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The mantra this Pfizer exec repeated to herself in the early days of the pandemic

Sarah Tweedy, head of vaccine clinical operations, chats with Know Your Value about what it has been like to juggle her high-pressure job while taking care of her two young daughters, how her leadership style evolved and more.
Sarah Tweedy, Pfizer's clinical operations head for vaccines at her home office in San Diego.
Sarah Tweedy, Pfizer's clinical operations head for vaccines at her home office in San Diego.Courtesy of Sarah Tweedy.

To say the past 18 months have been demanding for Sarah Tweedy is a vast understatement.

As Pfizer’s clinical operations head for vaccines, she has been leading a team of about 150 people responsible for operationalizing all of the biopharmaceutical company’s clinical trials for its vaccines in development, including for Covid-19, as well as their novel antiviral therapy for Covid-19. That included setting and evolving the operational strategy for the trials, building and supporting the team to manage the trials and working with external partners, such as clinical trial sites and investigators.

At the same time, Tweedy and her husband – who also has a demanding job – were taking care of their 6- and 9-year-old daughters during quarantine at their home in San Diego. There were many challenges, including overseeing their kids’ virtual school, her husband breaking his arm and arranging care of Tweedy’s sick mother who lived in South Africa. She frequently found herself dialing into her mom’s doctor’s appointments at 3 a.m. due to the time change.

Despite all the chaos, Tweedy has always managed to find the silver lining.

“I will cherish having had this season of togetherness with my wonderful little family,” she said.

Tweedy recently chatted with Know Your Value about what it has been like to work in life sciences during a global pandemic, how she was able to juggle her demanding job while taking care of her two young daughters, how her leadership style evolved and more.

Below is the conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Know Your Value: What has it meant to you to be working in life sciences at this time? Do have a particular achievement you're really proud of since the start of the pandemic?

Tweedy: I've seen hundreds of people, thousands of people probably, in this industry take the opportunity to step in and find it in themselves to do something that's been so hard and yet so meaningful and impactful. I have an incredible sense of pride and feel quite blessed to get to work with these people every day.

Working in vaccines, working with my colleagues in this industry, all I see is people sacrificing their personal lives, themselves to be able to progress something really important. It's been a special moment in my career not only because we’ve developed a vaccine that we hope will help so many but also because I’ve seen the best of my colleagues and I really appreciate that I get to work with these people every single day.

Know Your Value: As you know, over 2 million women have left the workforce since the start of this pandemic. It just goes to show just how much women in particular are juggling their careers and their families. I'm sure it's been difficult for you as well. You have two daughters, 6 and 9 years old. Can you talk a little bit about what was happening for you on the home front in the early days of the pandemic and what that was like for you?

Tweedy: My youngest was in her last year of preschool. My oldest was in elementary school when this all hit, so my house was chaos. It's my husband and I; we don't have family nearby. So it was really about us just trying to figure out every day, how do we do this?

The girls knew that what my work was urgent and needed a lot of attention. My husband runs a company, so he's busy as well. And so it meant that we really had to juggle. We always had a plan. And the pandemic really took that away from all of us. It took away our security and our infrastructure as working parents or just as parents in general.

We had to tackle each day and say “OK. How are we going to figure out today? Is everybody OK?” Personally, I think it's taught me that we can do with less in terms of scheduling, in terms of stimulating the girls. They don't need five after school activities. What they really valued at the time of uncertainty was time with us, just us being present as much as we could and reassuring to them.

My youngest has a rare disease as well. She has to have treatments every couple of weeks at our hospital. That was another level of complexity. Would I be able to get her to the hospital? Would we be allowed in? Would they continue her treatment? I think dealing with that on top of everything else helped me have so much compassion for everybody else. That really, very heavily fed into the way that I worked with my teams as well.

Know Your Value: Are there any tactics you employed within yourself to do that juggle with work and home? How did you make it work?

Tweedy: Absolutely. We broke it down to the most important things we needed to do. And other things could go by the wayside. It's really important for me to be with my kids, to be talking to my kids, be understanding how they felt. I was also OK if they spent a little bit more time on their iPads. You kind of become a little bit less sort of regimented.

Also, continuing to be responsible for our children's mental wellbeing. It was actually really important for us to focus on our wellbeing as well. And we both turned to exercise to relieve stress. That was one of the things we never removed from the scenario.

Know Your Value: What did you learn about yourself during this high-pressure environment? And what did you learn about your leadership style that you may not have known?

Tweedy: I've grown up at Pfizer. I was always looking to others to understand what are the right leadership styles, what are the things that I should emulate and I continue to learn so much from those around me. What this taught me too is that you have to trust your instincts, particularly when it comes to people in times of change.

With my team specifically, I have a lot of women who are important to me. I also have fathers and I have moms with young kids and I have folks who live by themselves. So with my team, I felt like more so than ever it was important to be really real … [Like telling them,] “I'm really struggling with X, Y or Z.” I lost my mom during the pandemic as well. And she lived in South Africa and I couldn't get home to her. Being real with my team about that was important. It's become more and more important for us to be more open and more honest with each other. It drives an environment that's pulled us together when we felt really isolated.

Know Your Value: You work with many incredible women in leadership. How does the company support you and how do you support one another?

Tweedy: I think that's been really important. There's real recognition of the value of diversity. And that's important because it helps us, it helps to drive that follow your gut if you can be individual.

My manager is a woman, she's an incredible inspiration. Our personal situations are different, but she absolutely makes me feel like she understands what it's like to have two elementary school-aged children. She allows me the flexibility that I need to do my job but also be present for my kids. I very much emulate that in my organization.

And I think as peers, there is a real recognition of each other. There's a real celebration of each other.

Know Your Value: Did you have any type of mantra or rallying cry to help you get through these difficult times or anything you did? I know you talked a little bit about turning to exercise as a way to ease your mind. Is there anything else that you did to get through?

Tweedy: I think that the kind of mantra that we had is "we're in this together." We're all in this together, we are one team, we'll get this figured out together and we'll have a bit of fun doing it as well.

When the news is bleak, when you're struggling to figure out how to homeschool your children and find toilet paper and do your grocery shopping, it's bleak. Nobody was having huge amounts of fun, so to make coming together, doing this thing that was incredibly inspiring, but incredibly hard, but to make it a little bit joyful, which has everything from making sure there’s some joy and laughter to remembering to thank people for what they do, big and small. It really did kind of got us through.