The key to leadership? Kenneth Frazier says it’s all about adopting your company’s values

By Gabe Boyd

April 26, 2022

Erectile dysfunction is not a condition that Merck & Co. wants to treat. Why? For Kenneth Frazier, executive chairman of the pharmaceutical conglomerate, ED doesn’t match the seriousness of diseases like cancer, HIV, or Ebola. When he was Merck’s CEO, Frazier chose to focus Merck’s research budget on less profitable, higher-impact solutions to the world’s deadliest viruses.  

His decision reflected what he saw as Merck’s commitment to scientific excellence, the translation of science into impactful medicine, and valuing patient equity. As the leader of the company, Frazier asked himself a question that he believes every great leader should be asking: “Why would a bunch of very intelligent people with free will choose to follow me?” His answer at the 2022 Fast Company Most Innovative Companies Summit: “Because I’m espousing the values that my company already has.” 

Shortly after Ebola struck much of West Africa, Merck developed Ervebo, one of the first vaccines for the deadly virus. With its lack of profitability but strong capacity to solve a humanitarian crisis, Merck’s Ebola vaccine demonstrates the value-based leadership that Frazier stands by.  

Frazier also confronts the tensions between tech and the life sciences, but finds “radical collaboration”—or the “sharing [of] ideas and values across traditional sectors of the industry”—as the future. Bridging the move-fast-and-break-things mentality of tech with the clinical caution of developing disease treatments means companies must innovate carefully and ensure trust with the public.  

During a one-on-one discussion at the summit on Tuesday, Frazier, who is also chairman of health assurance initiatives at General Catalyst, also highlighted how a smaller setting can spark the creativity required for innovation. Having had experience at both a multinational conglomerate and a smaller startup, Frazier sees the downside of a bulky and bureaucratic establishment, and is excited about the ability to inspire scientists to innovate in a slow-moving industry. The secret: “Give them the peace and quiet to develop the drug.”  

Frazier reaffirms that some of the companies coming out of General Catalyst are scaling impactful solutions to a fractured healthcare system.

“I think the fact that we can do this in economies of scale will allow us to develop business models that will be actually useful in getting this access to people,” he said. Cityblock Health, for example, is looking beyond brick-and-mortar solutions to bringing quality healthcare to people by lowering the unit costs of healthcare.  

Equipoise is Frazier’s focus. Balance within cautious innovation is essential, he said: “It’s really important to be responsible in how we innovate to avoid unintended consequences.” That means avoiding biases and assumptions and other potential pitfalls that might tip the scale. “It’s a balance between speed and quality,” he said.