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Diversity fuels Karen Lynch’s leadership at Aetna

By | July 24th, 2017 | Blog | 21 Comments


Karen Lynch: “I have a perspective of optimism, and the glass is always half-full.”


One in a series of interviews with Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women in Healthcare for 2017. Furst Group and NuBrick Partners, which comprise the companies of MPI, sponsor the awards.


A commitment to diversity usually starts at the top of an organization, and Aetna President Karen Lynch is pleased that her employer is routinely recognized for the fact that its board is 40 percent female. But she knows there is more to be done.


“If you look at the studies that have been published, 73 percent of medical and health services managers in the U.S. are women, but only 4 percent of healthcare CEOs are women. So, clearly, we have some growth to move forward on,” she says.


But her thinking goes beyond gender diversity.


“When I think about diversity, it’s also about ethnic diversity. It’s about ‘Do we have diversity with veterans and LGBT and multigenerational, multicultural talent?’ I think there’s more to be done there as well.”


Make no mistake, though – Lynch is “quite proud” to be the first female president of Aetna.


“It’s such a great honor,” she says, but quickly adds, “As you can imagine, I didn’t get here by myself.”


Healthcare executives often talk about the importance of mentors and sponsors in their career. Lynch points to one from her childhood as a foundation for success in life – the aunt who raised Lynch and her three siblings after Lynch’s mom committed suicide. Lynch was 12 at the time.


“My aunt grew up in the Depression,” Lynch remembers. “Her parents came over from Poland. They were ailing, and she took care of them. She worked in a factory her entire life. Her husband passed away early on. She took care of her only son, and then she took on the responsibility of all four of us.”


Lynch says her aunt – and life itself – helped imbue her with resilience and a positive, constructive attitude. She says she met her father once, but does not regret his absence. “I think it’s made me the strong person I am today. I have a perspective of optimism, and the glass is always half-full.”


When Lynch was in her 20s, her aunt died from emphysema and breast and lung cancer, the result of heavy cigarette smoking. Nonetheless, her positive impact on Lynch had already been formed.


“My aunt was a very strong woman,” Lynch recalls. “She didn’t let anything get in her way. She instilled values in us like, ‘You can do anything that you set your mind to. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything.’ ”


Her influence is evident in Lynch’s career arc. And it was, in part, her aunt’s illness that led her ultimately to a career in healthcare after a stint as an auditor for Ernst + Young.


“I remember sitting in her hospital room thinking, ‘I don’t know what questions to ask the doctors. I don’t know what to do to care for her,’ ” Lynch says. “I’ve made it my life mission now to bring the services to individuals so they can answer those questions when someone’s in need. Or, better yet, how do we keep people healthy in the first place?”


Lynch leads by example in that vein. She is a lifelong runner, although she has added spinning to her regimen to ease the pounding on her knees.


“If I’m going to run a healthcare company and advocate health, it’s important for me to remain healthy.”


Lynch says her training at Ernst + Young prepared her for leadership in two ways.


“One important lesson I learned was how to be an effective communicator with people at all levels of an organization,” she says. “When you’re an auditor, you have to talk with the most senior leaders of an organization as well as the front-line people. I had to learn quickly how to adapt my communication style.”


She also learned how to take opportunities as they emerged, she says.


“When you’re in public accounting, you’re thrust into situations that are uncomfortable and uncertain, and you have to quickly adapt and be flexible,” Lynch says. “I think those skills are equally important as a senior executive, because you never know what might come your way on any given day.”


Lynch and her organization have had to deal with a lot of uncertainty over the past year as the potential merger of Aetna and Humana fell through. The experience, however, hasn’t altered the company’s strategy, she says.


“Humana would have helped to accelerate our strategy, but that strategy remains the same – to be consumer-focused, transforming relationships with providers, focusing on the local community and building the next generation of talent,” she says.


Lynch says health insurers in general need to own their mistakes, but adds that payers don’t promote themselves enough in regard to the positive outcomes they quietly foster among their members. She recounts the story of one female college student she worked with who was anorexic. Lynch’s organization helped the young woman get into a treatment facility. She got help, returned to school and graduated from college. She signed up with Teach for America and has gone on to have a successful career.


“Those are the kinds of things we do that no one knows we do,” Lynch says.


“Maybe we’re too modest, but we need to tell our story because we are doing some phenomenal things across the nation.”



SIDEBAR: U.S. health includes mental health



Aetna President Karen Lynch has always been quite active in charity work. That stems, in part, from her aunt who raised Lynch and her three siblings after their mother committed suicide.


“My aunt talked about and instilled in us the importance of giving back,” Lynch says today.


She says she sees the importance of that in her work every day.


“I have a passion for holistic healthcare and taking care of the whole person,” she says, “because with every chronic condition, many people are also suffering from a mental health condition. There are a lot of co-morbid diagnoses.”


Her mother informs that passion as well.


“Because my mom died by suicide, I believe very strongly in promoting mental health awareness and making sure people have access to the services that they need.”


Lynch found a strong partner in that endeavor in her husband Kevin, who founded the Quell Foundation two years ago to eradicate the stigma of mental health disorders.


“He gives scholarships to children who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and also to kids who want to go to college to work in the field of psychiatry or psychology. And I personally fund the scholarship for kids who have lost a parent through suicide.”


This year, the Quell Foundation will provide $200,000 in scholarships to young people across the country. It’s one more motivation Lynch cites for doing what she does in her career.


“I get up every single morning,” she says, “trying to think about how we can have a positive impact on people’s lives and make this healthcare system better.”



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  • July 24th, 2017

    Karen, thank you for sharing your powerful perspectives on life, health, diversity and the opportunity to get to know a wonderfully gifted female leader making a difference in this world. Thank you for sharing your story! I am an EQi, leadership and career/executive coach who spends my time helping others build positive, impactful lives, with a strong focus on helping women around the world advance and lead powerful lives. It is the time we made that 4% of female CEOs, at least 50%. It is women like you who are making a difference in people’s lives. Again, thank you.

  • July 24th, 2017

    Wow. I was so happy to read that you are the President of Aetna. Much luck and continued success.

  • July 26th, 2017

    Great article Ms. Lynch; thanks for having shared it. The main reason I stopped practicing clinical psychiatry was because of all the limitations and exclusions that most health plans had/have on mental health and substance abuse services. Congratulations on your initiatives!

  • July 27th, 2017

    Thank you for sharing such a powerful story. I am in total agreement that our adversities make us stronger! Congratulations for been among the top women!

  • July 28th, 2017

    I am new to this organization. I am so encouraged by the approach to behavioral health care here–integrated care and tele-video care are terrific initiatives that will give superior care and decrease stigma. Thank you for walking the walk.

  • July 28th, 2017

    Thank you for sharing your personal story and insight as to why you do what you do. Proud to be part of an organization where leadership values diversity in all spheres.

  • July 29th, 2017

    Thanks for sharing your story, Boss Lady. You are an inspiration to many at Aetna, much more than you know.

  • July 31st, 2017

    What a wonderful and inspiring story, Karen. Thank you for sharing. Many of my years in nursing were spent as a psychiatric nurse; as a country, we continue to struggle with acceptance of mental health diagnoses and cannot seem to get past “labeling.” I have confidence that Aetna can help bring this to the forefront. I, too, practice holistic medicine and anticipate Aetna will soon be including functional and integrative providers to our in-network services!

  • July 31st, 2017

    Karen, thank you for sharing. Your personal challenges and insight have given you outstanding perspective for Aetna and our members! I am proud to work for Aetna and under your leadership.

  • Olga Hollmann
    July 31st, 2017

    Karen, your testimony shows you as a strong and, at the same time, caring person. It is so inspirational and motivational to go as far as any woman can go; your example will be the main motive. I feel so blessed working in a company whose leader sees always a half-full cup; I see it the same way. God bless you always.

  • July 31st, 2017

    I appreciate you sharing your story of success and the more personal side of your life that has led you to your current path. We all have many experiences in life that inform who we become. It is a matter of how each individual decides to use those experiences to guide them. Yours have been inspiring.

  • July 31st, 2017

    Thank you for sharing. Just one more reason why Aetna is such a great company. With people like you in leadership roles, it motivates the employees to do our best.

  • August 1st, 2017

    An amazing testimony of strength and good that comes from the challenges and trials of life. Thank you, Karen Lynch, for sharing and encouraging others in life and work.

  • August 1st, 2017

    What a compelling story about how one person can be determined despite their circumstances and truly can make a difference in the lives of others.

  • August 1st, 2017

    Hi Karen–A brave and inspiring story! Good for you and Kevin for all you do!

  • August 1st, 2017

    Yours is truly a beautiful testament to your desire to help and change the future for so many. You and your husband are doing such great work. This really was so heartbreaking and heartwarming to read. Thank you for truly working to be the change.

  • August 4th, 2017

    Sometimes your glass gets knocked over and becomes empty. We need to care more about each other.

  • August 19th, 2017

    What an inspiring story. Karen, you are a wonderful role model for all women, inspiring them to make a difference. Thank you for sharing your personal story with all of us!

  • August 23rd, 2017

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful and eloquently written article inspiring women around the world to believe in themselves and realize that we all can make a huge difference in this world.

  • September 14th, 2017

    WOW. I’m so inspired by this article a few coworkers sent me this link and it made me want to go harder for what I want! Thank you Karen for sharing!

  • September 21st, 2017

    Thanks for sharing your story. It’s very inspiring and motivational.

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