Learning to Live in Lightspeed

Kira Ciccarelli

Learning to Live in Lightspeed

Discovering, manufacturing and distributing a life-changing vaccine is no easy task. How can lessons learned from this process improve vaccine development strategy?

Listen to Episode 66 on Apple Podcasts

Guest: Sally Susman, Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer

Hosts: Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director of the Diligent Institute, and Meghan Day, Senior Director of Board Member Experience for Diligent Corporation

In this episode:

  1. Inside “Project Lightspeed”: Susman discusses the decision to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and what it meant for Pfizer’s governance and leadership teams.
  2. Responding to Repercussions: Once the vaccine was accessible, the battle had just begun. Susman digs into Pfizer’s response to vaccine hesitancy and employee burnout in the wake of what turned out to be a polarizing rollout.
  3. Looking to the Future: Susman talks about what it’s like to “invest in a breakthrough,” and what that means for Pfizer moving forward.


In this episode of The Corporate Director Podcast, hear from Sally Susman, Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer, as she takes us inside the process to create a COVID-19 vaccine, dubbed “Project Lightspeed,” and what she learned about leadership and governance along the way.

Inside “Project Lightspeed”

Susman begins with the decision to develop and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine: “When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic in March 2020, we decided we had to care for our employees first and also to maintain a steady stream of medicine around the world.” Susman explains these priorities: “Other terrible diseases didn’t go on hold when COVID struck.”

“The decision to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine was an ‘and’ for Pfizer and not an ‘or’. We had to add a priority, not drop our other priorities.”

Sally Susman, Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Pfizer

Eventually, Susman and the rest of the team at Pfizer decided that they would commit to coming forward with a new vaccine for COVID-19 by the end of 2020 when this process normally takes eight or nine years. This required a major paradigm shift: “We had a new leadership and governance process called Project Lightspeed. Usually, our pharmaceutical development is linear. This time though, we had to do everything, procure raw materials, set up manufacturing lines, recruiting for clinical trials, and so on, all at once.”

Susman has called this period of development the most exciting time in her career. She takes our hosts into the process: “We formed a team to project manage which was led by Albert Borla, our chairman and CEO. We got on a call every day to sort through each problem as they arose. We decided early on to crush our own bureaucracy and keep politics out.”

For Pfizer, the chairman and CEO being the project manager was absolutely essential for success, despite it being an unorthodox move: “If not for the CEO being the project manager, we wouldn’t have had the vaccine in record time,” says Susman, “No one else in a company can break through turf or resource issues like the CEO. It was his proactive and hands-on role that made the difference.”

The board also worked to support this team’s goals: “We have lots of scientists on our board who understood the risks, especially when it came to our decision to not take money from the US government, and instead decided to use close to two billion dollars of our own money.” Susman explained this move: “We wanted to ensure autonomy and to give the government an opportunity to spend that money somewhere that needed it more. It was a big swallow, but our board received it supportively.”

Responding to Repercussions

When creating a new, lifesaving vaccine in such a short amount of time, Pfizer was bound to face doubt, uncertainty, and mistrust from the general public. Susman discusses Pfizer’s response to alleviate fears: “We had full transparency and an open-door policy. We had journalists involved as we went along, so that when we were successful, people could understand and gain clear insight.”

In Susman’s eyes, this decision to uphold transparency and accountability was not a trade-off: “We had to come down squarely on a profound amount of transparency. When it came time for clinical trials, we decided to post on our website the trial protocol. The scientists almost fell out of their chairs! This is their intellectual property, and it’s a precious asset. But given the speed and stakes here, we needed people to know exactly what they were in for, to have full confidence in these protocols. This turned out to be a good move, because then we did not have to explain our silence later.”

“We knew it would be tragic to create a vaccine that people didn’t have faith in. Being radically transparent was part of that process.”

Sally Susman, Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Pfizer

Given the grueling journey to creating the vaccine on top of the polarizing and partisan response to it in the United States, Susman highlighted the importance of caring for Pfizer’s employees. “We added two wellness days per year, which can be taken at any point. The idea is to do something for yourself.” She discusses employee drive and passion, even during a stressful and turbulent time: “People want to work for purpose-driven companies. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned in the last year and a half.”

Looking to the Future

Susman then dives into what she and others at Pfizer have learned throughout the vaccine development and deployment process: “Our internal project name was Project Lightspeed. So now I think, how can we live in lightspeed all the time?” We learned the value of investing in a breakthrough. We learned about the ability to tolerate financial risk for true advancement in human health.

The process has been undeniably transformational: “Speed has become embedded in who we are and how we work,” says Susman, “We also learned the importance of doing all of this against the background of strong governance. In times like these, you have to engage your board more and not less. You need more touchpoints, phone calls, and zoom meetings. They need to be on the journey with you.”

“Our internal project name was ‘Project Lightspeed.’ So now I think: How can we live in lightspeed all the time?”

Sally Susman, Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Pfizer

Susman and the team at Pfizer has set some lofty goals for 2021 and beyond: “We’re looking to increase our production and manufacturing levels. was also a moonshot for our production and manufacturing teams, who should get credit along with the scientists who developed the vaccine formula. We went from 200 million doses a year to 4 billion. When we first had the vaccine, we wanted 1 billion doses in 2021. Then, we raised this number to 2 billion. At this point, we will likely surpass 3 billion doses created before the end of the year. Next year, we’ll aim for another 4 billion. We need to get everyone a shot, and not have a tradeoff between original vaccine shots and boosters. We can do both, I believe it.”

Also in this episode…

Hosts Dottie Schindlinger and Meghan Day discuss the importance of having international representation on the board and talk about a recent Diligent Institute blog looking at the number of boards in the US and Europe who have board members of Asian nationalities. Spoiler: the numbers aren’t good.

Resources from this episode:

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Kira Ciccarelli
Kira Ciccarelli is the Lead Researcher at the Diligent Institute. Diligent Institute is the modern governance think tank and research arm of Diligent Corporation, the leading provider in board collaboration software. In her role, Kira works to conduct and provide high-level modern governance research to inform director decision-making and identify best practices.