Kendall O'Brien

Kendall O'Brien is a lifelong employee advocate.

Leading Through a Pandemic

Kendall O’Brien ’84 is a lifelong employee advocate.


There aren't many in business today who can say that they’ve worked over three decades for the same company that hired them straight out of Lehigh, but Kendall O’Brien can. An accounting and finance double major recruited on campus for a junior accountant position with Johnson & Johnson, she recently celebrated her 36th anniversary with the consumer healthcare, pharmaceutical and medical devices giant.

With the critical thinking and learning agility skills O’Brien says she acquired at Lehigh, she rose through the ranks at J&J, where she has held 18 positions in total. She became a vice president and chief financial officer in 2003 and currently has responsibilities for enterprise innovation and acquisition and divestiture operations.

Most recently, O’Brien says, her work is changing as J&J pivots to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with a vaccine.

“We’ve partnered with our industry peers, governments and private foundations to identify and develop novel solutions. In R&D, we’ve redeployed resources to support the development of a vaccine.” J&J has also responded to PPE needs and made contributions across the globe.

O’Brien says J&J is thinking about the global impact of  COVID-19, including in less developed countries, and their plan is bold: “We want to be prepared to deliver a billion vaccines next year.”

Connecting with your people is more critical now than ever.

Kendall O'Brien

Her own work has been changed by the pandemic as well. “How you lead, how you connect with people is very different. We don’t have informal conversations in the hallways anymore. So, you’ve got to find creative ways to keep your finger on the pulse of the organization while still moving all the work forward.”

In addition to the pandemic, O’Brien is concerned about the conversation around racial and social justice in the U.S. “Connecting with your people is more critical now than ever,” she says.

O’Brien is a chapter sponsor at J&J for the Finance African Ancestry Leadership Council, which advances a culture of inclusion as well as talent acquisition, onboarding and development. She also chaired J&J’s Global Women’s Leadership business resource group for five years. 

Advocating for employees is nothing new for O’Brien. She was on a team that created a finance leadership development program at J&J, now over 20 years old, that became a model across functions at the company and is often benchmarked by other corporations. She also was instrumental in developing flexible work practices at J&J, initially as an answer to the needs of working mothers but now available to all employees. 

She is a great advocate for Lehigh graduates as well. O’Brien says she has been recruiting Lehigh business students throughout her career. “In the early days, I used to go back to campus as an example of someone who had been hired. Lately, we’ve reinvigorated our recruiting efforts at Lehigh. Finance only hires about 50 finance students a year in the U.S. and Lehigh is very well represented in that number.” She says there are around 2,000 Lehigh graduates employed globally at J&J.

O’Brien appreciates that Lehigh business grads have a broad education. “We don’t just hire accountants or finance people. They need to understand supply chain or marketing, or they might be working with scientists. Collaboration skills are very important, as is critical thinking.”

Lehigh students, O’Brien believes, have high expectations of themselves, pushing to learn and make an impact. “At J&J, we aspire to change the trajectory of health for humanity so we want people who care about what they’re doing and who want to have a positive impact on the world. That, combined with the skills Lehigh and J&J give you, is a good combination.”

O’Brien’s time spent in service of her alma mater, as a member of the College of Business Dean’s Advisory Council as well as a newly minted member of Lehigh’s Board of Trustees, is indicative of her personal philosophy: the importance of giving back. 

“I’m a big believer in being involved in your community, whatever that is. For me, it’s where I live, work and the university that gave me the foundation to be successful. I had the experience I had at Lehigh because there were people willing to give time, money and knowledge so Lehigh could excel. I feel I have a responsibility to do the same.”

Story by Cynthia Tintorri


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