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Purpose is personal
Interviews

Purpose is personal

What does it mean to live with and lead with purpose? Ben Osborn, recently the MD of Pfizer UK, discusses how he brings his full self to work.
23rd May 2022

As scrutiny of how businesses behave increases, and leaders have to navigate their own values, the corporate values and the values of their stakeholders, it is more critical than ever to understand what we stand for.

But how do you act on what you stand for when working in a large organisation? Ben Osborn, recently the MD of Pfizer UK, discusses how he lives his purpose within one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

If you ask people who are near the end of their life what they would do differently, the nearly unanimous answer is that they wish they’d lived their life more purposefully. 

My father’s generation believed that we are defined by our work. So I passionately pursued my career, even considering moving to New York for the bigger jobs that would grant me greater accountability. But then something important happened. My eldest son, George, was born with significant health complications.

The brain is our most complex organ, but also the least understood. Many people were convinced our son would ‘grow out’ of his epilepsy, and for some, that does happen. But for others it can be a lifelong condition with many complications. 

“I asked myself: what am I here to do personally, what am I here to do professionally, and how are those two things connected?”

George is now fourteen years old, but he has a mental age of around three. He can say a handful of words, and we hold onto those every day. Each time he learns a new word, it’s a celebration – perhaps a different kind to the ones we thought we might have with a teenager, but equally as important. 

When you watch your 12-month-old baby going in an ambulance to the hospital week after week, it makes you consider what is truly important in life. I went on a personal journey of reflection about what was important to me, what I was doing, and what I wanted my impact on the world to be.  

Within a week of getting the diagnosis for George, I had secured a significant promotion at Pfizer to work in Berlin – which I of course turned down to be with my family. But Pfizer came back to me and said: we want you to be a pilot for virtual work. I could continue to live and work in the UK, with the support of my friends and family, while making this job my own. I really credit Pfizer for really giving me the opportunity to try that out. 

What I saw from them was never frustration or concern about a missed meeting or the job, it was just empathy and understanding of what my family was going through. Not just from one person, but across the organisation. They gave me the flexibility and time to really be there for my son and for my wife.

That’s when I realised that I could bring my whole self to my role. I asked myself: what am I here to do personally, what am I here to do professionally, and how are those two things connected? 

“When I reflect on what we’ve achieved collectively across the globe in the last year, it’s astounding what we can do when we work together. The vaccine has been a milestone for science, and a milestone in fighting this pandemic.”

My experience with my son has given me a unique perspective. It’s made fairness one of the main drivers behind my decision-making and how I look at the world. Fairness brings authenticity, and gives me the confidence to bring my true and whole self to work to enact the changes that we want to see. 

To me, purpose means having a crystal clear vision of why you are here. Purpose drives everything I do, whether that be at Pfizer or in my personal life. When you become clear on your personal motivations and your own purpose, everything becomes easier.

A personal belief that really drives me is ‘it’s about transformation, not tinkering.’ For instance, I’m a serious runner – I don’t tinker around the edges of running once or twice a week. I run to compete.

“Without purpose, you will not achieve the aims of your organisation. You’ve got to pull the exterior apart to peer into the heart of the company and ask yourself why it exists.”

When I come to work, I want to be a central lead in this organisation to create change. I believe that it’s more exciting to tackle the big challenges in order to create transformation, rather than existing at the edges. 

I often think of the incredible impact that we can have on society. If we get our purpose right, we’re able to transform the lives of millions of patients across the UK – and the rest of the world. When I reflect on what we’ve achieved across the globe in the last year, it’s astounding what we can do when we work together. The vaccine has been a milestone for science, and a milestone in fighting this pandemic. 

Without purpose, you will not achieve the aims of your organisation. You’ve got to pull the exterior apart to peer into the heart of the company and ask yourself why it exists. Ask, if this company wasn’t here, what would be the negative impact of that? and then flip the answer on its head. 

For us, it’s about changing lives. When we talk about putting patients first, we expect society to judge us on that. The challenges that we face are far too big and complex for a single party to solve. Our future is dependent on working together in a way that we haven’t achieved in the past so that we can develop breakthroughs to change patients’ lives.