Robert Swanson: Developing Colleagues with Passion

Robert Swanson’s first employer helped put him through college while he worked. Today, at Pfizer Global Research and Development Michigan Labs, Swanson is paying that favor forward, not with tuition assistance, but with extensive on-the-job training.

A major part of Swanson’s mission is to help the people in his organization live out “the passion to do their jobs and the passion for career aspirations.” When a company gives employees a chance to cultivate their interests and talents, he says, everyone wins.

As associate director, materials, logistics and supply chain management, Swanson heads an organization that serves Pfizer’s pharmaceutical researchers in Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo. He is responsible for bringing in everything from lab equipment, protective gear and chemicals for the labs to maintenance and office supplies. His group also washes and delivers laboratory glassware, ships out scientific documents, and transports materials and capital equipment to other Pfizer facilities around the world.

Swanson came to Pfizer with a plan to completely change the way his department did business. “Prior to my arrival here, the management philosophy was silo-driven,” he explains. Employees did specific tasks with little crossover or collaboration. “Pfizer was looking to get a more integrated mentality” and turn its employees—known there as “colleagues”—into leaders, notes Swanson.

A key component of his three-year plan was a colleague development initiative. “I wanted everyone in my group to be totally promotable,” Swanson says. “There was a lot of opportunity to really grow our discipline and our department if I had colleagues with the necessary skill sets.”

Many of those colleagues had four-year degrees but were stuck in dead- end jobs. Under the program, they all received training in basic business software applications. They learned to do one another’s work so they could pitch in wherever they were needed. Swanson also asked colleagues to volunteer for special projects, such as helping to evaluate transportation bids or analyzing how well vendors were using Pfizer’s contract carriers.

In addition, Swanson met with the scientists to find out what services they needed that his department didn’t already offer. He spelled out how the department would meet those needs in a service level agreement, and made sure his people developed the necessary skills.

Now entering its third year, the development program has been good for the colleagues, and it has also been good for business. For example, in the past the department did little freight analysis because it lacked the staff to perform that work. Today, people on the receiving dock double as analysts, and they have identified opportunities to ship inbound freight more economically.

“These people are reaching out and challenging procedures and strategies that were always accepted as the normal process,” Swanson says.

They have also found opportunities to rise through the ranks. “I can’t begin tell you how many people have been promoted, within the department and outside the department, as a result of this three-year program,” Swanson says.

Swanson doesn’t claim special credit for the way his colleagues have grown since Pfizer launched the plan. “All I did was come in here and provide them the opportunity to live their passions,” he explains. “And, boy, if people have a passion, just step out of their way!”

The Big Questions

What are you reading?

Now Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton.

Advice to people starting out in logistics?

Exploit your professional passions, challenge the norm and use your creative abilities to capitalize on unexplored opportunities.

Sum up your mission in three words?

Colleague professional development.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

Spend time with my family, fishing, woodworking, golf and travel.

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