The changing landscape of talent in the health tech industry: Insights from Abbott's EVP of medical devices, Lisa Earnhardt
Health Tech

The changing landscape of talent in the health tech industry: Insights from Abbott's EVP of medical devices, Lisa Earnhardt

Lisa Earnhardt, Abbott's executive vice president of medical devices, discusses onboarding talent from outside industries and the benefits of being part of a mission-driven company
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In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Phyllis Schneble speaks to Lisa Earnhardt, Abbott's executive vice president of medical devices, about talent in the health tech sector. Earnhardt discusses the necessary skill sets for leadership in health tech, how she thinks about successfully integrating outside talent into the organization, and the benefits of being part of a mission-driven company. 

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation. 

Phyllis Schneble: Hi, I'm Phyllis Schneble, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office and a member of the Healthcare & Life Sciences, Health Tech, and Consumer practices. 

As more medical device companies evolve to become connected health companies, the skills and experience needed in leadership and in the ranks are quite different than what many organizations have traditionally been built on. Our goal today is to explore many facets of this new frontier in health tech talent. What does the right talent look like? Where do they come from? How do you successfully integrate them and ensure they're able to drive the business in new directions? What lessons have people learned and what mistakes can be avoided?

Today I'm thrilled to be joined by Lisa Earnhardt. She's Abbott's executive vice president of medical devices. Lisa oversees the cardiovascular, neuromodulation, and diabetes care businesses leading over 33,000 employees in accounting for more than $14 billion in revenue globally. Lisa came to Abbott from Intersect ENT, where she served as president and chief executive officer since 2008. Prior to Intersect, Lisa was president of Boston Scientific's cardiac surgery division. 

Lisa, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Lisa Earnhardt: Thanks so much, Phyllis. 

Phyllis Schneble: So, Lisa, to kick off this conversation, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what some of the new skill sets are that you need in the ranks, and what skill sets and capabilities you think are essential to have at the leadership level.

Lisa Earnhardt: I'll first start just talking a little bit about Abbott. We're a global health tech company and we're on a mission to improve the lives of 3 billion people around the world by 2030. Importantly, we're really helping people live their best lives and giving people more control of their lives. So, as we think about moving into a future where healthcare is more personal and precise, we're utilizing more tech talent to help us continue to innovate and lead in this area. So, thinking about the skill sets we need and what we're looking for, it's things like software engineers, mobile developers, data scientists, cyber experts, and other engineering disciplines, and really recruiting folks that understand the consumer and have a really strong track record of leading teams. And ultimately, we're really hoping to find individuals who are really passionate about making an impact on people's health. 

Phyllis Schneble: Well, that's great to hear. We're actually going to come back to some of those themes you just brought us. But you and I have been in healthcare. We hear it—when people get in, they rightly say, “Hey, healthcare is hard.” It operates under heavy regulations. It has an indirect and complex economic model, and, probably most importantly, these are products that literally impact people's lives, like you just said. 

How do you weigh the need for healthcare or clinical experience with technical know-how when you're working to advance an organization or start a new business line? Are there certain areas in which you can take greater risk? 

Lisa Earnhardt: At Abbott, we have been in healthcare for over 130 years, so we know how to regulate that. You are correct. As a regulated industry, we understand that. So that is our expertise and what we're able to do is bring in that fresh thinking from the outside, especially folks who come from the consumer world—that's in particular important for us as we think about some of our products like Lingo, our biowearable line [designed to help] people basically manage their health more closely to live their best lives. We're able to help navigate that and help compliment the experiences we're bringing from outside. That's our strength at Abbott, so we're very comfortable as we incorporate folks who don't have that background, and we know that we will continue to meet the needs of healthcare. 

Phyllis Schneble: As a quick thought, do you feel there are some areas we talked about, like the Lingo biowearables, [that are] lifestyle focused versus those that are deep in health? Are there trade-offs when, you know, you run cardiovascular and neuromodulation on top of that? Highly, highly clinical. Are there trade-offs you can make between the two businesses in terms of technical versus clinical? 

Lisa Earnhardt: Yeah, and I do think it's a great point, Phyllis, as the breadth of technologies that we have are pretty great. And from something that's highly technical and clinically oriented to heart health versus something like Lingo, for example, which is our consumer biowearable line, a brand-new business for us. And it's really helping people live their healthiest lives through information. And so, in those areas, we're able to take greater risk, because the regulations are different. The need we're meeting is very different in terms of living a healthy life versus saving a life, for example, which is what we do in some of our cardiovascular products. 

Phyllis Schneble: Right. I know we've been talking about talent a lot over the last year or so, Lisa. I know in the last few years you've been able to track people from Meta and Google and eBay, and you, yourself, came out of health tech. Where do you find their interesting pockets of expertise and talent? And, in particular, are there pockets that can make a more natural transition into healthcare?

Lisa Earnhardt: Well, there's no question. It has been a difficult time the last couple of years and really just even the last year with the tech companies. I think I saw some stat, which said, gosh, probably 400 tech companies that have laid off over 100,000 employees, and we're continuing to see that. So, with that, I think there is an opportunity, especially given that we're doing some really cool, innovative work and it does attract that tech talent. And so, whether it be from consumer tech or search—all different kinds of areas from start-ups to big tech and even things like folks who are coming over from like aerospace and defense—it's people who are really looking to do purpose-driven work. They may be doing that in a different way outside of healthcare, but we certainly are doing unique things where we're able to take that technology and ultimately have a huge impact on people's health. And that's really attractive. So it isn't necessarily one area of tech, but we are fortunate just because of where we're located, that we have a great pool to pull from.

Phyllis Schneble: Well, that leads into two other areas I wanted to ask you about. One is location. You benefit from having some of the most progressive connected device businesses that you oversee in key locations, the Bay Area for one, Austin for the other. Can you talk about if that's by design or happenstance? And how have you benefited from that?

Lisa Earnhardt: Abbott's presence in the Bay Area is absolutely by design. We recognize that this is an innovation epicenter, to be so close to Silicon Valley. So, we established our presence in the Bay Area in the late nineties with the acquisition of a vascular device company, and we built on that in the mid-2000s when Abbott acquired the stent business, Guidant. So, we've continued to build our medical device businesses here in Silicon Valley. And I say “here” because that's actually where I'm based out of. And then we also have a very strong presence in Austin, Texas. And we've also had very strong roots in Texas, in both Dallas and in Austin for decades. So, as I think about Silicon Valley, I think about Austin, they're clearly hubs for tech talent. And whether it be the concentrations of academic institutions, private research and development, or leading medical centers, it's tremendously beneficial for us. And then I can't forget my friends down south. I think I've heard the term “Silicon Beach” before. Down in southern California, there's a really a growing concentration of major tech companies and we've been able to hire from some top engineering programs, whether it be UCLA or USC, we've done a lot with co-ops and internships. And so, sort of up and down the coast in California and Texas have been huge areas of focus for us and building our businesses, and because of that, we're able to access some great, great talent.

Phyllis Schneble: Thanks. And I know that when you opened up the conversation, you talked about changing lives and living in a mission-driven company, and I know as we've been in the market together looking for top tech talent in healthcare, a lot of people are drawn to that for meaning, mission, and purpose, but, in pure tech, that doesn't always resonate. And until very recently, they've been used to extraordinary pay and perks and flexibility that have sometimes been almost impossible for us to match. The nice thing about working at most senior levels is people often have achieved something and there isn't at a period in their career where they want to marry mission with career development. But [that’s not true] not at all levels.

And so, it really begs the question, how do you address these gaps when you just can't compete with some of the stock prices and other perks that they've added? And you also mentioned the massive layoffs in tech. Have you found that you've finally been able to go back and get some of the tech talent that maybe you weren't able to get or maybe providing a safe haven to them that maybe wasn't available to you two or three years?

Lisa Earnhardt: We obviously have been attracting top tech talent for years, but you're absolutely right. I think the conditions today have enabled us to be even more attractive and I think it started somewhat in just building our brand with the consumer. And so folks know what Abbott stands for and the fact that we are doing really cool, innovative things. As you think about some of our products, I'll take Libre for example, our FreeStyle Libre continuous glucose monitor, which is measuring your blood sugar levels 24/7, critically important for people with diabetes. That technology has really gone main stage. And so, you know, just to give you some perspective, there are four and a half million people around the globe who utilize it every day. And so I think it starts first with creating awareness around Abbott and what we do in the health tech industry. And then you're right, it's still a competitive world. And so we're fortunate because not only do we have really cool engineering challenges and career opportunities at a company like Abbott, you can truly build a career here. And I do think, right now, given the economic landscape in some of the challenges that we're facing globally. There are individuals who are looking for more secure, rewarding, and really purpose-driven work. I think that's something that resonates quite a bit for all ages, for folks coming out of college all the way to folks who are more seasoned and senior in their careers, the ability really to make an impact on people's lives, you know, from the moment they started at Abbott, and then really build a career.

Phyllis Schneble: We wanted to shift gears, and that's actually something that we're thinking a lot about. Once they come inside, what does that look like? So, you've hired the talent in—how do you set them up for success? We, in our work, have seen two distinct models for integrating non-healthcare tech teams. One is to integrate them and cross-pollinate them, so they lift broader parts of the organization. And hopefully there's adoption. Then the other is more of an incubator or COE model where this kind of other breed of talent comes in. Then tend to operate in a bit of a semi-protected environment where they're set aside and the door opens or closes then funnel things back and forth. What has been your experience in setting it up, and it might be different models for different needs, but what has worked for you and what have you found to be successful? 

Lisa Earnhardt: I would say we're doing both ways, Phyllis. And, you know, I think we're still learning as well. I think we tend to lead more toward an immersion approach, having the technologist, if you will, be a core part of the team so that they're interacting with the full range of functional areas for every step along the product. And so, I think, ultimately, we want to infuse that innovative spirit and expertise in with folks who have that deep understanding of healthcare. But we do recognize some of the risks there, at some of the changes. But you know, I think people are oftentimes surprised when they join a company like Abbott and they see how quickly we move, the focus on innovation, the work that we do, and how we do it with speed and agility. I don't think oftentimes people think about that when they think about healthcare, but they certainly should be thinking about that when they think about Abbot. I'll give you another example: it's probably a little bit more of a separate organization, a center of excellence, and I have established that within medical devices for Abbott. So I created last year a digital solutions group, which works across all of my businesses to make sure we're taking full advantage of things like evolving digital tools, resources, talent. But even that team, while they're a separate, they don't work in isolation. Healthcare is a business of collaboration and teamwork. And, you know, even that team who is really focused specifically on digital is charged with working across the entire medical device franchise. 

Phyllis Schneble: And I think when you think about either model, either integrating them or keeping them separate, what binds people together are KPIs, alignment on goals, all feel like they're working toward the same result. The challenge is often the way they get there. Cultural differences, different frameworks, different work styles, you know, different vocabulary, sometimes. How do you ensure that the KPIs, the deliverables, are all understood, all are adopted, and people feel connected to the core business objectives?

Lisa Earnhardt: I think Abbott, like many of the big tech companies, is definitely very results oriented. And so that's a strength of ours in terms of focusing on deliverables, focusing on execution, and making sure every individual in the organization from top to bottom understands how their work contributes to the overall mission of the organization. So, I think we've been able to very quickly onboard folks. I mean, it starts first with making sure they understand the mission and the purpose and what we're trying to get accomplished more broadly, but then specifically around their work and how they can contribute. And I do think that helps create that bond, if you will. Phyllis, I think you alluded to the fact that it does create that bond because everyone knows what work they're doing and how it impacts the broader good. So, lots of different areas we can go with that, but I think that's a critical part of our success in getting folks on board and getting them to be contributing very, very quickly in their tenure with us. 

Phyllis Schneble: And this is likely related to what you just said, Lisa, but when you think about bringing tech talent in, were there any misconceptions you had about bringing outside tech talent into healthcare? And maybe akin to what you were just saying, but have you learned any tips and tricks or even institutionalized anything as you brought more tech talent into the organization in order to, as you were just saying, onboard them, get them acclimated and really integrate them deeply into the teams?

Lisa Earnhardt: I think that probably the biggest challenge that individuals have when they come from outside of healthcare is the transition to working in a regulated environment. So, there are additional required processes. There may be some things where you don't have as much control over timing or pacing because we're working with outside regulatory agencies. But it's certainly an obstacle that's surmountable, and I think when people really see the impact they're making an advancing health tech that's changing people's lives, they understand. I mean, they understand the importance of the regulations and why we do [what we do] and how we do the work that we do, why we do it, and the way in which we do it. And so, I think that's where we have a lot of expertise at Abbott, and [we’re] able to bring people in. That's probably the one to sort of watch, because it is very different in terms of the world in which we operate in. Once again, we have a lot of expertise there, as Abbott, and so to be able to onboard people there is something that's well within our envelope of capability. 

Phyllis Schneble: And going back to something you said just a few minutes ago, you were talking about coming in and building a career at Abbott, which we know is a kind of a hallmark of your institution. And yet we go out and get some folks who get very excited about coming in and working on a project or building on a new business line or something, and they get excited about a specific business opportunity, but might not have thought about envisioning a long-term career in health or even a med device. It might be a little bit of a left turn for them. Can you share your thoughts about how you develop compelling and realistic career paths for them, and how do you leverage that talent for the broader organization as opposed to kind of just treating them as a hired gun for this project? 

Lisa Earnhardt: And I think it's upon us, Phyllis, to make sure people aren't coming in just as hard guns. Right? It's good and it meets the project need of the day, but ultimately we want people who are really excited about making a difference in healthcare for their careers. And so, I think it starts pretty early on in terms of making sure we're providing the appropriate onboarding, mentoring, and coaching. Ultimately helping individuals get exposure to work that's happening outside of their individual project. And it's amazing when you see people maybe come in on a more consumer-oriented business and then they get hooked. There's something in the water here in terms of the work that we do and being able to have an impact that we have, I think people maybe hadn't thought about being in healthcare previously. They come in and they do great work and they realize, hey, it's really challenging work that we do that has the ability to impact literally billions—or at least tens of millions of people around the globe. There aren't too many jobs, Phyllis, that give you that opportunity. And so I think it's making sure people see others who've made that transition and are having fulfilling careers. And then ultimately making sure we continue to bring it back to the people we serve and the purpose and the work that we do here at Abbott, that ultimately is what helps with retaining key talent that we're recruiting from the outside. 

Phyllis Schneble: And it's interesting that you talk about impact at scale, and you're right about being able to change lives of millions of people. But we also find sometimes in healthcare, the other great retention vehicle is being very personal. There are many times in healthcare where somebody has somebody in their family—themselves, somebody in their family, somebody in their network—who they can very closely personalize their work. And so, we find that also makes it incredibly meaningful to them as well.

Lisa Earnhardt: That's such a great point. Especially as I think about the chronic conditions that are just in my portfolio between cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic pain movement disorders, there's a high probability that over the course of a year you're going to know someone, whether it be a family member or a close, a close friend who suffers from that. So, it does become personal very, very quickly. 

Phyllis Schneble: And, you know, you gave us some tips and tricks on things that worked. I'd love to flip the coin on that and ask, what are some of the things you've learned that are common pitfalls or you know, where do you find the biggest misalignments? Are there any lessons learned that you want to share with us about things that, in hindsight, [you think], wow, this is something that we've changed, and we do differently now?

Lisa Earnhardt: I think what I had mentioned previously in terms of making sure they understand the regulated environment in which we work in is critical. I do think there are also things in terms of how we go about doing our work or becoming more flexible just in general. I think coming out of the pandemic in terms of where people work, how they work—we've always had a very collaborative culture at Abbott, but there are things that we can even do in terms of the facilities and the environment for working that we create to help facilitate that [culture], that feel more similar to what maybe someone from the tech world would have experienced, to make that at least part of their work more familiar to them. So, there are plenty of things that we haven't done right, but at the end of the day, I think we've done a lot to be a really attractive employer at Abbot. And of course, I would be remiss to say, you know, not to suggest you all go check out the website for careers. We have plenty of them., if you were interested in making a difference in the work that you do, would love to consider you for roles in the future. 

Phyllis Schneble: Great PSA. Lisa, I applaud you. 

Lisa Earnhardt: I'm always recruiting, as you are Phyllis. 

Phyllis Schneble: Absolutely. We're in this together. One last question, Lisa, as we bring this conversation to a close. You've been in this space, you work in many aspects of this idea of connected health. Any thoughts for you on people in leadership levels, who are maybe the next gen talent we're looking at, who might be thinking about getting into, you know, connected health or wearables or just broadly the health tech space?

Lisa Earnhardt: Yeah, there's so much out there right now around the challenges we're facing in healthcare, so it's hard not to see the news or see the challenges we're facing, not just here in the US but globally in terms of the crises. I think the pandemic brought it home for a lot of people in terms of how important your health truly is. And so, I would say follow your interest there and if there are areas that you're interested in, make sure you're learning more about them. There's some great things happening in the world of healthcare across the spectrum, so I think it's continuing to be open-minded about the opportunities, continuing to learn and put yourself out there, because it's never too late to join in the health tech world. So we're looking to attract more and more talent as we solve some really big problems in healthcare over the next couple of decades. 

Phyllis Schneble: Well, Lisa, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. Very insightful. We know you're doing great things over there, and we look forward to watching more and more. But thank you for taking the time with us today. 

Lisa Earnhardt: Thank you so much.

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don't miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you're listening via Linked In, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time. 

About the interviewer

Phyllis Schneble ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office and a member of the Healthcare & Life Sciences and Consumer practices; she also co-leads the Health Tech sector.

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