Pamela Puryear’s Approach to Leading with Head, Heart, and Guts

With Pfizer and its culture focused on ownership and whole leadership, Pamela Puryear and her team are further helping to drive success

Pamela Puryear, SVP and chief talent officer, regularly speaks with the Pfizer team about the importance of leadership.

Three years ago, it was a time of uncertainty for Pamela Puryear. She had been happily employed by Hospira, the leading provider of injectable drugs and infusion technologies, since 2009 as chief talent officer. She was looking forward to growing her career with Hospira.

Those plans suddenly changed in 2015 when Pfizer acquired Hospira. But it also placed Puryear in a unique position. She and her team were able to participate in the integration of two companies, focusing on both supporting Hospira employees through the transition and also delivering against business goals and objectives.

Managing through the uncertain times prior to the close of the acquisition while also managing their own responses to the changing times allowed Puryear’s team at Hospira to experience something that many organization development professionals learn about but never have an opportunity to experience. “It’s one thing to know intellectually what it is to go through change and transition. It’s another thing to go through it personally and to have all the same feelings of anxiety and fear,” Puryear says.

After all, Puryear’s career path had never been impacted by such unexpected, external events before. Prior to her six years at Hospira, Puryear spent twelve years as an independent organization development consultant and another ten years as a finance professional for several real estate investment advisors since completing her education, which includes a BA in psychology and organizational behavior from Yale, an MBA from Harvard Business School, and a PhD in organizational psychology.

For Puryear, the next move would return her to New York City—where she was raised—as Pfizer’s senior vice president and chief talent officer. Upon her arrival, Puryear was impressed that the corporate culture was front and center. In fact, Pfizer chairman and CEO Ian Read has emphasized corporate culture since he introduced the OWNIT! culture as one of the company’s four business imperatives when he took the helm in late 2010. OWNIT! is an acronym that stands for “Own the Business, Win in the Marketplace, No Jerks . . . Let’s Discuss Behaviors, Impact Results, and Trust in One Another.” More than an acronym, OWNIT! is designed to empower all of the company’s colleagues to be collaborative, innovative, and accountable when it comes to achieving Pfizer’s purpose to bring innovative therapies to patients that significantly improve their lives.

“From the beginning, Ian put culture right at the top among business priorities, like addressing the innovative core, making the right capital allocation decisions, and earning respect from society for the work we do,” Puryear says. “When I joined Pfizer, I discovered that everyone knew OWNIT!”

Puryear also envisioned, though, pairing discussions about culture with conversations about leadership. In her experience, leadership at every level of an organization brings culture to life, irrespective of level, role, or title. Pairing discussions about culture and leadership, however, wasn’t necessarily the case a few years ago at Pfizer, which then had a complex list of twenty-seven leadership competencies. It was a system that was complex, not memorable, and difficult to translate into concrete actions.

“There was a lot of focus on culture, but not as much focus on leadership,” Puryear recalls.

Puryear and her team envisioned an approach to leadership that emphasized action and accountability from every colleague. They also wanted to simplify the system, dramatically trimming the list of competencies to transform them into easily understood behaviors.

“The first thing was having something clear that was memorable because if people can’t remember what the leadership behaviors are, then we lose the power of a shared approach to leadership behaviors,” she says. “That’s what led us to this head, heart, and guts approach to leadership.”

The trifecta of leading with your head, heart, and guts has literary and cultural connections to everything from the Bible to The Wizard of Oz to the business book Head, Heart, and Guts: How the World’s Best Companies Develop Complete Leaders by David Dotlich, Peter Cairo, and Stephen Rhinesmith. Leading with the head, heart, and guts emphasizes not only the importance of analytical thinking, but also creating connections and acting with conviction, Puryear explains.

Pfizer, which introduced this approach to leadership in 2017, further personalized those three broad categories by tying them to specific behaviors. Leading with one’s head means being focused and decisive. Leading with heart requires being connected and inspiring. Leading with guts necessitates courage and resilience. “These are leadership behaviors that are meaningful and achievable for colleagues at every level,” Puryear says.

Head, heart and guts leadership principles have also been applied to Pfizer’s diversity and inclusion initiatives—another one of Puryear’s major areas of focus. Research shows inclusivity improves business performance, which explains why it makes sense from an analytical standpoint. But it takes heart to create connections with people who may not look, think, or act like you. It also takes guts to adopt and experiment with innovative ideas from diverse quarters—whether they come from a specific demographic group or a set of employees from an acquired company—that might not fit with the current corporate consensus.

Pfizer provides fertile ground for inclusion to flourish further considering roughly twenty thousand colleagues are already part of grassroots groups dedicated to creating and maintaining a diverse and inclusive culture at Pfizer. Additionally, Pfizer’s most senior leaders have attended inclusion commitment sessions, where they discuss inclusion as a leadership imperative and share ways to create and maintain inclusive climates on their teams and across Pfizer. Puryear’s early focus has also been on increasing the visibility of leaders from diverse backgrounds. For example, top-performing, diverse talent has been placed into leadership positions on projects that are visible, important, and complex to increase their profile across Pfizer.

She’s also using analytical tools to discover which diversity initiatives are reaping the most substantial rewards and sharpening Pfizer’s focus on programs that work. Meanwhile, Puryear and her workforce analytics team also review internal and external data to identify trends that will inform and shape Pfizer’s talent strategies, particularly in an industry known for tight regulations, frequent business development, and partnership activities.

In addition to honing her high-level organization development skills, the acquisition and transition also reinforced for Puryear that while change can be challenging, there can also be great rewards going through it and coming out on the other side.

“At the end of the day, people at Pfizer are great people, just like the people who worked at Hospira are great people,” she says. “And we’re all in the business of producing medicines to improve the lives of patients. I think there was a common core of values and a vision and passion for what we do to bring medicines to market.”

Photo: Andrew Gauci Attard/Imagine Photography