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Culture Renovation Spotlight: Merck

Merck has a very straightforward, powerful purpose statement: to save and improve lives.

Given the pharmaceutical giant’s long history of success, it’s clear Merck’s focus on its purpose has served it well. But the company recognizes that to best serve its customer base, renovating culture to ensure future success must be a focus. With that in mind, Merck embarked on a culture renovation a few years ago, and it maintains the new culture through attention to talent practices.

“We’re a company of significant history, and we’re driven really by our purpose,” Tivonnia “T.J.” Harvey, an assistant vice president at Merck, told me one day.

“I think not just because it sounds good, and it’s got a nice beat and people can dance to it. But really because of the mission of the organization—that medicine is for the people. And if we focus on that, the profits will follow. So, I think for an organization such as ours that’s grounded in scientific medicine and inventing breakthrough medicine, we’re really focused on that being a major driver for the organization.”

“With the transformation of the things happening in the world around us as well as the digital industrial revolution, we realized we had to change some of the things that we do, and we really did have to reimagine the way that we work,” she added.

Merck’s culture renovation has five major shifts that many companies can benefit from, such as moving from:

  • Silos to networks
  • Controlling to empowering
  • Planning to experimentation
  • Knowing-it-all to learning
  • Withholding to sharing

For Harvey and the company, maintaining the culture they’ve renovated has also encompassed several different talent practices.

Merck deployed learning modules to individual contributors and their managers that focus on the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. They also worked with managers to understand the importance of having continuous feedback discussions, not just with their employees but laterally as well.

Focusing on diversity and inclusion is another way that Merck has worked to improve its culture. The company has more than 10,000 global members of its employee business resource groups (EBRGs) in 10 separate groups, and it invests in leadership development and diversity and inclusion capability through programs that include Foundations of D&I, Inclusive Leadership Executive Development, Diversity Leadership Program, and Unconscious Bias Education.

Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck and one of only a handful of Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, puts it bluntly: “Having a globally and locally diverse workforce makes us a more innovative and agile company, and one better attuned to the needs of our customers, health care providers, and patients who ultimately use our products.”

Frazier, who was also just named Chief Executive’s 2021 CEO of the Year, is known for not holding back. In 2017 he quit Donald Trump’s American Manufacturing Council after the president’s response to white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and didn’t worry about fallout from it.

After all, doing so wouldn’t align to his beliefs, Merck’s purpose, or its culture.

“In our quest to invent medicines and vaccines that save and improve lives, the core of who we are is embodied in our values and standards,” said Frazier. “They are fundamental to our success—now and into the future.”

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Kevin Oakes
Kevin is the CEO and co-founder of i4cp. He is a world-recognized thought leader on the topics of corporate culture, the future of work, and learning, and is the author of the bestselling book Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company.