As a four-time CEO, Susan Hertzberg is certainly a dynamo. But Hertzberg despite her metoric rise, she started at the bottom. Nor did she follow the cookie cutter career path expected of a typical executive, Hertzberg’s can-do attitude, prodigious sales skills, and finance brain allowed her to leapfrog from sales to top management in one of the most exciting aspects of healthcare today, Biotech. Not only did she build the largest, fastest growing network of fertility centers in the country as CEO of Prelude Fertility, but it was under her watch that Boston Heart Diagnostics surged from $4 million to $95 million in just 5 years. Always in motion, Hertzberg is a powerful forward-thinker craving movement and expansion, unsatisfied by the status quo.
As CEO of BrainScope–an innovative company that created a way to diagnose concussion or other head injury on-the-spot with a fraction of the radiation usually employed in traditional methods, with a fraction of anxiety for the patient and at a fraction of the cost to patient, hospital and insurers– she is one of the most dynamic executives in the field. She attributes much of her success to an unexpected source. “When I get asked now about being a CEO and what informs my thinking, I will tell you–more than Columbia Business School, more than running marketing, purchasing, all the things I’ve done in my career–it’s being a sales rep,” she said.
While Hertzberg initially intended to go to medical school, her path rerouted when she realized she wasn’t “anal” enough to be a good doctor. “I wanted to do something with my life that could have a positive impact on other people, and so healthcare really resonated with me,” So in need of a job, she applied for a position listed in the Sunday New York Times and started a sales career as a rep with Net Path, known today as Quest Diagnostics.
Working as a female sales rep, Hertzberg was essentially the lowest on the totem pole. “In those days, there were salesmen, and sales girls, and the vernacular absolutely reflected the difference in power,” Hertzberg said. “Even though you were doing exactly the same job, somehow women in these roles were lesser than men.”
As she quickly became the company’s leading salesperson, Hertzberg watched as her MIT male colleagues were promoted to managerial roles. Even today, she says, the tokenism of being that one female executive position in a male dominated industry inevitably stimulates a cutthroat environment, as qualified women battled for that single, coveted slot. “You’re forced into this competitive mindset where it’s not an expansive view of the world, it’s a very narrow one,” Hertzberg explains, “It’s very hard to bring out your best self because you feel like you’re not going to get credit, you’re going to miss out… your one chance is gone.”
“In those days, there were salesmen, and sales girls. And, and the vernacular, absolutely reflected the difference in power. Even though you were doing exactly the same job, somehow, women in these roles were lesser than men. Because we were girls and they were men.”
One of the differences between men and women, Hertzberg says, is that women are uncomfortable with the concept of incompetency in a new role. She notes that no one, not even the most high level executives, know what they are doing when they take on a new position. This insecurity is something men hardly think twice about, but for women, this discomfort could be disparaging. While fear of failure holds women back, Hertzberg’s confidence and risk-taking has propelled her forward in the industry.
Hertzberg recalls bearing rejection from past employers, as they shrugged her off and told her, ‘We sought the best talent, we were looking for a woman, but we just couldn’t find somebody.’ “You couldn’t find a woman or a black person that fit the role because your vision of the role is a white dude,” Hertzberg laughed. Seeking a white male perspective, it is impossible that any unique candidate could meet the standard. Having been a CEO for multiple companies, from Ipsogen to BrainScope, Hertzberg is no newbie to decision-making and team building. While business schools typically advise executives to build a team based on the company’s foundation and structure, she opts for more of a humanistic and less technical approach.
“Your experience is what’s on your resume, that’s what gets you the interview. What gets you hired are your values,” Hertzberg said. She notes that success in a corporation is impossible to achieve on one’s own, and working with a cohesive team is imperative to reaching goals. So much of it is about everybody else around you and how you work within that system, not just to make yourself successful but everybody.”
Even in the pandemic, Hertzberg maintains team camaraderie with frequent Zoom calls “Talented people succeed, talented people always find a way,” Hertzberg said. “Design around that talent. Give people some room to grow and help you to succeed because you can never do it on your own.”
Hertzberg’s advice to women looking to similarly advance in the field is to be bold, be self-aware, and to own all of your decisions– even if they end up as mistakes. Almost all of the controversy, whether it be politics or business, is always a botched cover up attempt. She notes the importance of being “There are very few things in life that are fatal mistakes, and it’s okay to fail,” she said. She emphasized the importance of accepting that bad decisions are at times inevitable, but that recognizing and reflecting on these mistakes will make you stronger.
“Take chances. There are very few things in life that are fatal mistakes. And it’s okay to fail.”
Her journey, entering the field as a gritty sales rep and achieving many years now as high-power CEO, proves that there is no singular cut-and-dry path to success. Earlier in her career, Hertzberg took a paid demotion to go to Oxford Health. People told her that she was crazy. She had already graduated from Columbia Business School, had worked as a director, and was on track to become a VP. Why would she opt to fall back as a manager? Despite the questioned decision, just two years later she was working as a VP.
Reflecting on her own experience, Hertzberg acknowledges how far passion and drive can take someone. Whether she is leading 10 people or 5,000 people, Hertzberg utilizes the same approach. Identifying one’s mission, priorities, and goals will add clarity and purpose helping one succeed in whatever career path they strive for. “There’s no one path that gets you there, but have a vision, or be okay not knowing [where you’re headed ]for some period of time; and then be reflective and say, ‘what do these pieces look like when I put them together, what is it that I really really like to do, what is it that I’m really, really good at?’ Because other opportunities may open up to you and it’s okay if you have to take a sideways step or a backward step,” Hertzberg said. Her power, passion, and risk-taking are what has allowed her to find success, and to mentor other women as they seek the same.