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Pfizer’s Tanya Alcorn on getting ‘comfortable being uncomfortable’ | Lessons for Leaders


In this series, we’re spotlighting insights from leaders in the world of healthcare. Tanya Alcorn discusses how women can move into leadership posts.

Tanya Alcorn understands managing in a crisis and encouraging teams to do their best work.

Tanya Alcorn (Photo provided by Pfizer)

Tanya Alcorn (Photo provided by Pfizer)

Alcorn serves as senior vice president of sterile injectables and biotech operations at Pfizer and played a leading role in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines. As she notes, Pfizer faced the challenge of developing the vaccine and getting it to people everywhere, including those living in rural areas and in countries with less infrastructure.

As Pfizer began working on the vaccines, Alcorn encouraged the team to lean into the uncertainty they were facing. “We leveraged it as an innovation engine,” she says.

“That volatility and that uncertainty and that pressure that we all felt, we turned it around. Instead of paralyzing us, it actually just motivated us to think really big,” she says.

In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive®, Alcorn discusses embracing challenging and uncomfortable situations, particularly for women who want to tackle leadership roles.

She describes the importance of networking and building connections while being true to yourself. She discusses how organizations can help nurture and develop women leaders. And she shares key steps in tackling big projects.

(See part of our conversation with Tanya Alcorn. The story continues below.)

‘Lift your head up’

Alcorn recalls being at meetings early in her career where she would be the only woman, or there would be one other woman at most in the meeting. Early in her career, she says, she did her best to fit in and be one of the guys.

Now, she said she’d tell her younger self to worry less about fitting in and to be herself, and celebrate what makes her different from her teammates.

“What can help you get ahead and can help you really stand out is to find out what makes you different,” she says.

“And how do you double down on your differences and use that as a way to lift yourself and your career and have a stronger voice and a bigger impact,” Alcorn explains. “It took me a while to learn that, because I just wanted to fit in, blend in, and not stand out.”

Early in her career, Alcorn says she even considered how she dressed so she wouldn’t stand out.

“Now I've completely flipped that,” she says. “I wear louder clothes. I just do things that represent who I am, and I'm a better person when I'm not working so hard to not be who I am.”

Women need to understand that rising into leadership positions requires more than hard work. “You need to remember to lift your head up,” Alcorn says.

“A lot of people work really hard,” she says. “You have to be able to lift your head up, read the room, make sure you're building your relationships, make sure you're networking, making sure the work you're doing is actually the right work and having an impact. Make sure you talk about the work you're doing.”

“So I always talk about lifting your head up, and making sure that you not only have a seat at the table, you're using your seat at the table, you're using your voice, you're speaking up, and you're taking the time to build your network,” Alcorn says.

In addition, Alcorn says it’s important for women to embrace challenging roles, even if they aren’t sure they’re ready for those responsibilities. She says women aspiring to grow, especially earlier in their careers, should be “comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Alcorn says the positions that helped propel her to new opportunities and changed her career “are those roles where I was really uncomfortable taking them.”

Alcorn says mentors told her to embrace opportunities in areas that offered her a chance to learn more about a particular part of the business. She says that’s not easy, because some women can be more risk-averse in their careers and want to have a deep knowledge base before moving into a leadership post.

“My advice would be to move around a lot,” Alcorn says. “Get into roles in areas that you know nothing about.”

“Don't focus so much early on about moving up the ladder,” she adds. “Go horizontal, as much as you can. Get breadth of experience and really find those mentors, or leaders that you really make a connection with, that you resonate with their leadership style, and use them as a sounding board to different roles and opportunities.”

Encouraging women to be leaders

Organizations that are looking to help women move up the ranks should consider mentorship programs, so they can have a sounding board and receive valuable guidance.

Leaders also need to encourage women to pursue certain leadership posts, because some bright and talented women may need a push.

“Female leaders in particular, the data is clear that they won't go for jobs they're not 100% qualified for,” Alcorn says. “So as a manager of a female leader, how do you make them comfortable being uncomfortable and really push them into areas, or to put their name into roles that they may not feel like they're fully ready for.”

“It's around mentorship, and it's around pushing them to take chances, and to put themselves out there,” she adds.

Women often carry the bulk of family responsibilities, which leaders should consider.

“If you manage female leaders that are caring for their aging parents, or have children at home, really try to understand how you can support them, so that they could be their best self at work,” Alcorn says.

‘Step by step’

In tackling an enormous project, such as developing and distributing a COVID-19 vaccine, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the size of the task.

Alcorn says it’s critical to shift that focus to handling the initial steps.

She says she told her team to “just ignore everyone saying it's impossible to be done. Let's just figure out how to do it, and just take it step by step.”

“I think it was a lot about just taking every day, being really focused on, what do we need to accomplish today? What do we need to accomplish this week? Just taking it in bite-sized pieces and trying to shield a lot of the external noise that was hitting us at that time.”

In addition, Alcorn stressed the importance of setting the direction but giving teams the ability to move forward. She says she sought to make sure the teams had what they needed but didn’t want to “hand over all the answers and have them execute.”

“I do think a key to our success was setting up those guardrails and giving the leaders freedom to operate. Just align the guardrails up front. And that takes a little bit of time,” she adds. “But then you unleash the team …. You don't need to come to me for decisions as long as it meets these principles. Just go and then just have a lot of checkpoints along the way.”

(If you’d like to submit your lessons in leadership in healthcare, great advice you’ve received, or insights you wish you had earlier, submit an idea for our “Lessons for Leaders” series. Email Ron Southwick, senior editor of Chief Healthcare Executive: [email protected])

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