You are currently viewing Payal Sahni: The Maestro of Creating a Sublime People Experience
Payal Sahni | Chief People Experience Officer | Executive Vice President Pfizer

Payal Sahni: The Maestro of Creating a Sublime People Experience

Because it caused many people to work from home, the pandemic blurred the lines between personal and professional lives, with scenes from the former bleeding into the latter with each zoom call. Businesses grappled with the realities of a world where employees were more human than before, the switch from formal attire to home casual being just one example of what was a “new normal.”

The idea that we can separate one life from the another, oneself from others, seems a bit preposterous, now in the times of ‘bring your whole self to work.’ The COVID-19 pandemic brought a whole slew of changes in all industries, one of which was the shift in focus towards people in the sector of Human Resources.

Payal Sahni, Chief People Experience Officer and Executive Vice President at Pfizer, calls it People Experience because careers are a collection of key experiences inside and outside the organization. She strives to deliver an integrated experience to her colleagues, so they can reach their full potential as they deliver on Pfizer’s purpose: Breakthroughs that Change Patients’ Lives.

In an exclusive interview, Insights Success highlights the excerpts from an expert who has defined the working culture of a company that delivered the first COVID-19 vaccine to the world. Payal shares significant facts about what it takes to cultivate talent that delivers solutions for the world’s salvation.

Below are the highlights of the interview:

Payal, briefly describe your professional journey up until now.

I joined Pfizer Human Resources in 1997 as an intern. Since then, I have held several Regional, and Global HR Business Partner roles supporting businesses around the world and led the Talent Organization for our manufacturing division. In addition, I spearheaded numerous transformations as Pfizer evolved its business structure and have managed HR strategy for several mergers and acquisitions.

Prior to being named Chief People Experience Officer, I was the Senior Vice President, Human Resources for Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group, leading the HR strategy for seven business units, as well as for the Corporate Affairs, Legal, Compliance and Chief Business Office functions.

What challenges did you face along the way?

I prefer to think of them as opportunities. Moving to different roles throughout your career can be difficult as you are expected to quickly learn new ways to work with teams and develop skills you didn’t even know you needed. Each of my positions provided new experiences and learnings. No two days were the same, which I welcomed. My colleagues were generous in helping me understand the nuances of the various divisions and groups across the company, and I tried to take what I learned in one role and apply it to the next.

One thing I noticed as I was on the journey was the evolution of the HR function. I wanted to broaden its focus to include the whole of a person’s experience “at work,” and to make the function a proactive, central force in our company by creating meaningful, robust and broader experiences for colleagues, which in turn, allows them to reach their full potential.

What significant impact have you brought to the human resource industry?

I am proud of is the way that my team has centered the employee experience as essential to Pfizer’s business purpose – not just a supporting function. Our entire executive team attributes Pfizer’s culture of innovation and bold moves as the driver of our success in delivering the first COVID-19 vaccine. Workplace culture is more important than it has ever been and in order for it to be authentic, it needs to touch all aspects of a colleague’s experience – before, during and after their time at Pfizer. That’s why I decided to rename our department, changing it from Human Resources to People Experience.

I try to bring a high degree of empathy to my job – to put myself in others’ shoes and imagine how they are feeling, what their needs are, and how I can help them. My guiding principles as a People Experience leader are courage, transparency, and a willingness to try to new things. That has served me well in my years at Pfizer. The past years in particular have shown us how stepping outside of your comfort zone and finding new ways of working are rewarded at this company.

I lead with an unrelenting commitment to create an amazing workplace for all of my Pfizer colleagues. We want them to feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work and that they realize their potential and feel motivated to deliver on our purpose: Breakthroughs that Change Patients’ Lives.

Tell us about Pfizer and its foundation pillar.

Pfizer’s purpose – Breakthroughs That Change Patients’ Lives – is our foundation.  We are a purpose-driven company, and every colleague knows that. 

We have established a clear set of expectations regarding “what” we need to achieve for patients and “how” we will go about achieving those goals.

The “how” is represented by four simple, powerful values – courage, excellence, equity and joy – that define our company and our culture.

Courage. Breakthroughs start by challenging convention, especially in the face of uncertainty or adversity. This happens when we think big, speak up and are decisive.

Excellence. We can only change patients’ lives when we perform at our best together. This happens when we focus on what matters, agree on who does what and measure our outcomes.

Equity. We believe that every person deserves to be seen, heard and cared for. This happens when we are inclusive, act with integrity and reduce healthcare disparities.

Joy. We give ourselves to our work, but it also gives to us. We find joy when we take pride, recognize one another and have fun.

What has always struck me about Pfizer is that these words are not just on some brochure or bulletin board. We live them. They are part of our DNA.

How does Pfizer promote workforce flexibility, and what is your role in it?

Before the pandemic, we were already well on our way to a hybrid approach to work. World events accelerated our timeline. People Experience created a program called “Log In for Your Day,” which allows colleagues and their managers to decide how often they need to be in the office.

Of course, some roles, such as those in manufacturing sites or at the lab, cannot be completed anywhere other than on site, but for many colleagues – about 80 percent – a hybrid arrangement makes sense. That said, we do value the comradery and collaboration that comes from in-person work, so we are working to make sure our offices are inviting. In fact, later this year, we will move to a new headquarters in New York City that will be activity-based by design, with refreshed and renewed spaces to encourage collaboration.  

We think of our careers as a collection of key experiences. When we embrace every experience as an opportunity to grow, to learn, to move forward, we unlock our potential and can accomplish amazing things together. Our “zigzag” concept, for example, offers new ways in which colleagues can grow, using single or blended zigzags. It allows colleagues to take lateral positions outside of their business unit, so they can learn more about the company, and develop skills they otherwise might not have an opportunity to.

And flexibility means paying attention not just to career paths and “jobs,” but to colleagues’ mental health and wellness, and recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all in those categories either. The key to all of this, I find, is flexibility.  To remember than one size does not fit all and that our focus should be on results, not processes.

What is your take on technology’s importance, and how are you leveraging it?

Technology has revolutionized every aspect of our lives, from advancement in medicines to the way we work. At Pfizer, we were undergoing a digital transformation even before the pandemic. This work allowed us to quickly pivot to a new model, where people who could work from home had the resources to do so. What we were able to accomplish had never been done before. Beyond working arrangements, Pfizer is leveraging cutting-edge technology in a wide range of functions, including clinical trial recruitment and manufacturing.

The pandemic accelerated this digital transformation in all aspects of our business. Specifically, regarding People Experience, technology enables us to have a smoother application process, better onboarding for new hires, and more accurate and timely sharing of benefit and other relevant information that colleagues need.

We also have a global recognition platform where colleagues can award points to one another to recognize extraordinary work, and we have a tool that allows people with speaking disabilities to communicate more easily. All that said, I often remind my team to be sure we do not lose the human touch – that automation has its place – but to remember that we are dealing with people.

What will be the next significant change in the human resource industry, and how are you preparing for it?

My expectation is that the role of people experience will continue to be a central focus and one that is imperative to achieving each company’s purpose. At Pfizer, we know that it is our colleagues that enable us to achieve our purpose, and I believe more organizations will focus on their employees’ physical and mental health, work-life integration, and focusing on their overall career journey.

What are your goals in the upcoming future?

To make sure Pfizer is an amazing place to work and to ensure that my team’s work contributes significantly to Pfizer’s ability to deliver on our purpose. That means continuing our transformation from Human Resources to People Experience by looking at every experience a colleague has.

Specifically, I am focusing on several areas:

  • An emphasis on the mental health of our colleagues. 
  • Colleague career growth through the zigzag and other developmental moves.
  • Continuing to focus on our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts.
  • Cultivating Pfizer’s culture so that everyone can deliver on our purpose.

What advice would you like to give the next generation of aspiring business leaders?

I would encourage them to first be open-minded. Having goals and a plan is good, of course, but be willing to try new things and take routes that may not have occurred to you. Be courageous and not afraid to take chances. When new opportunities present themselves, say “yes.” You never know whom you will meet or what you will learn that can have a significant impact on your career and life. Learn. Ask questions. Observe. Speak up and let your voice and opinion be known. Find a mentor who can guide you. Act with integrity always. And be kind.