As the Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Pfizer, Sally Susman oversees the company’s relationships with governments around the world as well as its corporate responsibility group. She has also held positions at Estee Lauder and American Express and worked on international trade for the Clinton administration. Susman serves on the boards of WPP plc, an advertising and marketing company based in the UK, and the International Rescue Committee.
Through her work boosting Pfizer’s public profile, she has valued candor and openness, values that carry over into her hobbies – she is a frequent book critic for the East Hampton Star, and she was a prominent fundraiser for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
She emphasizes candor vis-à-vis her sexual orientation, too.
“In questions about gender or race or sexual orientation, I think the key is to let your individuality come through, so you’re not reduced to a label,” she said in 2016 . “I don’t want to be the gay girl down the hall. I want to be Sally and I want to be known for what I’m good at and I want to get better at what I’m deficient in.”
Please describe how and when you first knew you were LGBT+:
Since I was a young girl, I had a feeling that I might be different from the other little girls, but it wasn’t until I met and fell in love with an openly gay woman that I realized that I too was gay. This was in the early 1980s, when being out was very courageous, and I am very grateful to her. I sometimes wonder if I had never met her if my life would had taken a different course.
In 25 words, describe how you came out:
I grew up in a tight-knit family in St. Louis, and returning home to tell my parents was the defining moment in my journey out.
Who are your role models?
Martina Navratilova. As a young girl I was a tennis player and a fan. I admired how Martina athleticized the sport, and I watched her come out and was heartened that America embraced her.
If you could have any job other than the one you have now, it would be:
Head of the Peace Corps. I admire people who go into places that are difficult and challenged and try through their presence to make things better. Usually the giving and the getting are equally valuable.
The most important thing I have learned from a boss is:
What is more important than how you get a new job, is how you leave an old job. It’s very important when leaving a job to leave everything and everyone in a better place than you found them, to keep your bridges intact.
The most important thing I have learned from an employee is:
The real gift of straight talk and honest feedback. It is difficult for employees to speak truth to power, but it is those few employees who speak candidly that I’m very grateful for.
If I could tell someone who is graduating from college this year one thing I’ve learned, it would be:
To expect the unexpected. That a young person’s worries and anxieties are expected, but not helpful. There is not one decision that will make or break you. It’s all about the doing and the working that paves its own path.
A time a sponsor helped me take my next step:
When I consulted my boss at American Express about leaving Am Ex to go into government which would at least temporarily derail my corporate career path, not to mention be less than half my salary. He helped me to see that it was a risk worth taking and an opportunity that was helpful to have. I did go into government and then two years later he hired me back into a bigger, more interesting position.
My most important Ally is:
Pfzer’s head of HR. He is a straight white man who I confide in, who confides in me. We seek to do the best we can for colleagues. He shared with me early on that he had a good college friend who was gay, and he’s always been very open to different perspectives.
The next big thing for the global LGBT+ community is:
Export the success that we’ve had in the US around the world.
The next big step for me in my career could be:
Even in the role I have right now, I find myself increasingly teaching others. And I particularly enjoy imparting to newer members of the team the critical factors for success in Corporate Affairs.
The six things I could never live without are:
Paper and pen, French fries, a bathtub, books, walking shoes, a good ear to listen.
My favorite vacation destination is:
Sag Harbor, NY
The three books I would take to a deserted island are:
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, Just Kids by Patti Smith