Leadership in Action > Becoming a health innovator for the world

Angela Hwang, Group President, Pfizer, shares how a license to reimagine keeps the healthcare innovation company on its path to growth.

In 2020 and 2021, Pfizer, in partnership with BioNTech, developed and distributed Comirnaty, a desperately needed COVID-19 vaccine, with unprecedented speed. Even as it accomplished this historic feat, the pharmaceutical giant continued executing against an agenda of patient-centric growth and innovation that the company had initiated before the pandemic. Angela Hwang, group president of Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group and a member of Pfizer’s Executive Leadership Team, was at the center of several enormously ambitious and simultaneous focus areas. Her ability to execute in these challenging times provides lessons for leaders everywhere.

“Before the pandemic, Pfizer developed a Purpose Blueprint to help us deliver on our purpose: breakthroughs that change patients’ lives,” Hwang says. “Our priorities didn’t change. In fact, we doubled down on exactly what we set out to do.”

While the company was focused on the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, there was also clear acknowledgement that other diseases weren’t relenting just because the world was in a pandemic. And further, success couldn’t come at a cost to the customers and patients who depend on Pfizer to maintain a steady supply of needed medicines and other vaccines. The company ran several parallel tracks: one that focused on the vaccine, another on the COVID-19 oral treatment Paxlovid, and others that continued the company’s existing growth strategy. Key dimensions of that strategy included bringing 25 breakthrough products to market by 2025, transforming the customer and patient experience, and looking internally at ways to crush bureaucracy and eliminate red tape, so teams could move faster.

Needing to succeed simultaneously on multiple fronts, Pfizer leadership empowered each area to make decisions. “It was very much a divide-and-conquer approach,” Hwang says. “It was important that every single leader in all of our businesses and functions stepped up to deliver what they needed to do for their patients.”

For Hwang, that empowerment is the essence of good management. “The biggest difference that all of us as business leaders can make is to give our people the license to reimagine how they work,” she says, “and to identify creative ways to do things better and faster.”

Pfizer’s need to work on parallel tracks reflects the unique challenges facing biopharmaceuticals, where research and development are risky and expensive.

The biggest difference that all of us as business leaders can make is to give our people the license to reimagine how they work.

The current environment demands enterprise and industry-wide innovation, and not just in biopharmaceuticals. “Most industries right now are in major points of transformation,” says Susan Garfield, EY Americas Chief Public Health Officer and Health Sciences and Wellness Sector Commercial Lead. Advances in technology, the climate crisis and shifting social norms affect every business. “There’s so much change happening that the innovation agenda is at the center of everyone’s core business model,” she says.


In addition to innovation, Pfizer’s leadership always keeps its global impact in sight. “We need to focus on innovation and development of medicines and vaccines,” Hwang says. “But we also have to think about how to get that medicine out into the world for broad global access — and how you scale that up.”


EY sees this as part of an evolution within biopharmaceuticals. “The industry is evolving its sense of stakeholder capitalism, and Pfizer epitomizes that evolution,” says Arda Ural, EY Americas Industry Markets Leader for Health and Wellness. “It’s not enough to innovate products with the potential to make the world a better place. Biopharmaceutical companies have to see the process through all the way to the patients, and they have to care about equitable access.” This point of view is evidenced in many of Pfizer’s actions as it deployed Comirnaty at reduced cost for low-resource countries and governments globally.


Hwang credits Pfizer’s successes in the past two years to three critical factors: aligning on the problem to be solved, establishing a nonnegotiable timeline for solving the problem, and committing to making progress even when the answers aren’t all clear. Equally important has been a focus on innovation at all times, not just in crisis, which is supported by a legacy of innovation that dates back to the company’s founding in 1849. When the pandemic hit, Hwang recognized the weight of the challenge ahead. Failure was not an option when Pfizer and BioNTech set out to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine. Now, every day her teams are tasked with making the impossible possible.

This is part of Leadership in Action — A master class series featuring prominent CEOs highlighting the decisive moment where bold decision-making has made a material impact on their company and career.


Disruptive innovation is changing the way the world works. And it’s creating opportunity, but only for those who can keep up with the pace or reinvent themselves to thrive.

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