Social Responsibility: Life Science Leadership’s Next Secret Weapon

Entering Merck soon after Ken Frazier stepped down from President Trump’s Manufacturing Council, I was struck with newfound feelings of trust, connection and pride. Walking the halls, I found hundreds of people, from all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages enroute to contribute to Merck, it’s vision, and its mission. With recent events still fresh in my mind, I felt a strong sense of satisfaction knowing their leader, as a matter of conscience, cared enough to take a stand and honor his commitment to diversity and inclusion.

As someone who has spent many years helping leaders improve inclusion and engagement, and create high performing cultures, I knew the signs — I felt them, and I saw them in the people around me. In one bold move, Ken Fraser disrupted the status quo and sent a shot of energy throughout the organization. And it wasn’t just me that felt the change. Stocks went up, social media flourished, employees and peers outwardly praised his actions.

What Ken did is important. It’s important for the world to see business leaders take a stand and use their platform to provide moral leadership. It’s important to further prove that good things can happen when we blur the lines between purpose and profit. And, it’s important as an example to leaders everywhere, what it means to move social responsibility out of the corporate office and into individual leadership actions.

In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about the trending importance of Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) as a strategy – that when purpose moves closer to profit, business improves. What we’ve heard far less about, however, is activating this strategy. How do you lift these words off the page and into actionable leadership behaviors? How can leaders, at any level, get the same boost of engagement that Ken got within their own organizations?

Understanding the Trends.

  • Employees today care about the intrinsic value of the work they do. According to research by the nonprofit, Net Impact, 35% of people surveyed want to work for a company committed to Corporate and Social Responsibility, 45% want to work in a job that makes a social or environmental impact, and 58% want to work for an organization with values like their own. And these numbers are on the rise. Leaders who fail to help employees understand the value of their work will appear less relevant and will struggle to attract and retain talent.
  • Employee engagement is at an all-time low, and traditional engagement methods are not having their intended impact. According to Gallup Daily, “32% of employees in the U.S. are engaged — meaning they are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.” Worldwide, only 13% of employees working for an organization are engaged. 70% disengagement cannot be good enough. Traditional engagement strategies lack relevance and are no longer delivering the results they have in the past. It’s time for a fresh approach.
  • Leaders who create social connection and show vulnerability have better employee engagement. Brené Brown, an expert on social connection, conducted thousands of interviews to discover what lies at the root of social connection. The answer? Vulnerability. “When a leader talks about what matters to them in the world, and shares their personal passions about things outside the workplace, this type of vulnerability creates trust.”
  • Life Science leaders have a unique advantage. Due to their size and scale, these companies often have robust CSR platforms linked closely to inspiring missions. Leaders in this industry who want to draw a closer connection to social responsibility strategies, have far more opportunity and sponsorship than leaders in other industries.

Translating Words Into Actions.

1. Tie Corporate and Social Responsibility to your local strategy.  Review your company’s CSR goals to see if there are ways to better align them with your business unit strategy. Take a traditional SWOT analysis as part of your strategic planning process and build CSR goals that solve for real business problems. Depending on your area of the business, this alignment may be more or less obvious. Sometimes it requires a minor shift in perspective from how we’ve traditionally defined things. For example, instead of defining diversity and inclusion as a hiring metric with relatively limited opportunity for change, could you define it as an element of employee engagement impacted by how we work together, get access to on-the-job experiences and engage with the communities we serve? Could your Operational Excellence programs align to sustainability goals that support both the environment AND the bottom line?

2. Talk about it.  When leaders talk about moral values it has a positive impact on the business. According to Fortune’s David Mayer, “a CEO’s moral values are positively associated with firm performance. CEOs who focus on doing good for all stakeholders – including society at large – are more likely to be seen as visionary and get discretionary effort from employees. Ultimately, their companies perform better financially.” Leaders can accomplish this with a slight shift in how they set strategy. By focusing on more than just short-term and long-term goals and incorporating “big picture” goals, leaders can create opportunity to talk about social responsibility across the spectrum. This does a few things for leaders:

• It creates a bigger opportunity for social connection among employees
• It demonstrates an ability to be vulnerable because you dare to talk about what is important to you beyond the bottom line
• It shows vision, having increased the scope of what matters beyond your four walls
• It creates trust through moral leadership
• It creates engagement by modeling that it’s okay to “bring your whole self” to work

3. Use Corporate and Social Responsibility to create opportunities for innovation and collaboration.  I’ve talked with many leaders in large Life Science companies, and all of them have struggled with creating ways for employees to innovate and work more effectively across boundaries. Consider the following ways to use social responsibility to increase opportunities for both innovation and collaboration:

  • Reinvent “team building” activities to have greater social impact. According to Deloitte’s CEO, Barry Salzberg, “Intentionally linking two often unconnected areas like community involvement and training, innovative companies can cost-effectively meet business goals while releasing new resources for the community. It’s a powerful combination.”
  • Look for ways to purposely connect different groups who have different missions and have them work together to find common ground — people from different functions and disciplines working together to solve problems; People of different backgrounds working to create value around diversity. Consider doing this around things like D&I, sustainability and waste reduction as well.


It’s no surprise the response to Ken Frazier was so overwhelmingly positive. Through his decision, he showed vulnerability and continued to drive social connection by talking about what truly matters to him in the world. Shifting the focus from business to society at large, he organically elevated his role from corporate leader to corporate visionary, and moved social responsibility closer to organizational strategy.

Merck saw the positive impact of Ken’s actions. Their stock rose 1%, fellow CEO’s praised him and feedback on social media was overwhelmingly positive. What Ken did through one very public action, was what companies all over are beginning to understand. As Corporate and Social Responsibility continues to increase in popularity, it is inevitable that it will also move closer to strategy, and as such, it’s time for business unit leads to think differently about how they link to it.


Sarah Rawes | Consultant | TayganPoint Consulting Group | | LinkedIn

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