August 17, 2015

Ken Frazier: Do What You’re Supposed To Do

At Merck, he found a purpose to be proud of.

Throughout Discover Your True North, successful individuals discuss how they became authentic leaders. This forum is a chance to delve deeper into the thoughts and journeys of these influential leaders. In this profile, we will talk about the importance of knowing your purpose with Merck CEO Ken Frazier.   

Thank you for joining us, Ken. You have an inspiring family history; your grandfather was born into slavery, and now, two generations later, you’re the CEO of one of the world’s most influential companies. How do you explain your family’s incredible change in the midst of difficult circumstances?

Well, it’s important to realize that in many ways, my family hasn’t changed. The values that led me to work hard, to get into college on scholarship, to continue to strive to do my best in every endeavor — those were my father’s values, and my grandfather’s before him. Yes, my circumstances today are drastically different than my grandfather’s. But I only got here because I strive every day to be like my family, not different from them.

Can you talk a little more about those values?

Absolutely. My father taught me to do what is right. Above all, no matter what the people around you are doing, do what is right. Do what you are supposed to do. My father was very aware of the legacy of his father and our family history, and he instilled in me the responsibility to live up to the example my grandfather set by being courageous and hardworking. Those lessons got me through an adolescence surrounded by peers who were joining gangs, going nowhere, making bad decisions. They got me through law school at Harvard, knowing how different I was from most of my classmates, how little I had in common with them. I had to rise above all that, because more than anything else, I wanted to become a man my father would be proud of.

Speaking of law school, you took a real turn in your career when you joined Merck. Why the about-face from law into executive leadership?

Well, I started off at Merck in my original field, as general counsel — but I guess that just wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing! Pretty quickly, former CEO Roy Vagelos, my mentor and friend, suggested that I become senior vice president of public affairs. I was hesitant at first, but ultimately I came to the realization that my values — to make the world a better place, to leave a lasting legacy of good work — were best served by helping Merck succeed in its mission to do the same thing.

Do you think your values are responsible for Merck’s success?

I wouldn’t say it that way. Many people are responsible for Merck’s success, most notably Roy. I would say that my values and Merck’s align, and that I was initially drawn to the company for that reason. Merck is in the business of saving lives and improving the world. It’s a noble cause, one I’m proud to support with my efforts and my talents, and I hope that as CEO I do our mission justice. When I came to Merck, I really found a place that matched my own purpose.

Ken, you sound like you know your values and your purpose, and are really aligned with your True North. How are you bringing your True North to your leadership at Merck?

For me, doing what’s right is really about meeting the world’s needs, and when I became CEO in 2011, I thought the best way to do that was to focus on research in areas that sorely needed solutions. Alzheimer’s, cancer — these diseases ravage people, and the more I can do to alleviate that suffering, the more I can pour my energy into finding cures, the more I know I’m tangibly improving the world around me with the time I have here. Merck started funding our R&D department more fully just when other companies were cutting funding to theirs. I strongly believe that the way forward, for a person or a company, is to know what’s right and simply do it. What’s right for Merck is to do the research, to try to discover new cures, to turn over stone after stone until we find a way to make the world a better place.

You’ve said that you worked hard to become a man your father would be proud of. Do you think you’ve succeeded?

Yes, I do. I think he’d say, “Ken, you did what you were supposed to do.” And that means everything to me — the knowledge that if my father and grandfather were standing here today, they’d be proud of what I’ve done.

But that doesn’t mean I can rest on those laurels. Every moment of your life, you have to strive, to grow, to keep working toward your best self and your True North. It’s so important to remember that every day is a new chance to be a better person, and to make a better world.

Thanks so much for your time, Ken. Your story, and your family’s, are truly uplifting. We hope other people on their own leadership journeys will learn from your example.

Thank you for having me. Purpose really is so important to understand. If you don’t, how do you know which way to go? Which decision is best? How can you be proud of your actions? I have stuck to my values my whole life, and I found my purpose that way. I hope that as your readers begin to take their own journeys, they can do the same.