing pioneering science investing in making sure that we can sustain a vibrant, scientific community, and a global innovation ecosystem, because you just don’t know when it is that you’re going to have to call on it.

Renee DeSilva 20:18
Indeed, and we talk a lot about all the things that we want to move on from with the lens of the pandemic. But I think what you just got to are just some of the things that we really want to keep, as a country and as a healthcare ecosystem. The partnerships, the moving faster than any of us deemed possible, like figuring out ways to get it done and thinking about pushing through barriers that really ought to not exist. So I think all that you mentioned was a really good example.

Moving from that, my question would be, in this heads-down moment, addressing the pandemic and all the pride is palpable. I’ve gotten to know many, many Pfizer colleagues, and the pride is well earned and palpable. How do you think now, in terms of moving forward, how does that inform Pfizer strategy as you zoom out? Just all the lessons that you gleaned from the last several years?

Angela Hwang 21:06
We do have such incredible pride for what has happened. It’s something that all of our colleagues around the world can share in – even those who didn’t work on the vaccine. Because what happened and the stories that we shared was something that everyone could relate to, and the pride in what Pfizer was able to accomplish, together with the efforts of so many, is something that we’ll never forget. But it leaves us in a place where we’ve now had a taste of making the impossible possible. So I think everyone in the company, and me specifically really, you can’t question yourself ever again to say, well, I don’t know how to do that, or, I cannot do that. Because the most impossible thing that we all didn’t think we could pull off happened, but there were real reasons why they happened right? Just as we had explained earlier on, but now that it has happened, now that we know the impossible is possible, where do you go from here and what do you do with all this energy and all this capacity?

So I think, first and foremost, we remain grounded and ever more resolute about continuing our work in great science to make great medicines and to create the breakthroughs that can change patients’ lives. And in doing so, drive the growth of our company. And the areas that we are really double downing on are the following. I think first, now that we’ve had our experience in mRNA. We only applied it to the vaccine. And as you heard me speak early, the early work that was done in mRNA, was not in vaccines but was actually in oncology. So we want to go back and take a look at some of these other therapeutic areas where mRNA technology can be applicable. So certainly, oncology is one, rare disease would be another, inflammation and immunology is another. Then you could just imagine this mRNA platform having multiple applications, but it’s not just about us doing this work again, on our own. In the spirit of partnership and the importance of partnerships. Recently, Pfizer also announced a number of partnerships that are going to help us to advance our work in mRNA. So let me give you some examples, so you can sort of see this picture coming together. The first is our agreement with Beam Therapeutics for it for gene editing capabilities. We believe that the gene-editing capability can have great applications in rare diseases. Another would be with a company called Acuitas, which is a leader in lipid nanoparticles. So lipid nanoparticles are critical, because they are the mRNA strands that are important as the base of the therapeutic. And that’s what we’re going to continue in this work. Then we have to advance our work in lipid nanoparticle technology, so that’s another partnership we created. And then a third one that we did was with another company, called Codex DNA. And this is an innovative DNA manufacturing company, which we also needed further upstream and the development of this mRNA technology, you need this DNA scaffold. So it’s a critical component of our ability to leverage mRNA technology. So just here alone, you can see three important partnerships and investments just in the mRNA technology and how we want to apply it to multiple therapeutic areas.

Renee DeSilva 24:37
Yeah, and what’s connecting for me, as you’re talking would be, you talked early on about your career pivots and you can sort of see that coming full circle around the pivots you’ve had to make in terms of the mRNA initial discovery, how that was applied, the iterative nature of the work, the really deep embedded nature of partnerships making all of this happen. That full spectrum is really powerful to hear you bring to life.

Angela Hwang 25:01
Absolutely, and we learned so much more from the pandemic. So just as a bit of an inside anecdote, the codename for the project to develop the COVID vaccine was lightspeed – “Project Lightspeed” is what it was called back in the day. But actually what we have learned, as we’ve discussed so far over the last several minutes, is that there are all these behaviors that had different ways of working that we applied in this “Lightspeed” project that helped us to advance at such a different rate compared to anything else we’ve ever done. And so the second thing that we are now doing in our company is applying these ‘lightspeed’ behaviors to other therapeutic areas. Pfizer’s involved in so many different diseases, and all of them are important. And while COVID is something that obviously took center stage for the entire world for the last couple of years, with many diseases the urgency to find treatment is equally as important. And so we’ve been taking a look at our programs and looking at where are the areas of highest unmet need? Where are the fewest options? And based on that, how do we apply this ‘lightspeed’ mindset and the ‘lightspeed’ way of working to advance some of these other programs? So specifically, one of them is our BCMA Bispecific that we are studying for multiple myeloma, a disease that’s devastating for which there are very few options today. So that’s another place where Pfizer is doubling down in terms of its application of our learnings.

Renee DeSilva 26:48
To stay on that for one second, Angela, when you think of an example of a ‘lightspeed’ behavior that you encourage your teams to embody, is there something—I get the use cases for it—but is there something specific that people are trying to do differently on just the behavioral side of it?

Angela Hwang 27:06
There are multiple actually. There were five key themes that revolve around this sort of ‘lightspeed’ mindset. The first is parallel pathing your work, because that allows you to speed up, right? So typically, how do we work? We go, we make one decision then we get to the next decision, and then we go sequentially. But if you went sequentially, and if we did that in the Lightspeed vaccine program, we would be at seven years. We didn’t have time for that because we only had eight months to make a new vaccine. So we had to parallel path everything. So even just as an example the actual vaccine construct that we put in our early clinical trials, instead of typically what you would do is study one construct, and if it works, it doesn’t work, then you move on to the next, and so on, and so forth. We put four constructs into clinical trials at the same time at different dosages, so that we could read the results and pick one of the four rather than sequentially going through all four. So I think lesson number one is parallel pathing.

The second lesson is really around cutting white space and reimagining how you work. Like for us, what was crystal clear, is that the integrity of the science, patient safety, our data, and the rigor of our data and the reporting of our data with our regulatory agencies, and how we worked needed to stand the highest bar and reach the highest bar that would enable us to be successful in our discussions with regulators. But then, everything after that, we needed to reimagine. And so when you cut out white space, you’d be surprised how much time we spend on things that really just could be reimagined. So take clinical trials, for example. Again, typically you would identify your sites, and then you would begin a process to recruit your patients, again, quite sequentially. But in this time, we just really didn’t have time to do that. And so it really required our clinical development team to think 10 steps ahead and say, ‘Okay, what are, what are the next 10 steps that need to happen? And how do we advance all of those, immediately?’ And so as a result, and this is just one of many examples, but probably my favorite is how we were able to get the phase three protocol of our clinical trial approved by the FDA, and exactly two hours later, we had our first clinical trial patient actually receive the first dose of the vaccine. The only way that could have happened is if we had done the prep, and imagined what were all the steps needed to have happened. And you get those things done so that you can seamlessly move from one decision to another.

The third was around removing hierarchy. Again, so those of us who work in big teams of the companies, or wherever it is, I think that there’s always this temptation, or you run the risk of going into meetings and having lots of people at meetings, but are those people really the ones that have the knowledge? And are they really the decision-makers? Are they really there just to listen and be informed? You can imagine, right, all of the above? And because once again, we didn’t have time for that, we really had to be clear around ‘Okay, what problem are we trying to solve today? Who has the knowledge that could help us to solve those problems?’ And whoever they are, and wherever they were from, those were the people in the meeting – not anyone else. And so it was very fit for purpose. And we broke down and we unshackled these notions of hierarchies.

The fourth thing was, we never moved a goal or a deadline. I think that’s another thing that you frequently will encounter, which is you hit a snag, and you go, ‘Well, that didn’t pan out as I hoped. I’ll get you the answer next week, or next month, or I have to do more research that will give us the answer in two months.’ You could see how this could go on and on. And once again, we didn’t have time for that. So the deadline was the deadline. October 2020 was the date. And then you work backwards – all the milestones that need to be achieved in order to get you to October, and that was that. And so when we hit a snag, we would then come up with different solutions or alternate approaches to solving the problem, rather than move the deadline.

Renee DeSilva 31:28
I love these. For me, as we’re talking through this, we all, regardless of the size or complexity of the businesses that we’re running, have an opportunity to apply this ‘lightspeed’ mindset to our own challenges. So that’s a good takeaway, for me to just to think that through. I love that.

Angela Hwang 31:44
Renee, I actually want to just make a mention of one more thing, which I think is also applicable to all of us, which is the application of digital approaches and technology. We are living in a world now, where we have access to incredible, artificial intelligence, predictive models, supercomputing, so many different apps and applications that can be used to do work in a different way. So I really also want to put a plug in for the ability to and the need to use technology and to use digital applications to speed up your work. It gave us an incredible advantage, whether it was in our discovery programs, in our development programs, in manufacturing. We saw huge advances being made, time saved, and then huge impact being created by the leveraging of technology.

Renee DeSilva 32:40
I think that’s really powerful. So I want to maybe switch gears a bit and just talk about the juxtaposition of the urgency of now, the having to navigate this set of ‘lightspeed’ behaviors – the fact is, you reflected, your team members and employees were also living through the pandemic, which created for all of us a high level of burnout and anxiety and stress. So from the lens of your workforce, how have you thought about well-being? You have this great mission orientation, and then how do you sort of put the wrapper around well-being for what’s been a really stressed workforce for all of us?

Angela Hwang 33:18
It is absolutely true that the entire organization has really given everything of themselves over the last several years. And I would say it’s not even those that worked on the vaccine, or the anti-viral because, of course, things were extra tense for those colleagues. But I would say the entire organization, because every single one of our BUs have important medicines that was serving the world, and that couldn’t take a backseat. I really want to say that it was just guns blazing for all of Pfizer. That being said, realizing that burnout is a real thing, realizing that we were also working virtually. We never saw anyone for the longest time because of the lockdown. And that this virtual way of working also while it has its upsides also has many downsides, right? I mean, how many times have you heard people say, that there are just no boundaries anymore between your home life and your work life? You’re just constantly in front of the screen. So we really took that to heart. And we made colleagues’ well-being an important part of what we spoke about, and also what we took seriously. So let me share with you what are some of these changes, or these asks of our colleagues.

The first is that we asked them to really focus on themselves to make sure that they were balancing work and home life and making personal time important. So what did that look like? I remember in 2020, that I asked everyone in Biopharma to create breakaway time, meaning in the same way that you would schedule a meeting on your calendar, go and schedule yourself a breakaway because unless you do that, and you make it purposeful, you’re going to forget. And then you’re just going to work your 14 hour day. And that is not what we want you to do, we want you to have a breakaway. So make that as important as your regular meeting and schedule it, to build in that discipline of taking breaks. This was more a bit 2020 was sort of epiphany, we also realized that this sort of continuous meetings, while important, can get really draining. And so what we started to do in 2021, and has now continued into 2022, is what we call these, we call them focus weeks. But focus weeks are meant for exactly that, for you to focus: focus on yourself, focus on stepping back and thinking about the things that you need to do for your work that you don’t get to because every day you’re running between meetings. So we’re actually asked people to not have any scheduled meetings at all, so that they have that one week, per quarter, to focus on the most important things. We also introduced a wellness day. So we expect all our colleagues to take a wellness day, to go, again, to do the things that they feel are important to do to recharge and to rejuvenate. And then we also partnered with a company called Thrive Global. And it’s the company that Arianna Huffington founded. And they have a tremendous amount of just really pragmatic and very manageable tools and applications and advice and tips that we’ve all found to be extremely useful to help us recover and to do energy management. So definitely put in a big plug for that.

Renee DeSilva 36:38
Yes, the term “energy management” really lands with me, it’s really about how we historically have talked about time management. But I think, as work requires more of us, it’s all about how do you manage your own flow and your energy day-to-day. So I do love that concept that you’ve mentioned here.

Angela Hwang 36:54
There’s another thing we’ve realized too, Renee, which is now that we’ve swung to the other side of the pendulum, which is everyone is just working remotely, right? I think that there is another aspect of this, that also is very energizing, which is seeing people. And I think we just can’t forget about the fact that yes, we’ve all learned to be very effective with this remote working and the virtual tools that help us to work virtually. But equally importantly, it is time for everyone to focus on people engagement, and that we cannot take for granted the teams that we have, the people that we work with, and that everyone can be sustained in an equal way, forever working in a virtual environment. I don’t think we need to go back to the frenetic pace in the way that we worked. But equally, I think that we cannot underestimate the importance of relationships of seeing people in the flesh, of seeing body language in your eyes, rather than through Zoom. It’s a big watch out because I think we can get a little too comfortable with the fact that virtual was good enough – but good enough isn’t good enough.

Renee DeSilva 36:04
Yeah, I think that’s so true.

Angela Hwang 38:06
It should be great and people need to be together.

Renee DeSilva 38:09
Indeed, indeed. All right, well, I want to be respectful of time here. So I do want to just spend a moment on your own unique personal background, which is incredibly interesting, so I’d like you to talk a little bit about that. You grew up in South Africa during apartheid as a non-white woman, so talk about that experience and how that shaped your work.

Angela Hwang 38:32
As you say, my childhood was unique. I grew up in a very unique time given in history, apartheid in South Africa. And as a Chinese, which meant I was not white, as you say. And in South Africa, that meant that there were many challenges to overcome, so basic things that all of us take for granted today. Potentially, things like going to school. I was not allowed to go to public school, I was not allowed to live in certain neighborhoods, I was not allowed to take public transportation, I couldn’t even go to college without having to get government authorization. So pretty much everything about our lives was about finding a different way. It was all workarounds, but the workarounds worked out great for me and my parents were incredibly resourceful, and positive and optimistic. So truthfully, I look back on my life now, and you could say, ‘Gosh, there were all these limitations.’ But when I was growing up, I never saw it that way. It was just a life filled with opportunities, and resourcefulness, and finding alternate solutions, but I still managed to do everything I needed to do – just in a different way. And so, when you grow up in that way, it teaches you a certain level of creativity and resilience.

But equally, when I looked around me, and as I grew up, I also started to realize that even people who were like me weren’t all like me. Many could not access and did not have opportunities to go to school and pursue other things. And you could see that some people could rise to the occasion, but many could not. And so that taught me a lot about the importance of advocacy, of contributing to solutions, of speaking up for myself, but also uplifting others, because not everyone can. And all of this stuff is important both at work, as well as in the communities where you live. This is how it’s become such a big part of who I am, and the way that I work, and certainly the leadership that I tried to provide to my teams, and my organization at Pfizer. And diversity and equity are things that are very common these days, we all like to talk about it, but I take it seriously. And so, you might say, ‘So what is it that you do? what is it that you do personally, and what is it that you do at Pfizer?’ First and foremost, it is so important to us at Pfizer that equity is, in fact, one of our values. And when we talk about equity, we say that it is important that for us to live this value, we have to make sure that people are seen, they’re heard, and they’re cared for. And that doesn’t pertain only to our colleagues, but it pertains to the patients and our stakeholders and the people that we serve. And in order to create an equitable environment where our colleagues can thrive, we need to ensure that we are treating people fairly, that we are treating people in a way that makes them feel valued, and that they’re just as important as the person sitting next to them. That they have equal chances and opportunities.

But as all of us know, again, these are lots of words but, unless you are purposeful about investing in it, and taking it seriously, it just doesn’t happen. So what are some of the things that we’ve done to put teeth to this? I’ll just share some examples, but one of them and my first one is what I call ‘courageous conversations.’ Here in the Biopharma Group, I expect all my leaders to get together routinely with their teams and have courageous conversations, conversations that are about equity, unconscious bias, inclusion, diversity. It’s amazing. I do that with my teams, and my leaders do it with their teams. But I have never been disappointed with just how rich those conversations have been. They’re not comfortable conversations, but they are important conversations. Because when you’re all willing to face the uncomfortable truths, and get comfortable with talking about topics that are uncomfortable, you’ll be amazed at how much understanding it creates, and how much empathy it creates. And ultimately, once people know why it is that you’re saying what you’re saying and where you’re coming from, it also creates acceptance. So just in that alone, you’re building strong teams, you’re building teams that are respectful. Another example of what we do to hardwire this equity is what we call equity commitments. And Pfizer has them and has published them publicly, but we have goals and metrics related to representation, and what we hope to achieve. And we hold ourselves accountable to those goals. So as an example, we have said that by 2022, we want to make sure that 47% of our VP level roles are filled by women, and that by 2025, more than 30% of our VP level roles are filled by minorities. And so I use those examples as goals that we put out there so that every organization, every team can strive to meet them. And unless you put those goals out there – it’s already hard enough with the goals, can you imagine without having certain goals? You just won’t be able to focus and put the right amount of energy on it. And I’m happy to say in terms of our goals, we have a lot more work to do, but we are already close to meeting and exceeding them. At the VP level, we’re now at 46%, and here we are early 2022. And in our VP level, minority goals we’re at 30, almost 35%, which is ahead of where we want it to be by 2025.

Renee DeSilva 44:39
Yeah, what you measure really does matter in terms of driving the right processes to get to those outcomes. That’s powerful.

Angela Hwang 44:45
Absolutely. The last example of what I wanted to share is what we do from a talent development perspective and it’s the creation of what we believe to be new ways of developing people. Often I think we’ve all gone to whatever personal development and training courses where you have a curriculum that’s given to you, and then you go through the curriculum, and you learn what the curriculum provides to you. And that’s not unimportant, but I think what we’ve also realized is that to help our colleagues to thrive and to really be – I think I’m sensitive to the different situations and where different colleagues may be coming, so I think we’ve taken a new approach to learning where we have development programs that are actually driven by colleagues themselves. Meaning, we create cohorts of colleagues, usually small cohorts, because we believe in the fact that when you can bring people together, and they feel that they’re in a safe space, they will want to learn not only with one another, but they will also learn from one another. And so this sort of new full-length learning is one that we’ve seen a lot of success and because it really puts the colleague at the center of what it is that they want to learn. And we let them drive and tell us what is important to them for this cohort and their learning experiences. And this level of sort of focus on the individual and that specific team has been a different way by which we’ve been able to advance people and give them different development opportunities.

Renee DeSilva 46:27
That’s fantastic. Really, really well done. Well, let me wrap up, it’s a question I ask all of my guests, which is,’ if you could invite two people for a conversation at a table that you curate, who would you invite, and why?’ And you can take any amount of creative license on this question you want to.

Angela Hwang 46:45
Well, thank you. So the first person I would invite would be my— Well, both people I want to invite are no longer with us. But the first that I would want to invite is my grandmother. So she lived to be over 100 and she was an extraordinary woman because, in many ways, she for me represented the kind of courage and conviction and confidence that I would want every woman to have, but she grew up in a time that was very challenging. Think about that, in the 1900s, she endured so many world wars, she was separated from her family and her children, she saw the first commercial flight, she saw space travel, she saw the cellphone, she saw the internet. But at the same time, she lived through abject poverty and just so many of the things that all of us today don’t have an ability to relate to and just things that we don’t need to think about. But in all of this hardship, I always remember her to be just so positive and so forward-thinking. Today, I sit and wonder about her and I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if she was able to be with us at our Thanksgiving table? And for her to reflect on all these moments in world history? How did it look like from a woman’s eyes? And what did it look like from her point of view, and just to see how far the world has gone?’ It must be an incredible way to live and to have lived in this moment. These particular last 100 years, I think, have been very explosive from a human perspective, and from a human history perspective, so I think that she would be a lucky one to be able to tell us many stories.

The second person that I have a lot of admiration for, honestly, is Steve Jobs, and also a person that isn’t here today. But of all the people and of all the things that have happened in this world, think about the innovation he brought to our day to day lives in terms of computing, and in terms of the iPhone. And yes, while I find space travel amazing, and I find things there are so many things about our world that are extraordinarily breathtaking. The thing that he did was to change everyday lives. Everybody in the world has been changed by an invention called the iPhone. When did we ever imagine that a phone could also take pictures, could be your GPS, could be your little mini-computer in your hand? You could go on and on and, especially in my job today, I’m always pushed to think about ‘Okay, well, what’s next?’ I always think, ‘Well, how did he think about what’s next? How do you imagine a world that doesn’t exist? And how do you create something for the everyday person they would want so bad that they didn’t, and they didn’t even know that they wanted it?’ Like, how did I know that I wanted a camera on my phone? Right? But now that you have it, you can’t imagine life without it. And I think that he was extraordinary in that regard. He’s a super visionary and I think changed the world. Of all the people that I think about that are cool, and have done amazing things, he stands out for me as someone who could see a life that didn’t even exist yet – but then also made it happen, and made it happen for every human being.

Renee DeSilva 50:01
Absolutely. And as you’re talking, the other thing that strikes me about that is in the span of a single generation, how much forward progress we can make, and we sometimes lose sight of that. Just the day to day and I think of your grandmother’s example, and in the vision that Steve pushed through – I think those are great examples of just really in the course of a single generation, how much can change.

Angela Hwang 50:44
We’re the lucky ones to be living this generation.

Renee DeSilva 50:47
Indeed. Well, let’s land here. It’s such a pleasure to catch up with you today. Thank you for joining us.

Angela Hwang 50:52
Thank you, Renee, thank you for your time and giving us the opportunity today to cover so many different aspects of our world today and life in general.

Renee DeSilva 51:01
Yes, indeed. Happy to have had you. Thanks again for joining me at the Table. The Table is a podcast produced by The Health Management Academy. Make sure you catch future episodes by visiting our website, or by subscribing on the podcast platform of your choice, and if you have suggestions for topics or guests, I’d love to hear from you. Please drop me a note at I look forward to talking with you soon.