Judy and the Yellow Brick Road: A Superstar “Vision Master” You Never Heard Of

Verona is a small town nestled among the low hills and verdant farms of south-central Wisconsin. It’s an unlikely place for one of the largest technology companies in the U.S. to call home. Yet, there among the green fields sprawls the 1,000-acre self-named “Intergalactic Headquarters” of Epic Systems. Nearly as many people work at Epic (about 9,500) as live in Verona (about 10,000). Founded in 1979 in a basement in nearby Madison, Wisconsin, Epic builds software and data systems that enable players across the health care industry spectrum to share patient data, records, and research. Today, it is estimated that more than 200 million people have a medical record administered by Epic software.

Pop Quiz: Without using Google, can you name the visionary CEO who co-founded Epic nearly 40 years ago and still runs the company?

Don’t feel bad if you have absolutely no idea.

Judy Faulkner is a billionaire more than three times over, currently ranked by Forbes as the third wealthiest self-made businesswoman in the U.S. She co-founded Epic nearly forty years ago with $70,000 and a vision from which she’s never wavered: computers are vital to healthcare, can help save lives and cure disease; and that matters.

Ms. Faulkner’s vision may seem obvious today. But in 1967 when she graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Faulkner was one of just a handful of women with an advanced degree in computer science. What’s more, the question of whether computers and software systems would ever form an integral part of patient care was far from answered. Like all great Vision Masters, Faulkner didn’t just pose that question (as mere “visionaries”do) but set about answering it — bending reality to her will to serve a purpose far greater than herself.  She’s a world-class Vision Master, a Vision Grandmaster.

Faulkner also practiced the patience required of a successful Vision Masters.  The Vision Master’s grandest goals are out there in the future. Time, patience, consistent effort — all are required to bring them into being. “It may seem like [Epic] is, in some ways, an overnight success but they built it over the years,” said Dan Olszewski, director of the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship at the UW-Madison School of Business. “They’ve had a great strategy of being very focused on customers that [they] target and solving their customers’ problems.”  Disruption never happens as quickly as the disruptor would like, so patience is a Vision Master virtue.

Despite her notable success, Faulkner has never risen to the level of fame that other Vision Masters like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Elon Musk enjoy. For Faulkner all that attention is irrelevant, a distraction, bringing all kinds of challenges that would simply defer her from completing her vision — which has now evolved to the creation of one global health records, information, and technology-enabled patient care network. That’s not to say she is unknown. Far from it. Within the health care industry, Faulkner is a major player with great influence. In Wisconsin she’s lauded as perhaps having made the greatest single contribution to economic growth in the past few decades.  But unlike other Vision Masters, she’s never sought attention and seems to avoid it.  So maybe the desire for the limelight is an attribute of some Vision Masters but not required for mastery.

Admittedly, I’ve used this space often to discuss the business practices, decisions, successes and failures of some of the world’s most well-known Vision Masters. Perhaps that may give you the impression that to really succeed you’ll not only have to master the game of business, but also devote a lot of your time (as if you have any left to devote to anything!) to self-promotion and personal brand building. But that’s simply not the case. There are 500 companies on the annual Forbes list and a thousand more right behind them. Nearly every one of those companies has a star Vision Master behind it. But few are household names. How many can you name?

Faulkner is a self-described nerd. She credits Bill Gates with making “nerdiness” cool at a time when few people thought computer science was an attractive field of endeavor. She is the unquestioned Queen of her Castle, having built one of the largest health care industry technology companies in the world. She practices philanthropy on a large scale. She supports public universities, endowing professorships.   But let me be the first to point out that no amount of philanthropy she could do can match the contribution of her core contribution:  a great product that helps save millions of lives and improve millions of others.  The economic footprint of Epic Systems probably reaches to $100 billion or more in terms of both local and global impact.  She makes the largest difference from her core, from her vision, from her work.

Faulkner is truly a scientist who happens to run a major corporation. She also had the good sense to find (and learn to trust) an Execution Master, Carl Dvorak, who has been with her since 1987. As such, she may be a wonderful role model for Vision Masters everywhere who prefer to give their lives to their visions, partner with a trusted Execution Master so they can focus on the grand vision, and in her case anyway, recognizing that they need not also try to be a celebrity.  With or without being a celebrity, having an Execution Master by her side has been key to her Vision Mastery.

That’s not to say Faulkner is a loner, or awkward in communication.  She’s known for being fun-loving, routinely speaks to groups numbering in the thousands, has created and communicated a corporate culture marked by creativity along with a constant demand to exceed expectations.  She’s sociable, just not driven to notoriety.  But let’s drill down on this culture she’s created.

Ms. Faulkner does share certain traits with her more famous colleagues like Gates, Jobs and Musk. Practicing what I’ve called “Mission Impossible” leadership, she routinely pushes employees to break through their own limited thinking to find solutions. This style of leadership requires a thick skin as it generates resentment.  I’m beginning to believe its a core Vision Mastery skill.

Though similar, Faulkner is not a copy of Gates, Jobs or Musk.  Her unique brand of Mission Impossible leadership is grounded in the belief that “math is truth and computer science is what works.” In other words, every problem can be solved by logic. Math is a reliable language for that solution. Applied technology enables us to translate math into things that solve the problem. But this is just her spin on Mission Impossible leadership.  Musk, for example, would probably state that physics is the truth.  What’s similar is that both return to first principles rather than rely upon other people’s ideas.  All Vision Masters seem to enjoy and excel at independent thinking.

Also, like other Vision Masters, Faulkner has a low tolerance for problem-focused approaches, strongly preferring solution-focused approaches that ignore current barriers. She holds to a single-minded determination to find the needed answer to the conundrum at hand and expects her team to do the same, whatever it takes. Perhaps that why colleagues and co-workers have described working for Faulkner as akin to walking on the sun.  It may not be fun all the time, but it does keep you high-stepping.

Faulkner prefers to think of working with her as traveling the Yellow Brick Road (as a more iconic “Judy” once did in the Wizard of Oz) until you find what you’re seeking. As she put it in a recent interview in the Capitol Times newspaper:

“I always think of it as the Yellow Brick Road. I can see the Yellow Brick Road. I know how to step down it and I don’t want to go off of it. I can see it. And I think for the others maybe they can see it, but they question it. They say, ‘Is it really the Yellow Brick Road?’ But they probably know it is.”

Spoken like a true Vision Master.

You, like Faulkner, can see your Yellow Brick Road. You, like Faulkner, have a single-minded focus and determination to travel the road until you find your Oz. One of your primary jobs is to find that “sweet spot” between shoving and inspiring your team along the road with you, for the good of all stakeholders. Like Faulkner, trust your logic. Hold to your single-minded vision, even if you’re called stubborn.  Return to first principles and keep an independent mind, as few others will.  Because the fact is that you, the Vision Master, are the keeper of that flame. It is your most important role, what you’re best suited for, what you are uniquely capable of doing, what inspires the world, what drives you onward with or without the celebrity and fanfare.  If you are a Vision Master or Vision Master-in-training, she’s a model to follow.

As for Faulkner’s results, she’s built a multi-billion-dollar company without ever having gone public, acquired a competitor or strategic partner, completed a merger, sold her company (both Microsoft and Apple have courted her), diluted her vision or incorporated any other company’s technology into the Epic product. At 75, she is master of her domain, focused on creating one global health care information system with every record and all our combined knowledge accessible from one point. Helping people get well or stay well through applied computer science remains her constant vision. Judy Faulkner is truly an “Epic” leader . . . yet you probably never heard of her before today.

And she’d probably be embarrassed by this blog.

Key Takeaways:

  • Vision Mastery is not only the province of men — more women are emerging as Vision Masters
  • A Vision Master can be effective and highly successful without courting celebrity status or being acquired 
  • Successful Vision Masters like Judy Faulkner are passionately attached to their vision of what could be and why it’s important
  • Successful Vision Masters partner with and learn to trust a qualified Execution Master
  • Many successful Vision Masters, like Gates, Musk, Jobs and, yes Faulkner, practice “Mission Impossible” leadership which seeks to drive constant innovation through a combination of pushing and inspiring people to achieve more than they thought they could — often in less time than they thought
  • As a Vision Master, your most important roles are remaining true to your vision and communicating your vision to all stakeholders to inspire everyone to be fully invested in making it real
  • Your vision is your own Yellow Brick Road — stay on it until you find your Oz