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Karen S. Lynch / CVS Health CEO

Combining Passionate Leadership And The Championing Of Change

Behind every successful businesswoman lies a unique story; a timeline of choices and experiences that propelled her towards pursuing a specific career; role models and guiding lights who helped her develop the fortitude and resilience required to endure tough times, and the drive to continue advancing with passion. CVS Health CEO Karen S. Lynch is one such woman

Born in the Massachusetts town of Ware in 1963, this businesswoman’s career highlights include becoming the first ever female president of American managed healthcare company Aetna in 2015 and the highest-ranking female chief executive on the Fortune 500 list in 2021. Apart from being the current president and CEO of CVS Health, she also serves on the boards of AHIP (a political advocacy and trade association of health insurance companies) and financial services company U.S. Bancorp, while she has previously held executive positions at Magellan Health Services and health insurance company Cigna.

At the root of all this business success, however, hides personal tragedy that turned the young Miss Lynch’s world upside down and instilled in her a burning desire to change the face of American healthcare for the better.

It was while she was attending Ware Junior School in 1975, at the age of 12, that her mother, who had been raising her and her three siblings as a single mother, took her own life. This shocking event had a profound impact on the young Karen, but it wasn’t this tragic loss that compelled her to pursue a career in healthcare – that would come a decade later.

As she explains: “My journey in healthcare began when I lost my mother to suicide at the age of 12. My three siblings and I were raised by my aunt, who was a single mother with a son of her own. My aunt was my mentor, my role model and the strongest person I knew. In my early 20s, we lost her to a combination of emphysema, lung cancer and breast cancer, and that was the inflection point when I decided to dedicate my life and career to the pursuit of better healthcare.

“Ironically, I was motivated most by a sense of frustration and helplessness. I didn’t know what to ask the doctors, what to do when she was in physical pain or how to effectively navigate a confusing and complicated system of care. I wanted to prevent others from feeling the same, and the determination I felt to improve a broken system still drives me today. This early experience taught me that, through the most painful times in our lives, we often discover our strength and purpose.”

I’m using my experience and knowledge to shift the healthcare system from “sick care” to holistic care… Health is more than just the physical, and our health is greatly impacted by our mental health, as well as other factors like behaviour and environment

After her mother’s untimely passing, Karen continued to attend Ware Junior/Senior High School, graduating in 1980, and subsequently enrolled in Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting and gained Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification. Remaining in Boston after graduating, she took the first steps in her financial career at the Boston office of Ernst & Young, specialising in insurance. She would go on to spend nearly a decade working in insurance, before boldly opting to wipe the slate clean and head back to graduate school to enrol in MBA studies, citing a desire to broaden her financial background and gain more exposure to the business aspects of running a company.

“Like life itself, careers rarely run their course in a linear or logical way. While I was working as an auditor early in my career, I learned a great deal about finding my voice in the business world, but I longed to bring my sense of empathy, purpose and desire to improve the lives of others to my professional life. By drawing inspiration from my aunt, I found the courage to pivot my career. It was a risk to pursue a different path, but one worth taking to follow my passion.

“Even then, healthcare was incredibly personal to me. After the loss of both my mother and aunt, I realised that healthcare needed to change, to become more accessible and inclusive of mental health. These experiences drove my passion to transform care to treat the whole person, not just the patient, throughout their entire health journey. Health is more than just the physical, and our health is greatly impacted by our mental health, as well as other factors like behaviour and environment, but in order to treat health effectively and comprehensively, we need to ensure people can access the care they need, when they need it.”

Business Accolades

Karen S. Lynch was included in 2021’s inaugural Forbes 50 Over 50 list of female entrepreneurs, leaders, scientists and creators aged over 50. She was awarded the 2021 Committee for Economic Development Distinguished Leadership Award and also ranked number one on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business list. A former honorary co-chair of the Komen Connecticut Race for the Cure benefiting breast cancer research, she was listed among Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business in 2022 and included on TIME Magazine’s 2023 TIME 100 annual list of the world’s top hundred most influential people Business

She had amassed both ample experience and the relevant qualifications required to rise through the ranks of the business world and achieve the impact that she so passionately desired, but little did she know that it would be her physical stature and personal style that would prove more of a hurdle than her business prowess and financial acumen.

“I knew climbing the ranks in my career wasn’t going to be easy, but I wasn’t expecting one of the obstacles I would face to be entirely unrelated to my work ethic or ability to deliver results. Early in my career, when I was being considered for my first senior position, I was told I didn’t fit the executive profile despite meeting all the qualifications. The hiring manager told me I was too short, too blonde, my voice wasn’t deep enough, and I wore too much pink. In other words, my femininity was a problem. But I didn’t give up. I was going to honour my aunt’s example of strength and perseverance. I told the interviewer I had no intention of changing and, ultimately, I landed the job. Being authentic and staying true to who you are is important, not just in your career, but in everything that you do. And, for the record, I still love to wear pink!”

Karen was appointed president of Cigna Dental in 2004, before being promoted the very next year to a new position combining the leadership of Cigna Group Insurance and Cigna Dental. She would remain with Cigna for another four years, before becoming president of Magellan Health Services in 2009 – a position she held for three years. She took on the role of executive vice president and head of Specialty Products at Aetna in 2012, and just three months later led the integration of Coventry Health Care, which was then the largest ever healthcare acquisition. She retained the position of Lynch company president, which she’d taken on in 2015, through the $70 billion acquisition of Aetna by CVS Health in 2018.

Having by then held a number of top positions in the sector, Lynch found herself in a strong position to champion the changes to the healthcare system that had first motivated her to enter the sector all those years ago. And still she drew inspiration from her late aunt.

“Among the many lessons learned from my aunt is the importance of giving back. I’m using my experience and knowledge to shift the healthcare system from “sick care” to holistic care through better care coordination at the local and community level. Ultimately, we need to understand that healthcare is human care. This means understanding people and their specific health needs where they live and work. That is why I’m pushing our company to be a closer, more trusted partner in individuals’ overall wellbeing, so that we can help them achieve their goals and live the life they desire.

“Being a trusted partner in one’s health means understanding all aspects of health, including the impact of mental health on physical health. Knowing that mental health increases the risk of other medical conditions, it is important we treat mental health issues in tandem with physical illness. I continually advocate for greater awareness and education of mental health, so that those suffering have access to the services they need and the promise of a healthier future.”

Karen shares her passion to advance the treatment of mental health with her husband Kevin M. Lynch, who is the founder, president and CEO of the Quell Foundation, a non-profit that strives to remove the stigma around mental health and reduce the number of suicides, overdoses and incarcerations of those with mental illness.

Being authentic and staying true to who you are is important, not just in your career, but in everything that you do. And, for the record, I still love to wear pink!

Karen took the helm as president and CEO of CVS Health in early 2021, at the height of the pandemic, thereby becoming the highest-ranking female CEO on the Fortune 500 list. And she has never been in a better or more authoritative position to guide the historic changes taking place in the healthcare industry and the transformation of the healthcare experience for everyone. And she is convinced that she can see it happening in front of her eyes: “we are working to build a healthier world. It’s a noble and audacious goal; people can really rally behind it and we’re seeing that every day.”

As a self-professed change agent, Karen is also successfully juggling her leadership role with that of a veritable industry rabble-rouser. “I like to create change and execute on that change,” she says, “but in my view an effective leader is willing to listen to other people’s ideas before charging down the path of change.”

She is also keen to see more women rising through the ranks of executives, simply because that has today become a tried and tested element in doing business successfully.

“I am passionate about increasing the number of women in leadership roles, not only because high performing women deserve equal access to opportunity, but because the inclusion of women in these roles is proven to be better for business. If my own experience is an example, my interactions with healthcare have given me many insights into why and how we must improve the sector. Finally, I would encourage all women to be true to themselves; to refuse to settle, to follow their passion, and to bring their authentic selves to every role they have.”