Very few leaders have done what Kevin Conroy has done during his tenure as CEO of Exact Sciences; create a life sciences company with a market cap of $15 billion from the ground up. Exact Sciences is a relatively new player in the modern healthcare ecosystem, delivering uncommon growth.

In our previous blog post, we defined the characteristics that drive uncommon growth. They are customer experience-centric, building exceptional brands, mastering demand-generating capabilities and unleashing the talent of their people. Additionally, we shared the archetypes of evolved healthcare enterprises that we are seeing emerge across the healthcare ecosystem.

3 Archetypes of Evolved Enterprises:

  1. Creators: organizations that start as evolved healthcare enterprises, typically in the last 20 years and are digitally native, and synonymous with start-ups.
  2. Transformers: traditional healthcare organizations seeking to transform and adopt traits of modern evolved healthcare enterprises.
  3. Invaders: proven evolved enterprises outside of the healthcare industry that are moving in, often grabbing headlines – such as Amazon, Apple and Google.

Creating an Evolved Healthcare Enterprise

While Exact Sciences was founded over twenty years ago and is not a young start-up, the company in its current form began in 2009, when Kevin Conroy took over as CEO. Kevin acknowledges that Exact Sciences “shares many traits with the creator archetype” and highlighted two other qualities we frequently see with creators – being hyper-focused on a purpose and starting with people.

“We wanted to build a company that we’d want to work at and where people want to come to work every day,” said Kevin. “That meant creating a place where people come to solve big problems that help a lot of people – and for us, that challenge was earlier cancer detection.”

This mindset is personified in Exact Sciences mission: “We are committed to using our proven expertise and determination to change lives by detecting cancer earlier. We deliver life-changing innovations to give people the confidence to make more effective decisions.”

3 Priorities for Achieving Success in a New Healthcare Ecosystem

In our conversation Kevin identified three of the aspects that define an evolved healthcare enterprise and explained why he believes Exact Science has been successful in the new healthcare ecosystem: culture, experience and execution.

Build a Culture That Embraces Failure

“When it’s about achieving the objective and when the teams are empowered, management doesn’t need to get in the way or overreact to failure.”

Culture is a natural advantage for most creators. They tend to be smaller, and culture is easier to influence and manage at that scale. As organizations grow, culture becomes increasingly difficult to manage, and it grows in importance. Culture left unattended will begin to hinder an organization’s ability to grow.

In 2009, Exact Sciences was a small organization. Kevin reminisced that, “Our first holiday party was at my house in my kitchen.” While the organization now has a market cap of over $15 billion, his view on culture remains true to what he believes in– align on a purpose, delegate and empower. “At the core we wanted to solve a big problem – earlier cancer detection. We intentionally created and continue to encourage an environment where people can give their best,” explained Kevin. “Try, fail, try again. Be action oriented. And be valued by the organization. That’s how we solve the big problems.”

Many companies fail to walk-the-talk with regards to embracing failure. Kevin, on the other hand, leans into failure. “When it’s about achieving the objective and when the teams are empowered, management doesn’t need to get in the way or overreact to failure,” he said. “If it gets done on time and under budget, it doesn’t matter how many times the team may have failed along the journey. Anyone can call meetings with the management team. There is no shame if more time or money is needed. There is only shame if you fail to identify the need and communicate it.”

Consumer Experience and Clinical Outcomes are Interrelated

“The Cologuard experience is as important to its success as the science.”

Colon cancer is the #2 cancer killer in the US. One might think that providing accurate, noninvasive detection for it would be immediately adopted. While Cologuard continues to be well received, Exact Sciences still had to overcome people’s natural behavioral tendencies to dismiss or avoid doing the test. “We learned that getting people to complete a screening test is hard, as many people needed to be reminded,” Kevin said. “Through critical patient insights, we figured out that we needed to pair a service with Cologuard to remind people to take the test. Adding this service doubled the likelihood of people completing the test.”

Too many healthcare organizations don’t recognize that the consumer experience and clinical outcomes are highly interrelated. Kevin will be the first to highlight that, “The Cologuard experience is as important to its success as the science.” You will see that one-two punch in all Exact Sciences communications. They pride themselves in service and equally value both their science and service teams.

Set Clear Priorities That Optimize Execution

“We set three priorities every year … I send an email out weekly that touches on those.”

Don’t let the frantic growth mislead you into thinking that Exact Sciences isn’t focused. It’s the opposite. In every annual report, Conroy and his team set three priorities and clearly communicate them.“We tie our bonuses to achieving those priorities,” explained Kevin. “I send an email out weekly that touches on those priorities to communicate progress and every quarter we hold meetings with the entire company– to ask questions, throw out ideas and raise concerns. It’s an active dialogue and an opportunity to communicate and ensure everyone is clear on their role and that we’re doing everything we can to deliver on those priorities.”

Scrappiness and fast-pace are frequently associated with start-ups. Creators with clear priorities, aligned with employees’ everyday goals are the truly successful ones. The long-term focus is particularly important in healthcare as innovation takes longer and requires more diligence. “The challenge for many start-ups is they do not have the patience to wait ten years for impact,” explained Kevin. “You really need to stick it out and not even think about quitting. We cannot bring the software culture of ‘fake it until you make it’ because this is healthcare and affects people’s lives. We need to do things the right way, even in the face of feeling like it’s the hard way.”

Final Thoughts

As we continue to explore other evolved healthcare enterprise archetypes in this series, Kevin’s approach to running Exact Sciences highlights several strengths the “creator” archetype possesses. It has the in-depth appreciation for healthcare and a diligence in winning in that particular industry that many “Invaders” struggle with. And there is a great deal of delegation, empowerment and focus-on-the-objective (not just the execution) that “transformers” are still trying to master. On top of this, Exact Sciences recognizes that uncommon growth is powered from internal culture and that organizations must go beyond being customer-focused to customer-experience focused.