Former Merck CEO Ken Frazier on the responsibility of CEOs to uphold principles despite politics


On this week’s episode of Fortune‘s Leadership Next podcast, co-host Alan Murray talks with former Merck CEO Ken Frazier. In a conversation recorded live at a Deloitte Next Generation CEO event in Washington, D.C., Frazier tells Murray why the decisions he made to leave former U.S. President Donald Trump’s presidential advisory council, and to vocally support voting rights, were a matter of principle, not politics.

Frazier also discusses the challenges he faced in his first few years as CEO of Merck—and the shareholders who trusted his vision enough to support him. Finally, Frazier, who is also the cofounder and former CEO of the the OneTen Coalition and current chairman of health assurance initiatives at General Catalyst, talks about starting the OneTen Coalition after the murder of George Floyd, and because he identified a need to find a common language to talk about ESG and DEI.

Co-host Michal Lev-Ram joins for the pre-interview chat. Listen to the episode or read the full transcript below.


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Alan Murray: Leadership Next is powered by the folks at Deloitte, who, like me, are exploring the changing rules of business leadership and how CEOs are navigating this change.

Welcome to Leadership Next, the podcast about the changing rules of business leadership. I’m Alan Murray.

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Michal Lev-Ram: And I’m Michal Lev-Ram. Alan, the next two episodes of Leadership Next are a little bit different and a little bit special, although our episodes are always special. That’s because each of these episodes features an interview that you recorded live earlier in October in D.C., where Deloitte, our podcast partner, hosted a Next Generation CEO event. So to start, can you give us a little bit of context? What is the next generation initiative? And what made it the right crowd for a live Leadership Next recording? 

Murray: Well, first of all, I wish you had been there, it was really kind of magic. Yeah, this is a program that Deloitte runs for people who’ve been identified by their companies as having a shot at the top job. And it’s really designed to give them a look at what it’s like to be a CEO of one of these large companies. So you’re dealing with about 20 people who are really tuned in to what they’re hearing from the CEOs. And first up was Ken Frazier, who is the former CEO of Merck, the pharmaceutical giant. He’s currently at General Catalyst. And as you remember, Michal, Ken Frazier played a critical role in the history of the stakeholder capitalism movement. He was the one, in 2017, when the Unite the Right rally happened in Charlottesville, and the president made some ambivalent comments about who was responsible and good people on both sides. He was the one who, at that moment, made the decision to resign from the president’s Advisory Council, and really, his resignation prompted a whole bunch of other CEOs to resign as well. And within a couple of days, the whole thing had shut down. So, he is a person of strong opinions. And he really was kind of energized by the Next Generation CEOs who were in the room. So it’s really a fascinating conversation. 

Lev-Ram: Yeah, talk about leadership. Ken is just a super fascinating person with a really interesting professional and background story. So after graduating from Harvard Law, he started his career as a lawyer for a big Philadelphia law firm. And there he made a name for himself representing a wrongfully convicted death row inmate in Alabama, named Bo Cochran. After 19 years on death row, Frazier and his team worked to get Cochran’s conviction overturned, and it’s just a really amazing story all around. While still at the Philly firm, his future employer, Merck, became one of his clients. And Merck took him on as general counsel in 1992. And he’s been there in different capacities ever since. 

Murray: He told a fascinating story about the early days when there was an activist investor in his stock trying to push him to cut his research budget so they could make greater profits in the short term. And he stood up and said, No, that’s not the way to run a company. For the long term, we have to be about the science, we have to be about the research. You know, the other thing he did, after the George Floyd murder a couple of years ago, he helped create this OneTen project, which is an effort to take disadvantaged people and get them into good jobs in big corporations. So a fascinating CEO who cares deeply about his impact on society. 

Lev-Ram: Don’t forget, Alan, another accolade to throw in here. He was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in both 2018 and again in 2021. So I’m very, very disappointed to have missed this live and in person. But looking forward to listening along with everybody else. We have an episode to get to. 

Murray: Yeah, enough talking about Ken, let’s let Ken talk. Here’s my conversation, before a live audience with former Merck CEO Ken Frazier. 

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Murray: I’m Alan Murray, and I’m here today with a man who I’ve been trying to get on this podcast since February of 2020, and finally succeeded: Ken Frazier, the former CEO of Merck—you were still CEO when I first tried to get you on the show. Glad we finally got you here!

Ken Frazier: Same here, Alan, thanks for having me. Yeah. 

Murray: Thanks so much for doing it. I want to talk a little bit about your career as CEO at first. We have a lot of things to talk about. I mean, you’ve been involved in so many interesting corporate businesses, but also social issues over the course of the last few years. And we’re gonna get into all of that. But I just want to start by talking about how you started your career as CEO. You know, we’re here with a group of people who stand on the doorstep of becoming CEOs, they’re in the Deloitte Next Generation program. And we had a conversation earlier, that was based on the Mike Tyson quote, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” You got punched in the face pretty early. So, talk about the beginning of your career as CEO of Merck and what you did. 

Frazier: So, I took over Merck Jan. 1, 2011, which was kind of an auspicious time in a lot of ways in the industry. At that time, Wall Street was encouraging CEOs in the pharmaceutical biopharmaceutical engineering industry, not to invest in R&D. In fact, there was  a prominent report by one of the banks that said, the way to create value was to cut your R&D budget and to invest in non pharmaceutical assets, there was a company called Valiant, you might remember them, their stock was going through the roof. And their philosophy is, we don’t invest in science, we invest in management. The challenge that I faced is that my company had five year EPS guidance. By the way, if you ever become CEO, don’t do that.

Murray: First piece of advice…

Frazier: Only one and a half years had elapsed. So I had three and a half years, this EPS roadmap 25 days into the job, I decided that that was the wrong thing for Merck, in the long term, it would help keep the stock price up in the short term, because we had in fact promised our shareholders that we’d follow this EPS roadmap. So I called my board 25 days into the job. And I said that you don’t really know me that well, but I just want to let you know, I intend to withdraw the last three and a half years of our EPS guidance. All hell broke loose. Right, my lead director said, We won’t let you do that, and I said, I don’t know exactly what you think you just said to me. But I feel strongly about this. And the board went into executive session, I called my wife and I said, Honey, don’t buy the expensive formica. Okay, not clear how long this is going to last. But they let me stay, and the stock plummeted. But you know, when you look back on things, you see things that you couldn’t have seen before. Every time a share of Merck stock got sold, somebody bought it, and the people who bought it were the right patient, long-term shareholders for a company that intended to invest in R&D. So I got the right shareholders, although the process of the transition was painful.

Murray: Did your lead director stick with you? 

Frazier: He did stick with me…with great hesitation. You know, it’s not easy also for the board to fire a CEO 25 days into the job.  It doesn’t make them look great, either. And I’ll be honest here, for a while, this board was not about to give me more money, because they weren’t happy with the stock price performance. And but at the end of the day, I think it turned out well, because Merck has always been a science-based company. And if I cut the R&D budget, I could then talk all I wanted to the scientists about how we’re a science-based company, but they would never believe me.

Murray: Such an important turning point, as an observer, as a journalist who was watching what was going on from the outside over that period. By 2011, there were many, many polls that showed that your industry was the most hated industry in the country. It was, you know, and it was partly because of that kind of behavior. Right? 

Frazier: You know, the industry does a lot of great good for a lot of people. I think COVID is an incredible example of that. But I think the challenge is, and it’s not just true for the pharmaceutical industry, as we begin to have this concept that CEOs have a responsibility to maximize returns to shareholders, we sometimes miss the fact that we also have other stakeholders that we have to think about, right? And I don’t think it’s at all inconsistent or, or wrong to think about driving value for shareholders and also driving value, for example, for patients, if you’re in the pharmaceutical industry.

Murray: You got into the CEO job, by way of a career in law. But can you talk about, I know you were particularly well known, because you took on a someone who had been on death row for 19 years and got them off? Not the usual kind of corporate law practice. Can you talk about that case? 

Frazier: Yeah. So I represented a guy named Bo Cochran, who was 13 days before his date in Alabama, who is totally innocent of a crime. And I didn’t want to take the case, but it was either I took it or he was going to be executed without being represented, and I took the case, and turns out that we were able to demonstrate after about five or six years of going back and finding evidence that we could prove him not only not guilty, but actually factually innocent. And that was the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life as an individual. 

Murray: What did you learn from that? 

Frazier: Well, I learned something that I already knew from having done criminal defense work in other cases, which is that the system that we have, in which—let me put it this way, if we were going to have a system under which someone could be sentenced to death, you would expect of that system a discipline, a consistency, a rigor is the word I’m seeking, that the system completely lacks. It would have to be the most rigorous thing we do in our democracy, and frankly, the way the system works in our country often is, if you’re poor, and you’re from an underrepresented group, the state appoints a lawyer for you, that lawyer often doesn’t do a good job of representing you. The state then runs roughshod over your constitutional rights. And then when you get a lawyer at the end of the process, who wants to vindicate those processes, those rights, often the courts think the concept of finality of the verdict is more important than the factual innocence thing. And so a lot of people in our country, and, you know, the Innocence Project has gotten more than 100 people off death row or life sentences by demonstrating with DNA evidence that they didn’t commit the crime. Now, DNA evidence usually involves rape murders, which is a very small percentage of cases. So we know for a fact that there are lots of people who are on the row who are under sentence of death, who can be demonstrably shown to be innocent. 

Murray: Let’s fast forward. 2017. Donald Trump is president, he asked you to sit on one of his advisory councils, you agree, you’re the CEO of a regulated industry, you can’t really ignore the president of the United States or the government of the United States. And the Unite the Right rally turned into a disaster, happened in Charlottesville. And the next day, the resident comes out and makes some comments that were highly ambivalent about that event. You resigned. And it had huge effects—all the other resignations, I covered this pretty closely, all the other resignations happened because you resigned the other CEOs, once they saw you walked out, felt they had to do the same. Why did you do it? 

Frazier: So let me start by saying, you alluded to it. But you know, the country is hugely divided along political lines. We know that. The Gallup poll last year showed for the first time Americans don’t consider themselves to be fundamentally divided by race, religion, or region. They consider themselves fundamentally divided by party affiliation. And that was true in 2017. I did not want to go on the president’s council. But my colleagues at Merck said, you know, we’re representing a pharmaceutical industry. He’s a new president. He’s the only president we have, he’s asked you more than once, you ought to go. So I did that. That took a lot of criticism from my friends on the left. Okay. When the comments were made about Charlottesville, I remember I was furniture shopping with my wife, and so I was paying maybe more attention to my iPhone than I normally do. 

Murray: Not your favorite activity.

Frazier: I saw the president’s comments. And I knew immediately that I could not remain on the president’s ouncil because of what was happening at Charlottesville.

Murray: But is it your choice? I mean, you represent Merck, you represent a company .

Frazier: I do, but also represent my family. I came home and my 20-year-old son was waiting for me. He never came home from college, but he was there when I got home. And he was challenging me with what passes for a searching inquiry for a 20-year-old. He said to me, What’s up dad? What’s up? Okay, which is his way of saying, all this talk. You’ve talked all these years about standing up for principle, we’re watching, okay. But what I ended up doing was, I called my board. And I said, I intend to step down from the president’s council. I was actually advised by my PR people to do it quietly. I said, No, actually, you might remember this. I was down there several times. And he always sat me next to him. So my kids are like, Dad, you’re killing us. Right? But I said, I’m going to withdraw, and it’s going to be a noisy withdrawal. I’m going to put out a statement, I’m going to say why I’m withdrawing. I said to my board, however, I do recognize I have a responsibility to the company. And so the question I’m asking you, is in my statement, do you want me to say I’m withdrawing from the council as a matter of my personal conscience? Or do you want me also to say I’m withdrawing because of the company’s values? And I’m happy to say that. Unanimously, they said, we want you to speak to the company’s values. 

Murray: No debate?

Frazier: No debate whatsoever. 

Murray: And did you know at that moment that once you stepped down all the other CEOs would step down and the council would crumble? 

Frazier: No, I didn’t know that. But that gets to the question of principle. At the end of the day, what’s hard about these decisions that CEOs face? Is what are you making the decision for this principle? And his pragmatism? The pragmatic thing is, why would you piss off the president of the United States? Right. And by the way—

Murray: Who’s already talking about drug pricing.

Frazier: Right, he’s already talking about drug pricing. By the way, this is August 2017. He’d been in the White House for about seven months, I think, whether you like President Trump or no, the jury was still very much out about President Trump at that point in time. So the pragmatic decision is, why put your company in that situation? But the principle decision for me was that I felt like someone needed to take a statement, and that if I didn’t, I would be providing my own tacit approval of what the president did and did not do. So for me, that was an easy decision. But I didn’t want to speak on behalf of the company, 

Murray: Did you get criticism for it? 

Frazier: Oh, yeah, I got criticism, a lot of criticism. And what the most important thing that I remember thinking about that whole thing was, shortly after I stepped off the council, and then you’re right, everyone sort of followed. Because, you know, frankly, I think people’s employees, a lot of them got challenged by their employees, because someone else had stepped off. So you know, what are you doing? And I had CEOs call me and say, you should have consulted us before you went out on your own. Right? Like, you can’t have your own conscience or whatever. But I do think one of the challenges that we have about political division in this country is that we don’t find a common language to talk about what we’re talking about, or what we’re feeling. So, after I stepped off, one of the first things I wanted to do was to go to one of my manufacturing plants, one of Merck’s manufacturing plants in the south, is located in a town that’s called Stonewall, Georgia. I’ll say it again, STONEwall, Georgia, if you hear me talking, okay. And I went to that plant, I was advised not to go there. But I went there to talk to my plant workers. And I wanted to say to them, I’m the CEO of Merck. I’m not here to tell you who to vote for, or who to like. You’re Merck people. I’m a Merck person. We all have common values. I’m not judging you, you may have many reasons why you support the president, and I support whatever political views you want to have. But you’re damn sure gonna support mine. And I will tell you, when I walked in that room, people’s arms were crossed. And when we finished having that conversation, people came up to me and said, we get you. Because what they wanted to hear was that I wasn’t judging them, and I wasn’t taking a position on them. And I think a lot of the division in our country is because we deal with issues without communicating with each other, and without what I call grace. 

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Murray: Jason Girzadas, the CEO of Deloitte US is the sponsor of this podcast and joins me today. Welcome, Jason. 

Jason Girzadas: Thank you, Alan. It’s great to be here.

Murray: Jason, everyone in business is talking about AI. It clearly has the potential to dramatically disrupt almost every industry, but a lot of companies are struggling. What are some of the barriers that companies are facing in creating business value with AI? 

Girzadas: Yea, Alan, AI is on every client’s agenda. I think every CEO and board interaction and conversation that I’m a part of proves the fact that the promise of AI is widely held, and the hope is far and deep that it creates business value. But there are challenges, to be sure. What we’ve seen is that the probability of success increases dramatically with strong executive sponsorship and leadership, there has to be a portfolio of investments around AI as well as to link the business ownership with technology leadership to see the value of AI-related investments. Over time, we’re optimistic and confident that the value will result, but it will be a portfolio where other short term opportunities for automation improvements around productivity and cost takeout and then longer-term, medium-term opportunities for business model innovation that are truly transformational. So this is a classic case where it won’t be a single approach that realizes value for AI.

Murray: It sounds like you take it a step at a time. 

Girzadas: I think a step at a time, and also a portfolio recognizing that some investments will have short-term benefit where you can see immediate use cases creating financial and business impact, but longer-term opportunities to really invent different customer experiences, different business models, and ultimately create longer-term benefit that we can’t even fully appreciate at this point in time. 

Murray: Jason, thanks for your perspective. And thanks for sponsoring Leadership Next

Girzadas: Thank you. 

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Murray: Continuing the line of conversation: Three years later, Trump is out of office, the state of Georgia decides to adopt a voting rights bill that many people felt would restrict access to minorities in the state. But it also was about as political a piece of legislation, as you could imagine, supported by every Republican, opposed by every Democrat, because it meant Republicans would get more votes and Democrats would get less.

Frazier: And people had to subscribe to the idea that the election was stolen. That was a big part of it, too. 

Murray: So you stepped in? My understanding is, you and I’ve never talked about this, but my understanding is you personally called Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta, you personally talked to Jim Quincy, the CEO of Coca Cola.

Frazier: Well, Ken Chenault and I divided up the list, Ken Chenault of American Express.

Murray: And together, the two of you called them and said, You’ve got to speak out. You’ve got to take a stand. You have to go against this. Almost explosive—this 2017, you had Mitch McConnell go on TV saying, you CEOs, this is politics. You CEOs stay out of—stay in your own swim lane. What are you doing telling us how to run—

Frazier: Except for political donations.

Murray: Yeah, they’ll take those.

Frazier: Stay out of politics except for donations to me, please. That’s a principle. 

Murray: So again, why did you do it was the right thing to do? Did you talk to the board? How did you handle it? Were you still CEO at the time?

Frazier: I was CEO at the time. This is what’s really hard about being a CEO. I first of all, don’t believe that CEOs or businesses want to be in the middle of political disputes. And I try to be careful about whether or not I want to get into the middle of political disputes. But I also believe that in the long run, we need to have an environment in our country that is conducive to commerce, and it’s conducive to people. And that comes down to a set of principles that we were taught early in school, if we went to school in this country, and there’s certain things like you know, the rule of law, the right to vote, equal treatment, equal opportunity. Go through that list of fundamental American values. And if it’s a fundamental American value, it is my view that if our elected officials are either abandoning or ignoring their responsibility to uphold those principles, it falls to the American people to ensure that those principles are upheld. I happen to think CEOs are among the most influential American people. So if people have a responsibility to stand up for principle, then I think CEOs ought to stand up for those principles. And from my perspective, that’s one of those things that a lot of people will disagree with, because they’ll say that was political. And I said, wait a minute, the right to vote isn’t inherently a political issue. If somebody wants to politicize that principle, that doesn’t mean I have to be quiet about it. And the example that I’ve used recently in talking to CEOs is the American business community has stood in unison for democracy in Ukraine. But we can’t speak to it in Georgia? I mean, come on. It’s the same principle. Right. So at the end of the day, we talked about this later, I think one of the things that makes it possible to make decisions, tough decisions, is to ask yourself, What are your values? Because it’s your values, from your values when you’re hearing all of these contradictory things. I believe that values help you have both the wisdom to figure out what’s right, and the courage to do what’s right. Because if it really comes down to values, and I would say to people, you know, on this issue about the right of Americans to vote, that is so fundamental to democracy. And by the way, Alan, I’m sure you read it. The statement we made was so anodyne, it was so completely unpolitical. It was like, the CEOs in this country support the right to vote. Right? It actually didn’t say anything about Georgia, we avoided …

Murray: Because some of the critics were saying, Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You haven’t read the bill. You know, the specifics. They did the same thing in Connecticut that we want to do here. You weren’t talking about the specifics. 

Frazier: We were talking about the right to vote as a principle, a fundamental principle and as I said before, I had read the law. And I was at pains to say, there are some things in this law that are really good. But there are some things in this law that you can say without question—by the way, I’d never said they had to do with race either. Right? When I would go on television, I would say, these provisions are going to make it hard for people who live in densely populated areas to vote. Now, you could figure out who that is. That’s code for some things. But the people actually stood in line for seven, eight hours, you might remember this in order to vote, and I thought, no one should have to do that. 

Murray: It’s not right. So both of these examples 2017, 2020—those are you taking action to stop something that you thought was negative from happening. But I want to talk about the OneTen initiative, because this happened after the George Floyd killing, and there was an outbreak, that one was instantaneous. Every CEO, and by the way, 10 years ago, 10 years before that, that would not have happened. Yeah, it was, it was a—it was a change that 2017 created. 

Frazier: I think it was a very hopeful development in our country, if I can be so direct as an African-American. I compare George Floyd to Rodney King, when the Rodney King thing happened, Black people were in the streets. When the George Floyd thing happened, everybody was in the streets, I would see these stories about places in North Dakota, where there were no Black people living, and people were protesting. Right. And, you know, frankly, I’m being a little political here myself, I actually believe that shows that the country is moving to a place where we can empathize with one another. 

Murray: Yeah. So all these companies, you know, put out statements that double down on their commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion, but you know, I’m interpreting, so you tell me if I’ve got this, right. But you said, Well, wait a minute, if all we do here is all these companies compete for the same talent, then that talent will get higher pay, that’s fine, but we’re not really doing what we want to do, which is restart the escalator of mobility in this country and give these people an opportunity. So you created OneTen, talk about OneTen, what it is…. 

Frazier: OneTen Coalition, of 70 leading companies that, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, came together and said, we are going to look at our hiring practices systemically, and ask ourselves which jobs really require a four-year degree versus which jobs should be skills-based jobs. Now, how does it relate to George Floyd? Well, in the 2020 census, 76% of African-Americans at age 26 do not have a four-year degree. So, if you reflexively require a four-year degree, systemically, unintentionally, you’re keeping 76% of that population from ever having an opportunity to go to the middle class. 

Murray: But now wait a second, Ken. So are you saying OneTen is not explicitly about race? 

Frazier: No, I’m gonna get to that in a minute. Okay. It was initially totally about race, and it continues to focus on communities that are underrepresented. I want to talk about what we’ve done since the Supreme Court case.

Murray: Yeah, because you’re a lawyer.

Frazier: Right, but my wife always says, when they say you’re a lawyer, you should add, but not in a pejorative sense of the word. When these companies were saying they wanted to do something to show that they stood for racial justice, we didn’t want to put out statements, we said, What in the wheelhouse of companies is to hire people, right? And if you start hiring people from these unheard, unseen, underrepresented communities, then you can be doing something about that. So that’s how OneTen started, with Ginni Rometty of IBM, Ken Chenault and myself, and Charles Phillips, and Kevin Sherar, who’s the former CEO of Amgen. So we all got together, we’re up to about 110,000 people that we’ve hired into family-sustaining-wage jobs, that’s the key. $50,000 income adjusted, depending on whether you’re in Mobile, Alabama, or Seattle, Washington. So that’s where we went now, explicitly, it was founded, with the mission of creating opportunity for Black talent. We have now changed the mission to make it very clear that while that was what it was founded for, we don’t exclude anybody from it. 

Murray: And this is because of the Supreme Court. 

Frazier: It was in response to the Supreme Court. 

Murray: And how do you feel about that Supreme Court decision? 

Frazier: Well, that’s a complicated question. But let me try to talk about what I think. 

Murray: That’s a lawyerly answer. 

Frazier: I think—I think what Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion says, is that colorblindness, or race neutrality, is a good organizing and governing principle for a multiracial, multicultural society. It’s a good aspiration, is what he’s saying. And I don’t think anyone can disagree with that, at the end of the day, that we should all be judged by who we are, as Dr. King said, by the content of our character, not by our outward appearance. But at the same time, I have to say that I do think that while we are now 59 years after the passage of the seminal Civil Rights Act of ‘58, after the Voting Rights Act, the reality of the world is there are vestiges of centuries of racial oppression, slavery, that continue to affect African-Americans differentially.

Murray: This goes back to your death row case. 

Frazier: It goes back to the death row. It’s law enforcement. If you look at life expectancy, if you look at education—I don’t want to be autobiographical. I sit here before you because in 1963, the civil leaders of Philadelphia, the social engineers of Philadelphia, decided to engage in what they called school desegregation. My parents were too poor to buy houses that were proximate to where the good schools were. Okay. So my younger sister and I got put on buses against our will and sent across town to all-white schools, where we got an education that was different from our siblings’. That was a race-conscious decision. It wasn’t intended in any way to exclude or hurt someone. But it was a decision that was made for the purpose of addressing the past discrimination. And that’s where I disagree with Chief Justice Roberts. He says any racial classification is invidious. Well, law school professor, that’s like saying in 1964, a sign in the South that said, “Blacks are welcome” is the same as when it says “Blacks are not welcome”. We all know those two things are different. Okay. And so the challenge we have in our society is twofold. On the one hand, again, as an organizing democratic principle, it is best to avoid classifying people on the basis of race, no one can disagree with that. On the other hand, if we’re ever going to address the huge disparities that exist, that I believe no one can disagree, are vestiges of the way this country has run for years, we have to think about, how do we include people without in any way excluding people? And that’s what we try to do at OneTen. What we say is, let’s go into those communities that we normally don’t go into.

One quick example, one of our members—I won’t identify, the CEO said to me, OneTen company, he said, I did a tour of our plants. And for all of our plants, we would hire from the community surrounding the plant. Except our plant outside Detroit, he said, and then I discovered for some reason, our plant, which is near the interstate, everybody at the Detroit plant came in from the suburbs, went into the plant inside the gate, and then went home that night, and I went to my plant manager and said, why is this plant different? Why are we not hiring from the surrounding community?

So again, I think it’s important for us, and this is an important issue for our society, to find ways to deal with one another, in such a way as to never take into consideration external factors that really don’t go to the heart of who people are. But I also think, and again I use my own example, I am fortunate that the social engineers in Philadelphia 1963, they must have heard Martin Luther King, and they somehow it pricked their conscience and they said, some of these kids are getting an education. I don’t think that hurt anybody that they did that.

Murray: Yeah. Ken Frazier, you have now proven I was right to, since February of 2020, push to get you on this podcast. What a fascinating conversation. 

Frazier: Can I say one more thing, though? What’s missing is a common language in our society. Right? We have to find ways of communicating, so that the other side understands our intent and doesn’t misunderstand what we’re trying to do. I think DEI, ESG, all of those things have become politicized and toxic. And I think we have to find ways to talk about these issues. You know, I like to talk about openness, because no one’s against openness, right? Nobody’s against fairness and opportunity. We have to find a common language in our society that allows us, irrespective of our political views, to see what the other person’s good intent is.

Murray: But let me challenge you a little bit on that. Of course we need a common language so that we can talk about these issues without descending into fights. But this has been exacerbated by a broken political system. And, and, and my experience talking to CEOs is, and this gets back to where we started this conversation. From day one, you said, Merck can’t be about making money in the short term, it has to be about the long term. And we all know in the long term, what’s good for the company, and what’s good for society are going to start to meld, right? You can’t be a successful company if the planet’s on fire. You can’t be a successful company if you’re in a country that is melting down. Every CEO I talked to these days says, Please, please, please keep me out of politics. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I don’t like it. I don’t want to be part of it. I don’t understand how that’s consistent with the long-term view of the health of the company, because surely our political dysfunction is at least as big a problem for the future of American companies.

Frazier: I agree. And that was my point about having an environment that’s conducive to people as well as to commerce. The point I was making, though, is that rather than get dragged into the political fight, just be specific about what you’re doing. Right. Just be very specific about what it is that your company stands for, and don’t get pulled into the political debate about words. Because frankly, the good thing about the politicians is, they’re so shallow in their thinking that, if you call the thing something else, they don’t even talk about it. 

Murray: Would you ever consider running for office yourself? 

Frazier: Never!

Murray: We’d all be better off. 

Frazier: That’s kind of you to say but my wife would say, don’t go there!

Murray: Ken Frazier, thank you so much. 

[music starts]

Leadership Next is edited and produced by Alexis Haut. Our theme is by Jason Snell. Our executive producer is Megan Arnold. Leadership Next is a product of Fortune Media.

Leadership Next episodes are produced by Fortune‘s editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel. Nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the episodes.


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