Before Emily Stuis joined Pfizer’s innovation team, she provided that team with operations and event planning support. Recognizing her knack for problem solving, members of the team asked her to join them in an official capacity five years ago.
Now, Stuis serves as Go-to-market Innovation Agenda and Sourcing Lead for the $81 billion pharmaceutical and biotechnology company, which is headquartered in New York City. Her team works with other business unit leaders to identify gaps in existing products or strategies, both internally and externally.
As part of our Member Spotlight series, we caught up with Stuis to hear more about her team and its remit; her advice for communicating with senior leadership; her career; and more.
Walk me through the day to day of your role at Pfizer. Who do you report to? What’s your team’s remit?
I report to the Vice President of Go-to-market Strategy and Innovation. But it’s not just go-to-market innovation; it’s really global innovation. The day-to-day looks like taking in all the requests that come to us as an innovation team. That’s not the aspiration for our group, in full, but right now, as we’re building out the team, we get requests from business leaders.
When I say business leaders at Pfizer, I’m talking about the different brands that we have, and the products. They come to us with either a problem, or an idea or something that they want to talk about. … My day-to-day starts with asking questions around, “What information do you have today? What are the problems that you’re looking to solve? Why do you want to solve this? What’s stopping you from solving this and doing a bit of scoping?” And then thinking about whether it fits our team. Should we be solving this?
The other part of the role is to bring a bit of business rigor to innovation. What we find is often, we get really excited about innovative ideas, and we move forward with them because we’ve built up momentum and excitement. We forget to pause and say, “Why are we doing this?” It seems really intuitive — like, everybody knows to do that. But often when you’re in the throes of work and the speed at which we work, sometimes it just takes a team like mine to say, “Let’s take a step back and make sure that we’re solving the right problem, but also that we understand why we’re attacking this problem from the lens of the customer.”
What is the make-up of your team like? Are there a lot of people who have backgrounds as scientists, or more people who are business-minded?
We are not research and development; we’re on the commercial side, which means we mostly have business experience. When we say commercial, there’s different nomenclature — what we mean is products that are in the market already. Those are the things in commercial that we would be focused on…
What’s your advice for making sure innovation initiatives get in front of the right people in senior leadership, especially because the team you’re on is still new?
Getting [innovation] in front of the right people is probably one of the biggest things that you can do from the get-go. What I usually do is if someone comes to me and says, “We have this challenge,”’ and I don’t feel like they are the decision maker, I ask them, “Who is sponsoring this for you?” I’ve found that to be a successful and non-threatening way to then get them to set up a meeting, so I can talk to the person who’s the decision maker.
The other item is, for our team, most of the things right now are coming from more senior leaders. …I think it’s about managing expectations. My advice would be, communicate early and often. Don’t wait. When you find something that might be contrary to what you think a leader will like or dislike, don’t be afraid. I once had a leader say to me, “Emily, just remember, everybody puts pants on the same way, one leg at a time.” If you think about it that way, you can’t be afraid to go to leaders, and give them updates early and often.
If someone comes to me and says, “We have this challenge,”’ and I don’t feel like they are the decision maker, I ask them, “Who is sponsoring this for you?” I’ve found that to be a successful and non-threatening way to then get them to set up a meeting, so I can talk to the person who’s the decision maker.
Thinking back on your career up to this point, what led you to innovation and got you interested in it? What were you doing before you worked in innovation?
I was in a completely operational space. I started out in hospitality, doing a little bit of culinary. I worked at country clubs, and I thought about restaurants. That led me to travel and event design, and I wound up being in continuing medical education, which is how I got into the space of healthcare and pharma. I started to do that as a contractor for Pfizer, and one of my clients was the worldwide innovation team…
When I started to work with the innovation team, the problem solving piece was always a big part of what I was doing for them in operations — in meetings and events and training spaces. So they would say, “Emily, we can’t go to a hotel, we have to go somewhere different, somewhere unique.” And there was something in me that just wanted to rise to the occasion and find the unique, the creative, and also find a way to make their vision happen. So this is how it started to formulate, where I got excited about innovation, because there was a problem-solving aspect to it that I identified.
I don’t think it was one thing or one ‘Aha’ moment. I think it was a build up of previous experience, and then just finally just realizing, “Hey, this is the space I want to live in.”
I’ve been on three different innovation teams within Pfizer … in the last few years. I see this as just the start of my innovation career, to be honest, because I’m only five years in.
When you think back on the experiences you had before joining Pfizer, what are some of the things that you learned in that part of your career that you still implement now?
I once had someone say to me, “You made a pretty big jump from operations type of work to innovation, which is structured to chaotic.” I said, “I get why you say that, but there’s way more structure in innovation than you think.”
I think another thing that I’ve pulled from other roles, [is that] there is always a little bit of rigor, whether it’s making sure that we’re compliant, whether it’s managing logistics —which is a rigorous, structure-driven process — but that requires [you to] have some flexibility, because you plan and plan, but everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
What I’ve taken is to always have a really detailed plan so that I can flex. It’s important in innovation to be a little more rigorous, a little more structured. I’ve learned this from my previous mentors… and I think that deliberate type of approach, the planning aspect of it, I’ve never lost. And that allows me to then be flexible in the way that we approach innovation.