Ken Frazier never planned to be a CEO. But he had a mentor who believed in him and pushed him. “That sponsorship is what allowed me to go farther in my career than I ever imagined,” he said. “I’m grateful for that sponsorship to this day.”
Frazier, who retired as CEO of Merck in 2021 but serves as the company’s executive chair, continues to look for ways to help others go farther in their own careers, including by serving as co-chair of the board of OneTen, a coalition of business leaders working to get one million Black Americans hired into family-sustaining jobs in 10 years.
Frazier recently reflected on his career, the role of business in “reinventing the country,” and his work with OneTen in a conversation with Dean Bill Boulding as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series.
Frazier began his career as a civil rights lawyer, which he found deeply fulfilling. One of his victories was overturning the conviction of James “Bo” Cochran, an innocent man on death row.
To better support his young family, Frazier also represented companies, including Merck. In the early 1990s, he was asked by then-CEO Roy Vagelos to come on board. Frazier was hesitant, but, with his wife’s encouragement, he accepted. As soon as he arrived, Vagelos began pushing him to learn more about the company and take on new responsibilities.
“He believed that I had abilities that went farther than I thought,” Frazier said. “He saw a potential path for me that was not limited by my legal background, and forced me to broaden my opportunities and my skills beyond my comfort zone.”
As a lawyer, Frazier had a lot to learn about business, pharmaceuticals, and research. But he was an eager student. “I was willing to go from area to area and learn,” he said, “and not feel bad because when I started, I knew a lot less than everybody else.”
He grew to appreciate the benefit of being a generalist in a company full of people with deep knowledge about narrow areas. “There’s value to having some people who know a little about a lot,” he said, “because those people actually help integrate the work that goes on in silos.”
Frazier became a champion of science and the scientists at the company. As CEO, he refused to cut R&D budgets to ensure short-term profits, despite significant pushback from investors. “I knew for sure,” he said, “that if we were going to say we were a science-based company, if we were going to say our value as a company was scientific excellence and translating that science into medically important products, the most important of all constituencies that I would ever have in that company would be the scientists who worked in the company and the scientists that we hope to recruit in future years.”
Frazier served as CEO for a decade, receiving the Chief Executive of the Year Award in 2021, an award conferred by peers. He also served as lead director on Exxon Mobile’s board, and has become chair of Health Assurance initiatives at investment firm General Catalyst.
Exxon withdrew its operations in Russia in the spring of 2022, including an oil-producing platform in Russia (“the single largest foreign investment in all of Russia”) staffed by their own employees. “It’s extremely complicated, it’s extremely difficult, and it costs a lot of money for the company to take the position that it took,” he said. “I just want to give Exxon Mobil, in my view, credit for really caring about the values that they espouse.”
In withdrawing from Russia, however, companies have other principles to consider. Merck, for example, is continuing to supply pharmaceuticals to Russia. “We feel, if someone has cancer in Russia, we’re not going to stop supplying them with Keytruda, which is our medicine for cancer, as a way of demonstrating our support for democracy and sovereignty,” he said. Merck will donate any profits from sales in Russia to humanitarian efforts.
Frazier is optimistic about the role business can play as an agent of positive change. Worldwide, more people now trust business more than they trust government or media, according to the annual Edelman Trust Barometer survey. An even larger percentage of respondents trust their employer (77 percent) compared to the percentage who trust business as a whole (61 percent).
“The role of the private sector in the United States in helping to reinvent this country, over, and over, and over again, is important,” he said. “I think business has the talent, it has the resources, it has the capabilities of helping to change our country.”
He cited OneTen, the organization he cofounded and co-chairs. “Following the George Floyd situation, and the unrest that was happening across our country, in the Business Roundtable and the Business Council, CEOs came together and said, ‘What can businesses do to address the inequity that exists in our society?’”
What came out of that discussion was a need to reduce the wealth gap by providing more opportunities for Black Americans to attain quality jobs and careers. “I actually believe if you want to have a real equalizer in our society, it is giving people access to family-sustaining wages,” Frazier said.
OneTen seeks to help Black Americans get jobs that can support a family by encouraging businesses to focus on skills and talents rather than degrees when evaluating job candidates. Three out of four Black Americans don’t have a college degree, effectively shutting the door on many job opportunities.
“If we want to fix the problems in this country, not just Black America, but in rural America, we’ve got to create opportunity,” Frazier said. “Talent is much more widespread than is opportunity in our society. And that’s what OneTen is about.”
Editor’s note: Read more about why Ken believes listening is critical to building common purpose here.