Jonathan Cullen on being the Pfizer Canada GC

Jun 22, 2021

Jonathan Cullen is the Vice President & General Counsel Canada & France Cluster Lead at Pfizer Canada. Jonathan has over 17 years of experience in healthcare managing talented teams in Canada and Europe to bring breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, notably Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, a significant step forward in our fight against this pandemic.

Given the year Pfizer's had, you probably won't be surprised to hear that Cullen was very recently named the Canadian General Counsel of the Year at the 2021 ZSA/National Post Canadian General Counsel Awards event. 

Cullen is an alumnus of the CCCA/Rotman Business Leadership Program for In-House Counsel. He recently collaborated with author Greg McKeown on the 2021 New York Times bestselling book, Effortless: Make It Easier To Do What Matters Most. He is an advocate for professionals who struggle as working parents and is a proud special needs dad.

Cullen lives in Montreal with his wife, Sophia and their two children. 

Counselwell: So...what’s the last year and a half been like for you at Pfizer Canada?

Cullen: Extremely challenging, rewarding and surreal. I’ve always encouraged colleagues at Pfizer that when they are asked at the neighbourhood BBQ what they do for a living, they can consider saying something more than an analyst, a finance business partner, or a lawyer. It’s easy to lose yourself in a large organization and forget that you are part of a higher purpose. Pfizer’s purpose aims as high as we can get: breakthroughs that change patients’ lives. That’s why I encourage colleagues to say that they help fight cancer, protect children from infectious disease and bring hope to families. The COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced this perspective for me. Society is counting on us. Many Pfizer colleagues have had the amazing experience of having friends and family thank us for our work. And I mean genuinely thank us, with teary eyes and shaky voices. An in-house counsel cannot ask for a more meaningful professional experience and I’ve been blessed to have been part of it.

Counselwell: How have you had to pivot the Pfizer Canada legal department to respond to Pfizer’s focus on the development and distribution of the vaccine?

Cullen: One of our Values at Pfizer is Excellence, and to achieve this we aim to focus on what matters. To prioritize what’s important. Our organization’s response to this pandemic has proven to me that getting a small number of things right, even ONE thing right, can make all the difference. Intense focus on a single issue has been extremely difficult, especially when we have a complex and vast portfolio of medicines that are equally important to Canadian patients. We have not lost sight of that. It’s also made us think about what if we applied this intense focus to other problems? Other diseases? Other challenges that society faces? Imagine what we could achieve? Imagine being a part of that?

Counselwell: What aspects of your professional life are forever changed as a result of COVID-19?

Cullen: Sharing a collective experience with every other professional on the planet is quite something. It breaks down barriers and makes conflicts seem less prickly. I’ve always tried to find common ground during disagreements and potentially conflictual relationships. There’s nothing like having a video conference call where both parties’ kids show up on screen to break the ice. I am a proponent of humanity in the legal profession so I have been comfortable during the pandemic sharing my personal challenges with kids at home, especially with my son who has Down Syndrome. Everyone has personal challenges. I would rather draw strength and learnings from them that I can benefit from in my professional life than waste energy hiding and minimizing them. The pandemic is one of those deck-clearing events where everyone has been equalized in that regard and I believe for the better.

Counselwell: What advice do you have for other in-house lawyers?

Cullen: One thing that in-house counsel often neglect is to focus on their own personal development. To be selfish about that. It’s easy to spend all your energy giving to your client. It’s not only fine to think about yourself, but you can do it in a way that raises the bar for your organization too. I’m always happy to discuss that subject and would welcome requests through LinkedIn.