What are the characteristics of the CEOs you admire most?

I admire CEOs who are intelligent, thoughtful (rather than impulsive), inclusive, good listeners, effective communicators, and willing to make tough decisions. That is why Ken Frazier, former CEO of @Merck, has been on my shortlist of admirable CEOs for the last ten years.

Frazier and Murray: Two leaders I admire greatly

Last night (October 26, 2021), I had the choice of either watching (virtually) Mr. Frazier receive the 2021 CEO of the Year award from Chief Executive magazine or watching the Netflix documentary about Pauli Murray – the civil rights activist, lawyer, women’s rights activist, Episcopal priest, and author. Mr. Frazier’s awards ceremony won out last night, but I will watch the Pauli Murray documentary tonight. I am sure to be inspired again, two nights in a row!

Former Merck CEO Roy Vagelos recruited Mr. Frazier away from his litigation partner role at Philadelphia law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath in 1992. That intriguing career pivot eventually took Frazier to the Merck CEO role in 2011, only the 13th African-American to become a Fortune 500 CEO.

CEO of the Year: The ultimate peer recognition

A committee of other CEOs, including the previous year’s winner (Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America), selects the Chief Executive CEO of the Year award. Since they selected Mr. Frazier, it is safe to say that the lawyer-turned-CEO career move worked out well. Peers don’t offer this kind of recognition lightly. You really have to be impressive for other CEOs to offer such high praise.

Admirers often mention Mr. Frazier’s business acumen, integrity, and world-class judgment and decision-making. However, last night, and in a recent Chief Executive magazine article, his peers talked more about his leadership philosophy than his intellectual prowess. It turns out that knowing how to generate top-line revenue (in the case of Merck, via R&D) is just a ticket to get into the CEO arena. Great CEOs are the ones who also effectively define and articulate a mission and purpose that all employees can support.

3 Lessons of leadership from Ken Frazier

  • CEOs must know what they believe before they can model the way. So here is how Mr. Frazier defines Merck’s purpose, “This company is more than a vehicle for the creation of shareholder wealth. It is fundamentally a vehicle for improving and sustaining health around the world.”
  • CEOs must listen to the people in the organization who understand the business. Mr. Frazier is very clear about how CEOs can do this. “I don’t believe in top-down management. We should invert the pyramid because the CEO is the farthest person from the customer, the farthest person from the research bench, the farthest person from the manufacturing interface,” he says.
  • CEO actions determine culture. Frazier address this issue in his typical “pull-no-punches” approach: “You say I want a culture of inclusion,” but if you pick leaders who don’t value inclusion, those are just words on a piece of paper.”

Each CEO’s job is uniquely challenging. However, the lessons of experience Ken Frazier shares have value beyond the boundaries of his organization. His peers and colleagues say so.

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