First Female Harvard Business School Chair

Administration June 2023 PREMIUM
Professor Regina Herzlinger, first woman to gain tenure and chair at Harvard Business School, encourages individuals to have a plan, think big, have resilience, and enjoy their journey of personal and professional growth.

March celebrated the contributions of women in all segments of our society. It has been impressive. The fight for equality received a boost during the Second World War when women took on and succeeded in “male professions.” It has continued since then, but much is yet to be accomplished. As we know, Hispanic women are making great strides.

I was impressed to read about Professor Regina Herzlinger, the first woman to earn tenure and later chair the Harvard Business School (HBS). She was also the first faculty member selected by students as their best instructor.

Money magazine dubbed her “godmother of consumer-driven healthcare” for her groundbreaking research, which challenged the massive healthcare sector. She criticized the status quo for describing the public in a derogatory manner, as non-compliant and illiterate.

“In 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.”

Lessons She’d Like Younger Women to take to Heart

“If I were to sum up my advice, it would be: It doesn’t happen by accident. Get clear on what you want—the earlier on the better—think big, and go after it.”

Get very clear on what you want to do and let that drive your decisions. Herzlinger knew early that she wanted to develop consumer-driven healthcare innovation. Every decision she made was geared in that direction.

Think big. Imagine all the possible paths that can get you to where you want to go. 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 we naturally want to be liked, respect and influence come more from competence than likeability. 

 “Instead of worrying about whether people like you, focus on getting really, really good at what you do. And make sure your work is data-driven.”

 Don’t be a “mother.” She doesn’t mean women shouldn’t have children (she has two). Rather, she points out that some women present themselves in a maternal way, whereas “women 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.”

Smile. “No matter what you’re doing, even if it’s something unpleasant like giving bad news, always smile. 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. When first hired at HBS, the school focused on teaching excellence, and women weren’t allowed to teach. Her goal was to be an HBS professor, but faced with a no-win career path, she resigned. A dean asked her to return and agreed she would teach. “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. That made all the difference. I was in the top-rated position and was the first faculty member to be selected by students as their best instructor.”

 Don’t let hardship hold you back. Let it transform you into a warrior. Her father, a businessman, had to start all over again at age 60. She watched him set goals for himself and live up to them. She attributes her dogged determination to growing up amid turmoil.“Hardship awakens a warrior spirit. It makes people strong and fearless.”

Be a lifelong learner. This skill is the very soul of innovation. It helps you connect seemingly unconnected dots. Herzlinger credits her success as an innovator to her reading and networking habits. “I try to cover all my bases. It’s what I’m interested in. I know my stuff. 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 enter or what role you seek, if you truly want to be successful, you need a good command of accounting and finance. “I have met leaders who can’t read financial statements. It’s as if they’re handcuffed. For-profit or nonprofit, you need to understand how to make money.”

Every piece of your career is an opportunity to make a connection. Pay attention. You never know who you might collaborate with. Many of her professional connections came from her students. “Many of my students do amazing things. They get in touch and bring me in on projects. Much of the work I’ve done with Congress came through my former students.”

Develop all parts of your personality. Herzlinger isn’t consumed with being liked. 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.

 Her last piece of advice.

“Let your personality shine through. 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.”

Bottom line

Sage advice for everyone.

Discover who you are and then be yourself.

Have a plan; go for it.

Understand accounting and finance.

Expect challenges and learn to love them.

Cultivate connections.

Be a lifelong student.

Enjoy the journey.


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