You are here

Hawkins Encourages Students on Parents' Weekend

Distinguished alumnus Bill Hawkins presented the annual engineering seminar to an audience of more than 300 during the Parents' Weekend event on Oct. 23. Afterwards the school sponsored a barbeque attended by more than 675 parents, engineering students, faculty and staff.

Hawkins, who graduated from Duke with a double major in electrical and biomedical engineering in 1976, was elected president and chief operating officer of Medtronic Inc., effective May 3. Previously, he served as senior vice president and president of Medtronic’s Vascular business.

Born in 1954 in Durham, Hawkins and his wife have three children and currently reside in Wayzata, Minn. But Hawkins said he was pleased to be back at Duke where he has strong family and personal ties.

Hawkins shared experiences from his journey starting as a Duke undergraduate to his position today as CEO of Medtronic.

"Originally, I thought I might want to be a doctor and knew that biomedical engineering would be a very good starting point for such a career. But after a while, the thought of so much more schooling ahead of me convinced me to take another path," said Hawkins. Unfortunately, he notes, the jobs he was hoping for as a biomedical engineer weren't there.

"So I approached graduation without a job," he said.

Ultimately, Hawkins joined Carolina Medical Electronics in 1977 as a salesman. That experience awakened a desire to better understand and excel in a competitive business environment. Hawkins was accepted into the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia and graduated with a MBA in 1982.

He joined Medtronic in January 2002 from Novoste Corp., where he had been president and chief executive officer since 1998. Earlier positions included corporate vice president and president of the Sherwood Davis and Geck organization of American Home Products; president of the Ethicon Endo-Surgery organization of Johnson & Johnson; president, Devices for Vascular Intervention and U.S. Operations, for Guidant Corp.; and several increasingly responsible executive positions culminating in the presidency of the Ivac organization for Eli Lilly & Co.

Hawkins said that his experiences at these various companies have led him to a distilled philosophy for crafting a career. His insight is as follows:

1. Control your own destiny—or someone else will

"At some point in your career, you will find yourself in a job you don't like, or working for someone you don't like," he said. "Not all my working eperiences have been enjoyable, and I realized early on that I had to take charge of my own choices."

In one instance, six months after accepting a job, Hawkins realized that he had made a mistake. His direct manager was not supportive and had not been involved in bringing Hawkins into the company.

"I had to make a decision about how to take matters into my own hands," Hawkins said. "I decided to do what I was brought into the company to do, and once I had accomplished that I left after just two years."

The company culture - its values towards its people and products - are strong determining factors for how happy you will be at a given company, Hawkins notes. Take the initiative, do your homework when investigating a potential employer, and find a situation that suits you.

2. Retain humility

"It's not only drive and intelligence that counts," said Hawkins. "It's the way people behave."

"I have seen managers who are completely intimidated by the people reporting to them. These managers can't find a way to maintain their own stature as a leader and still work with very smart people. They will even make bad hiring decisions to avoid being put into that position," he said.

"As a BME student here at Duke, I struggled with the workload. I was humbled and frankly envious of fellow students who seemed to breeze through everything. It seemed that I was the only person whose Fortran program wouldn't run," he explained.

"My advice is to be nice to smart people, because they can help you. Don't be intimidated. Embrace what they have to offer and make friends," Hawkins said. "Decide what type of person you want to be and use gifts of knowledge wisely."

3. Never give up

Just after graduating from Duke, I went to work as a salesperson for a Carolina startup company. When I decided I wanted to go to business school, I was rejected.

"I decided not to give up. I wrote to the university and suggested that perhaps a mistake had been made," Hawkins said. "I haggled to get an interview using my well honed sales experience, and ultimately I was accepted."

"I could have given up, but because I didn't my life took a better path," he said.

4. Recognize the importance of values

Hawkins said this last decade has been characterized by ethics scandals in business, government and even sports. "My career at different companies has taught me how important corporate values are," he said.

In 1982, Hawkins went to work at Eli Lily. He said the company had a very good track record and the senior management constantly talked about its missions and values of integrity, excellence and respect for the individual.

"At one point, we launched a new arthritis drug and the entire company was excited about the prospect of making a big impact on the healthcare market. Unfortunately, not long after we launched the drug, there were indications that side effects and drug interactions were causing serious injuries to people taking the drug."

Despite how well the drug was doing on the market, he said Eli Lily made the decision to take it off the market. "They put their values above the financial bottom line," said Hawkins.

"When looking for work, take the time to get to know who you will be working for. Pay attention to the corporate culture and the values of the leadership. Your job will be more than a title and a paycheck - you have to believe in what you are doing and feel good about it," he said.

5. Make passion your profession

"In 1998, I decided to leave a successful career at Eli Lily and go to work for Novoste, a startup company. This was a tremendous risk, but I felt ready for it personally and financially. The chance to go head to head against the larger companies I had worked for was irresistible," said Hawkins.

By the end of the first year, Novoste had made $75 million in sales and far outstripped our competitors, he said.

Big winners are those willing to take a risk for big rewards, and this is something he has seen played out with companies and with people's individual careers.

"Even if you are happy where you are, be open to new possibilities. Build networks, don't burn bridges and keep your options open. Explore plans that may take you in different directions," he said.

"Be ready for change. Prepare for change," Hawkins said.

In closing, Hawkins said his time at Duke was one of the best in his life, and his engineering training really prepared him well for a satisfying career.