As the first African-American to lead a major American pharmaceutical firm, Ken Frazier is known in corporate America for his abillty to simultaneously manage the responsibilities of Chairman, President, and CEO of Merck & Co., Inc., with a rare confidence and grace.
Yet when Frazier appeared at the 2017 Annual Meeting, it was his humility that stood out during a conversation with Rick Palmore, founding Chair Emeritus of LCLD.
Frazier, who grew up in North Philadelphia, was the son of a janitor. “I was born an outsider,” he said. But he thrived on the support of his parents, teachers, and sponsors—the kind of "people who believe in you." He went on to graduate from Penn State and Harvard Law.
“No matter what my ability was, I could not knock down the doors alone that would have allowed me to be successful," he said.
When he began practicing law, “lawyers at my firm went out of their way to tell me that I was better than I thought I was—and that made me believe it,” he said. “The former CEO of Merck told me, 'you’re much more than a lawyer.' That’s the first time I believed it.”
Risk-taking plays a crucial role in career success as well, he said.
“In the drug discovery business, we fail 95 times out of 100—so if you’re going to be in this business, you can’t be risk-averse. My approach is to push away the less significant fears and uncertainties and keep focused on what is essential for Merck—company reputation and patient safety.”
Frazier expressed concern about “specialization” in the practice of law at the expense of lawyers’ historical ability to provide broad-based knowledge and strategy.
“We are not developing lawyers with a broad enough perspective,” he said. “Today, business people turn to consultants for the wisdom they used to receive from lawyers.
“The world is becoming one of fewer boundaries, and the hardest problems in the world require networks to solve them, and they require people who can see across disciplines to see those networks.”
Frazier also spoke to the unique realities that face diverse and women attorneys.
“Women and minorities fear that ‘I might fail not only as an individual, but I’ll contribute to the stereotype of inferiority.’” Challenging his audience of general counsel and managing partners, he said, “You’re in the position to empower these young women and lawyers of color who are struggling to overcome that.”
Frazier was particularly provocative on the subject of diversity.
“When someone asks me what the business case for diversity is, I say, first tell me what the business case is for homogeneity."
“You have to assure people that your job is not to lower standards, but if you’re not promoting people who deserve to be promoted, you are lowering standards.”
In closing, Frazier offered his own vision of America.
“What should unite us as Americans, no matter where we come from, is that all children should have a chance to reach their potential. I don’t believe for one minute that I became a CEO on my own merit—people gave me opportunities."
“What makes us a great country is the idea that where we’re born doesn’t dictate the rest of our lives.”