Three decades of lessons from Quest Diagnostics CEO Steve Rusckowski

MIT Sloan alumnus urges students to think about their career goals and find the right fit

March 12, 2014

Quest Diagnostics CEO Steve Rusckowski, SM ’84

Quest Diagnostics CEO Steve Rusckowski, SM ’84

Thirty years ago, MIT Sloan student Steve Rusckowski attended CEO lectures at MIT Sloan, hearing from leaders of top organizations like U.S. Steel, Motorola, and aluminum producer Alcoa. On March 6, he took the podium himself as CEO of Fortune 500 medical diagnostic giant Quest Diagnostics and the latest speaker in the Dean’s Innovative Leader Series.

“Boy, the world has changed,” Rusckowski said.

Rusckowski, SM ’84, shared a sampling of lessons from his career. He acknowledged that many in attendance at Wong Auditorium likely wished for a roadmap to the corner office at a Fortune 500 company. But, he warned, the job isn’t for everyone.

As a student, Rusckowski recalled, he heard a CEO stressing the importance of family by noting he made a point to see his brother once each quarter. At the time, Rusckowski said, he was appalled by the notion of relegating family to the timetable of business cycles. But, 30 years later, he said he knows the demands of senior executive positions can be all-consuming, making time for personal relationships a challenge.

“There have been periods where I was physically in a plane for 40 hours a week,” he said of his time as CEO at Philips Healthcare, “And that [was] on top of a 60- to-80 hour work week. This is not for everyone.”

For those beginning a career path aiming for a CEO title, Rusckowski advised them to have a goal in mind, but to be flexible. “Frame it, but don’t try to finish the picture. Don’t try to figure out everything,” he said.

Rusckowski’s own career goals in 1984 did not include health care. “I couldn’t even conceive of it,” he said. As an MIT Sloan student, having utilized his engineering background in production at Procter & Gamble, his goal was specific but not overly aggressive: to have profit and loss responsibilities for a successful company. He attained that goal just a few years after graduating, being named general manager of Hewlett-Packard’s new health care division, Agilent Technologies. From there he went to Philips Healthcare, rising through the ranks to eventually become CEO in 2006. He left to join Quest Diagnostics in 2012.

“I never would have predicted, 30 years ago when I sat where you sit, that I’d be addressing you today,” he said. He now believes the role he’s played in healthcare innovation has made a difference in lives far beyond his own.

Lessons along the way

For Rusckowski, the “big lessons” weren’t about how to be or become a CEO, but about navigating a career path that is satisfying, wherever it may lead.

“First, whatever you’re asked to do, do a great job doing it,” he said. “When you do that, your next opportunity will come.”

“Second, sometimes the biggest disappointments lead to the great opportunities,” he said. “I look back on some of the disappointments in my own career, and I thank God they happened, because I would not have had opportunities that came later if they didn’t. Disappointments will come. Learn from them.”

“Next, find some role models. Watch how people do things, even if they are things you don’t want to do,” he said.

“Find the right culture,” he said. “Even today, I’m very proud to say I worked at Procter & Gamble. It was a very old-fashioned company, great people, great company, but it didn’t feel quite right to me. It was night and day with Hewlett-Packard, which was a better cultural fit for me personally. Even today, when I interview someone, it’s equally about qualifications and cultural fit.”

“Finally, don’t do things you don’t like,” he said. “Always find the things you truly want to do.”

And, in the midst of seeking new challenges, he noted his most important roles are as father, husband, and son.

“You’ve got to take time for the rest of your life,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to turn it off.”