Karen Root: Innovating at All Levels—Big and Small

Karen Root
Karen Root | Director and Experience Strategy

Karen Root is a distinguished professional and the Director of Experience Strategy at Boehringer Ingelheim. Recognized by Forbes as one of the Top 10 Entrepreneurs to Watch in Healthcare in 2022, Karen boasts over 20 years of expertise in life sciences. Her diverse background spans human vaccines, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, computer software, publishing, consumer packaged goods, and technology start-ups.

With an astute understanding of organizational systems and multiple value propositions, Karen’s focus has predominantly been on marketing, product development, brand, sales, and currently go-to-market operations. She has consistently prioritized the healthcare professional throughout her career. At Boehringer Ingelheim, where she currently leads as Director of Experience Strategy, Karen is deeply passionate about placing patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals at the core of the organization’s mission.

In her role, Karen spearheads an elite team of customer experience leads and business-applied scrum masters, driving Agile ways of working. Her commitment lies in innovating solutions that enhance experiences for employees, patients and customers.

Let’s explore how Karen embodies leadership that goes beyond industry boundaries, leveraging her wealth of experience to drive positive transformation in healthcare!

What were the challenges that you had to overcome to scale your progress in your career path as a leader? 

One of my most significant challenges has been of a personal nature, rooted in my upbringing with near-debilitating anxiety, later identified as undiagnosed ADHD, creating hurdles in my early career. Paradoxically, the struggle to focus cultivated my unique ability to swiftly generate innovative ideas and value propositions, earning me the moniker of the “idea machine” among family and friends.

Over the years, I’ve honed my control and prioritization skills, enabling deep work and a profound understanding of how operational changes impact patients and customers. A pivotal moment came during my tenure at WL Gore & Associates’ innovation unit, where I discovered my innate talent for innovation, ranking in the top 2% globally in innovative thinking according to the SWARM assessment.

My professional journey expanded at Sanofi Pasteur, where I led digital marketing transformation, delving into customer-centric cultures and the impact of fulfilling their wants and needs. This exploration extended across diverse industries at WL Gore, from medical devices to fabrics, industrial and electronics divisions. My role in leading Brand & Culture enterprise-wide further allowed me to explore the intersection of experience and brand promise, inspiring the creation of a “Signature Experience.”

Passionate about technology, I’ve led or consulted in seven start-ups, with expertise in artificial intelligence, blockchain, non-fungible tokens, and smart contracts. Intrigued by the metaverse, I’ve developed algorithms for digital twins and envisioned enhancing clinical trial design and global healthcare access. My commitment to innovation spans all levels, recognizing that small shifts in experiences can collectively yield significant improvements for employees, patients and customers over the entire journey.

Tell us more about your company and its mission and vision. 

Boehringer Ingelheim is working on breakthrough therapies that transform lives, today and for generations to come. As a leading research-driven biopharmaceutical company, the company creates value through innovation in areas of high unmet medical need. Founded in 1885 and family-owned ever since, Boehringer Ingelheim takes a long-term, sustainable perspective. More than 53,000 employees serve over 130 markets in the two business units Human Pharma and Animal Health.

What methodologies do you implement that contribute to new growth opportunities?

The intersection of Customer Experience, Technology and Innovation is my sweet spot.  Listening to customers will give you an endless supply of new ideas for incremental, sustaining, disruptive, and radical innovation ideas.

It all starts with patience with customers and deep listening.  Having specialized training in Neurolinguistics, neuro-associative conditioning and spiral dynamics allows me to have the advanced psychological training to understand and listen to people on multiple levels.   Gathering the insights around what the customer is trying to do, how they think about it – technology, knowledge sources, etc., and how they feel are the key ingredients to insights generation.

Identifying the true problem is the next critical step.  We map personas and journeys and dive deep into the moments that matter to understand what is happening currently and then what is lacking in the expected experience for customers.

From there we move into ideation with human-centered design thinking workshops.  Then we prioritize and select a solution and map the prototype and how we will test and measure with customers to ensure we are providing value.

Most design thinking workshops generate hundreds of possible improvements.  We focus on developing and implementing one at a time, but as we consider each moment that matters, we are left with many potential improvement areas.  It’s a continuous process and I believe the experience economy has benefitted customers greatly.

Please share your learning of the business world.

Having personally been a business owner offered the best understanding of the business world.  Developing clarity of the wants and needs of your target market and providing a value proposition that solves a problem, in exchange for revenue that exceeds cost to serve is ultimately the guide.  It is maintaining the understanding that customer centricity is the key and that value propositions are a two-way street.  Don’t try to sell something that won’t solve a want and need for customers.

What values do you incorporate to enhance the work culture of your company?

Start small, start here, start now.  Within a large organization, change can be challenging. I can speak specifically to my approach because it aligns with my personal mission of unleashing human potential, which I do through transforming organizations with new capabilities that include customer experience, technology and innovation.  I engage individuals and teams to understand their current levels of knowledge and partner with them to embed new skills and capabilities, thus improving the connection to customers and capabilities for rapid innovation.

What, according to you, could be the next significant change in your sector? How are you preparing for the change? 

We are already using AI across healthcare for various applications. I believe blockchain, NFT/smart contracts and metaverse will make their way to medical and commercial operations.  The value that these technologies offer will provide the ability for patients and customers to gain improvements in their healthcare experiences. I personally am a life-long learner so studying Web3, metaverse and AI/ML is something I continue to diligently stay on the fuzzy front end of technology and systems theory work to consider all potential new applications.

Where do you envision yourself to be in the long run and what are your future goals for your company?

There is so much opportunity to serve patients and customers and continuously improve experiences. Additionally, I continued to finish long before started manuscripts. My next book is set to release in early 2024.  Ready Worker One was developed in collaboration with my daughter Kayla, a DMV candidate and avid gamer.  This concept started at the beginning of COVID and now that the data is released on return-to-work impact and productivity, it’s more applicable than ever. The premise is not to consider the future of work but rather to reimagine work altogether.

Having been in WL Gore, the original matrix company studied in the most prestigious universities, to some of the most hierarchical large organizations and multiple start-ups, I believe Kayla and I have cracked the code to truly optimize the organizational system.  Ready Worker One pulls from gaming, behavioral science, systems thinking, and organizational structure. To this, we have added DAO (decentralized autonomous organizations) and tokenomics.  The benefit is to evolve in individual and team capabilities which will truly integrate diversity, remove politics from the equation and prioritize projects from those with the closest vantage point to the customer. I believe that the generation of those who grew up gaming will understand and appreciate the nuances that we consider.  I hope it provokes new thoughts and conversations and importantly, spurs some changes across organizational systems.

What advice would you give to the next generation of women leaders willing to venture into the modern business arena? 

No matter how advanced our technology becomes, it will always pair with a need to understand people.  Whether employees, patients, or customers, the future will value deep work with skills that span humans and technology.  My advice would be to connect your passions with your skills and apply them to bring value to business needs.  The more clarity you can bring in combining what drives you and how to position it for value will bring you to the road of success.  If you do that, you will find the most enjoyment and fulfilment, while still being able to call it work.