Medtronics Founder Earl Bakken's Secrets of Corporate Success

Six tenets guide the billion-dollar medical technology developer's strategy

29 October 2015

I was pleasantly surprised to see my company featured in “HP and Medtronic: From the Garage to the Fortune 500” in The Institute’s September issue. At age 91, I still remember how, as a teenager, I dreamed of becoming an electrical engineer. Today Medtronic is 85,000 employees strong in 160 countries. Every second, three patients are helped by one of our therapies—that’s 95 million people a year! Never could I have imagined this but I am a dreamer, and I continue to dream on.

While The Institute’s article covered how the company was founded, I wanted to tell you some of the secrets to its continued success. Although long retired, I stay involved with my company. I meet and greet employees who visit me in Hawaii, where I now live. I personally sign certificates of service of employees who have worked 25, 30, 35, and 40 years. On rare occasions I sign a 45- or 50-year service certificate. And at 40 years of service and up, I make a surprise phone call to the employee at work. At first, they think it’s a prank phone call! Imagine, people staying at their jobs for 45 years. That says something mighty positive about the company.

Founded on ethics of inclusiveness, empowerment, and trust, I handed out the annual plan to every employee so that they knew what to expect. The manufacturing production lines didn’t have just one person responsible for quality control; each person on the line held responsibility for quality. These values have become entrenched in the organization.

Many unique qualities set Medtronic apart from others. There’s a reason for that. In 1960, when corporate mission statements were rare, I wrote one that has never changed. It remains the company’s guiding principle. There are six tenets, but the first one is the most important: To contribute to human welfare by application of biomedical engineering in the research, design, manufacture, and sale of instruments or appliances that alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life.

With a mission statement that powerful, it’s no wonder employees are loyal.  They are inspired, motivated, and rewarded for their efforts. They’re encouraged to be kind and compassionate global citizens.

Here are a few reasons I believe we’re the best company out there.

Mission and Medallion Ceremonies

Starting in the 1970s, I met with all new employees, explained our history and mission, and in each of their hands I placed a medallion imprinted with the mission statement. I encouraged them to live by it—at work and at home. These ceremonies continue with top leadership around the world.

Annual Holiday Program

Each December the entire Medtronic family celebrates holiday traditions, diversity, and those who benefit from our products. Patients from each of our businesses are invited to share their life-changing stories. A letter from Ron Brown, a pacemaker patient for 40 years, is read every year. It’s an evocative experience, and a reminder of why we do what we do. There is never a dry eye in the house.

Employee Networks

Business divisions have President’s Clubs for top sales merits. Yearly accolades are given, and the winners meet for an awards event. I get to meet with those who come to Hawaii—an honor for me and for them.

The Bakken Society, the Technical Fellows, and the Technical Forum bring together our best scientists and engineers who have distinguished themselves in furthering the company’s progress through annual technology conferences held worldwide.

The Star of Excellence Award is the highest internal award employees can receive for their contributions and achievements in customer-focused quality and innovation.

Employee Resource Groups

There are dozens of groups that have been formed by employees, but two stand out for me. Medtronic’s Women’s Network is international and works to promote women to leadership roles at all levels. An Integrative Medicine Committee hosts speakers and looks for ways to make Medtronic more integrated in its approach to health care.

Healthy Workplace

The largest U.S. facility is in Mounds View, Minn., which opened in 2008. With more than 200 meeting spaces to accommodate collaboration, it is LEEDS Silver Certified, which is a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices. It houses a daycare center (employees can lunch with their kids), and meditation or quiet rooms, along with a bank, a medical clinic, a coffee shop, and a gift shop. There is also an employee workout facility that offers massages.

Visionary Leadership

Evolving with expanding global opportunities and strategies, in 2015, under the astute direction of CEO Omar Ishrak, the largest acquisition in our history took place when Covidien joined Medtronic and nearly doubled its size. Communication is key to successful integration, and regular town hall meetings are held. Daily internal updates are shared via the company’s Intranet.  Employee satisfaction ratings continue to soar, and year after year Medtronic is rated as one of the best companies to work for.

Philanthropy and Volunteerism

Medtronic Philanthropy has many outstanding programs and distributes US $80 million annually in support of community health around the world. One that I’m most proud of is the Bakken Invitation: Live On Give On, which celebrates people who, with the help of medical technology, are using their “extra lives” to help others through charitable service and volunteerism. It’s something I try to model since I’m a patient too. I’m on my second pacemaker, have stents, and an insulin pump. I sure am glad I invented the company!

There are several employee programs under the Mission in Motion moniker— everything from assisting the homeless to providing backpacks and school supplies for underprivileged kids. When disasters happen around the world, Medtronic responds. Employees are eligible to receive one week of paid leave to volunteer to help with disaster recovery.

And don’t think Medtronic employees fade off into the sunset upon retirement.  There is a large and vital group of retirees—the VSP group—whose motto is “Learning, Connecting, Serving.” They stay active through educational and volunteer programs.

At Medtronic, we live our mission. It’s the basis for how we behave in relationship to our stakeholders, each other, our communities, and the world. But it also guides our relationships with ourselves. We live the Medtronic Mission every day in truly genuine ways by serving others. I am proud to have a mission that is so deeply woven into the fabric of this company that improves millions of lives throughout the world.

Here’s to dreaming on.

Earl Bakken joined IEEE in 1948, became an IEEE Fellow in 1974, and a Life Fellow in 1990. He now resides in Hawaii where he is actively engaged with the health and wellness of his island community.

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