When the leaders of Pfizer‘s African American Leadership Network (PAALN)one of 53 colleague-resource groups globallysought a new executive sponsor last year, it targeted David Simmons for his global insight and leadership direction.
With 12 years of international experience as president and general manager of Pfizer’s Established Products Business Unit, Simmons had already demonstrated his commitment to diversity by identifying, encouraging and placing women in leadership roles throughout Europe. He also knew what it took to navigate Pfizer’s corporate culture, having risen through the ranks to head a business unit with full P&L responsibility.
Raised in West Virginia with a computer-science background, “I had to overcome some obstacles to succeed in my career,” he says, “and I hope sharing those experiences can help others.”
Simmons concedes that he had a hidden agenda when he took the sponsorship role. He wanted to find untapped pockets of talent within Pfizer to grow his own business unit. And although his motives for sponsoring PAALN were sometimes questioned”I got looks of skepticism,” he saysSimmons was warmly welcomed by the 500 plus-member network group. “I got the response of ‘Hallelujah, finally someone like you has come along,'” he says.
Identifying Potential Talent
Like other hiring managers, Simmons looks for confidence, conviction and assertiveness when scouting for potential leaders. He has successfully imparted these key insights to help women in Europe gain career advancement. “And now part of what I’m working on is finding out what are those unique insights that African Americans can utilize,” he says. “When a [Black employee] is the best candidate for the job, how can I increase their chances of getting it by overcoming unconscious hurdles they didn’t even know they had”
Over the past year, Simmons has begun working with about three dozen PAALN members, “all of which have been identified as high potentials by their managers,” to mentor and advise them as they move their careers forward. Simmons already hired one member within his business unit as director of operations for the Asian regional president.
He has also identified another hurdle beyond race that PAALN members face: They’re predominantly experienced in the United States. But many of Pfizer’s decision makers are involved in international business, so “there’s a lack of awareness of where the talent pools exist,” he says.
As a result, Simmons set up crucial connections between PAALN domestic members and key senior leaders (regional presidents and heads of global business units) who have the largest number of hiring placements of general managers.
“We’ve got to create feeder pools of a bigger magnitude,” insists Simmons.
Conversely, by having exposure to global senior leaders, PAALN members are now doing more career soul searching. “They’re opening up their minds to realizing that they may need to make some sacrifices and move outside the U.S. to gain experience and demonstrate potential,” says Simmons.
Although it’s too soon to determine the business benefits, Simmons is confident PAALN’s high-potential Black employees are gaining leadership insight they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. “I believe each of us must learn to build ourselves into the most competitive proposition for the roles we aspire to,” he says. “That means knowing and developing our own skills, knowledge and capabilities. Then, once any of us is in a leadership role, we must demonstrate without a doubt that we were the best candidate for the role.”
PAALN, which launched in February 2008 at the company’s New York headquarters, has a mission of employee engagement, talent acquisition and development and innovation.