In recognition of Women’s History Month, Regina E. Herzlinger—the “godmother of consumer-driven healthcare”—shares the (sometimes surprising) secrets of her success
Boston, MA (March 2023)—As Women’s History Month, which celebrates the contributions women have made to the United States, is drawing to a close, let us consider the contributions of iconoclastic entrepreneur and Professor Regina Herzlinger, the first woman to be tenured and chaired at Harvard Business School and to serve on many large corporate boards. At HBS, she initiated the courses in non-profit and healthcare and was the first faculty member to be selected by the students as their best instructor. With her husband, she founded two medical device firms that have saved thousands of lives.
“If I were to sum up my advice, it would be this: It doesn’t happen by accident,” says Herzlinger, author of Innovating in Healthcare: Creating Breakthrough Services, Products, and Business Models (Wiley, 2024, ISBN: 978-1-119-54300-8). “Get clear on what you want—the earlier on the better—think big, and go after it.”
She is known as the “godmother of consumer-driven healthcare” because of her groundbreaking scholarly articles and books on this subject. Taking on the mammoth healthcare sector, she disagreed with the status quo’s conventional views of healthcare consumers. She felt they were derogatorily described as non-compliant and illiterate, and she even disliked the term “patients,” as in, “you need to be patient.” Instead, she portrayed them as busy people who are eager and capable of participating in managing their health, with appropriate, relevant, convenient, and respectful support.
Her focus on consumers’ welfare has supported the innovation and public policy that led to the explosion of ambulatory medical centers, wearables, implantable sensors, telehealth, urgent and emergent free-standing care facilities, the intense interest in health savings and health reimbursement accounts, and the move toward transparency.
Read her complete bio, and you won’t be surprised to see why her support of consumers, rather than the status quo, has ruffled some feathers—in hospital C-suites, in academia, in government. She makes no apologies.
She notes, “The very definition of making history is disrupting the status quo, and when it comes to healthcare, I’ve been an equal opportunity offender, except for our marvelous doctors and scientists. You can’t do that without stirring up some red-hot hostility from those whose livelihood is imperiled as control shifts from them to consumers. Being a woman did not help…but I didn’t let it stop me.”
Here are some of the lessons she’d like younger women to take to heart:
Get very clear on what you want to do. Let that drive your decisions. Herzlinger knew early that she wanted to do consumer-driven healthcare innovation. Every decision she made from that moment on pointed in that direction.
The path should not be conventional. For example, while her own path included advanced degrees—she received degrees from MIT and Harvard—she believes college is not a requirement. “If you’re driven and very clear on what you want to accomplish, you don’t need an advanced degree,” she says. “Technical school, work experience, or self-learning are great choices for many. And even when college is the path, all too many people go much too early. They’re totally unclear on what they want to learn or accomplish.”
Think big. Imagine all the possible paths that can get you to where you want to go. All too often, employees in an organization just think about climbing up that ladder, ignoring all the other tantalizing paths they could take outside that organization and leaving themselves open to career failure as they put all their eggs in one basket.
Fight the desire to be liked. Embrace the desire to be respected and make a difference. While women tend to naturally want to be liked, respect and influence come more from competence than likeability, says Herzlinger.
“Instead of worrying about whether people like you, focus on getting really, really good at what you do,” she advises. “And make sure your work is data-driven.”
Don’t be a “mother…” Herzlinger isn’t suggesting women shouldn’t have children. (She and her husband have two.) What she does mean is that some women present in a maternal way, concerned more with coaching and support than mission.
“Younger women,” she asserts, “should be as mission-driven and forceful as men. If not, they will find themselves in the role of taking care of everyone, instead of focusing on their priorities.”
…But do smile. “No matter what you’re doing, even if it’s something unpleasant like giving bad news, always smile,” she says. “Not like a fake smiley face, but always try to find a way to present things in a positive light.”
When you hit a dead end, move on quickly. Herzlinger was first hired at Harvard as an assistant professor. But at that time at HBS, a school focused on teaching excellence, women weren’t allowed to teach. Although her goal was to be an HBS professor, faced with a no-win career path, she ended up leaving after about half a year. But then, a dean approached her and asked her to come back—as it turned out, they decided she would be allowed to teach after all.
“When you value yourself, it makes others value you,” she observes.
When possible, insist on a public, consumer-driven metric for evaluations. (It’s hard to argue with consumer data.) “My student evaluations were pretty darn good, and that made all the difference at Harvard,” explains Herzlinger. “I was in the top-rated position and was the first faculty member to be selected by the students as their best instructor.”
Don’t let hardship hold you back. Let it transform you into a warrior. Herzlinger’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Her father, a successful businessman, had to start all over again at 60 years old. While he did not spend a lot of time teaching her, she watched him set a measure for himself and live up to it. She attributes her own dogged determination to growing up amid turmoil, literally dodging bombs and bullets, in Israel’s War of Independence.
“Hardship awakens a warrior spirit,” she says. “It makes people strong and fearless.”
Be a lifelong learner. It helps you connect seemingly unconnected dots. This skill is the very soul of innovation.
Herzlinger credits her success as an innovator to her reading and networking habits: She spends a tremendous amount of time learning about healthcare technology, delivery, insurance, public policy, and more.
“I try to cover all my bases,” she says. “It’s what I’m interested in. I know my stuff. And being informed helps me to do work that connects dots that aren’t immediately obvious.”
Make sure you understand finance. No matter what field you go into or what role you play, if you truly want to be successful, having a good command of accounting and finance is nonnegotiable.
“I have met leaders who can’t read financial statements,” says Herzlinger. “It’s as if they’re handcuffed. For-profit or nonprofit, you need to understand how to make money.”
Know that every piece of your career is an opportunity to make a connection. Pay attention. You never know who you might be able to collaborate with later on. For example, many of Herzlinger’s professional connections have come from students she’s taught over the years.
“Many of my students would go into the workforce and go on to do amazing things,” she says. “They get in touch with me and bring me in on projects. Much of the work I’ve done with people in Congress came through my former students. Most of my case studies come through them as well.”
Just because it makes money doesn’t mean it will make you happy. For example, Herzlinger does not do consulting, though it could potentially be quite lucrative. It doesn’t suit her entrepreneurial nature to be a step removed from the execution (if a plan ends up happening at all).
“For somebody like me, consulting is frustrating,” she says. “It’s hard for me to go from starting companies that make lifesaving devices to giving ideas that usually aren’t implemented in the first place. Know yourself—what makes you happy and what doesn’t.”
Develop all parts of your personality. While, as noted earlier, Herzlinger isn’t consumed with being liked, that doesn’t mean she isn’t. Despite being an intellectual with an extremely sharp mind and a grasp of highly complex subject matter, she is known for her sense of humor.
“When you teach tough, data-laden, strategic business subjects, you’d better be funny!” she says.
It may be this last piece of advice that makes the rest of it work.
“Let your personality shine through,” she says. “Be authentic and open. Don’t be so fixated on wearing the mantle of ‘the successful woman’ that you lose who you are. We sometimes forget to enjoy the journey. Not being afraid to be ourselves not only draws others to us, but it also makes for a better life.”
About the Author
Regina E. Herzlinger, the Nancy R. McPherson Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, has been named the “godmother of consumer-driven healthcare” because of her groundbreaking scholarly articles and books on empowering consumers. Her latest book, Innovating in Healthcare: Creating Breakthrough Services, Products, and Business Models, coming in 2024, has won the AUPHA 2020-2021 Bugbee-Falk Book Award. She wrote Senator McCain’s presidential healthcare platform, has advised the U.S. Congress and President’s office on healthcare policy, founded the HBS Health Care Initiative, and won the first HBS Student Association Faculty Award for her outstanding teaching in accounting. With her husband, she founded two successful medtech innovation firms for the devices he invented.
To learn more, please visit https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/profile.aspx?facId=6476.