The Theranos Story—Lessons Learned

Elizabeth Holmes is a good storyteller.

She is, after all, a marketing genius. And, marketers are good storytellers. They have to be. It’s their job to paint the vision of a brand and tell the story of the functional and emotional benefits of their product or service. They must translate information into effective communications for consumers, as well as internal publics including the staff and board.

Storytelling in marketing, however, is only as good as the facts behind the narrative … a lesson Ms. Holmes was forced to learn too late. In our marketing executive search practice, companies come to us because they may not know how to source and evaluate executive marketing talent. As a team of former marketers who have done the job, we have the distinct ability to listen to the story, then drill down into a candidate’s experience and skills to ensure that their marketing acumen and background are a fit for our client. It’s a unique and fundamental differentiator for us in the marketing executive search industry.

Marketing is an esoteric domain. It can be difficult to determine the unique balance of qualifications required. What happens if the people interviewing a marketing executive don’t have backgrounds in actual marketing? They hear a lot of stories about an individual’s self-described successes, which may or may not have much substance, and then gauge these against the hard information included on a resume. Most importantly, they have to put it all into context as it relates to their particular company’s needs. It’s a lot. Don’t risk making a critical decision based on “fit and feel,” rather than actual marketing expertise.

At MarketPro, we know that a successful CMO at one company doesn’t necessarily translate to a match for our client. Every company’s needs and structure are unique. The role of a marketing executive at a B2B SaaS company, for instance, is not the same as a CMO at a B2C—nor is working for a privately held company versus public or PE/VC backed businesses. The dynamics are different. It’s important to understand the skills needed to move a business forward and which skills apply from one experience to the next.

At MarketPro, our whole team is made up of actual marketers. We know these nuances because we have experienced them first-hand. We can distinguish “A” players from those who may just be good storytellers.

Can hiring managers, boards, CEOs and others be “duped” into thinking they are hiring the right talent because the candidate was personable and “seemed” to have the requisite skills?

Yes, they can.

Not being able to properly evaluate talent can be disastrous for your company. Back to the story of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of one-time multibillion-dollar healthcare company Theranosyou may be familiar with her rise and fall, as her story has been heavily covered by the media, including an HBO documentary, 60 Minutes feature and the current limited series airing on Hulu.

Based on her articulation of the business’s vision, its mission-based purpose and her charisma, she was able to build a formidable company. She is a GREAT storyteller, and that skill enabled her to put together an influential board and heavy-hitter investors.

She knew how to build a brand, both for the company and herself. She conducted Ted Talks, was interviewed by former president Bill Clinton and was endorsed by the elite on her way to becoming the youngest self-made billionaire in the world.

But, Elizabeth Holmes had problem.

Her breakthrough medical device didn’t work. It was a sham. A fake. She wouldn’t let anyone in her circle of influence knowledgeably question or dig deep into her claims. And once she had some influential—if medically unqualified—board members and investors, “wisdom of the crowd” took over as others wanted to be associated with this new “breakthrough” product. Holmes was able to sell a vision and created a demand for something people didn’t want to miss out on.

What is so intriguing about this story? It was her ability to dupe investors, the public, the news media … basically everyone. Those who did raise doubts were systematically silenced through bullying tactics or simply paid off. She deliberately surrounded herself with people who couldn’t or wouldn’t dispute her claims or expose her shortcomings. And it almost worked—except for the courage and actions of a single whistleblower. Where were the fact checkers? The Vetters? The ones in place had no medical expertise and clearly weren’t qualified for the job.

The victims were many. From healthcare patients who received incorrect results, to employees, investors and others, the cost was incalculable.

Her “story” was credible. Her reality was not.

Similarly, when a marketing executive is ill-equipped to navigate the job and move a business forward, there are many victims, as well as widespread, long-term ramifications that might not be realized for quite some time.

If the right medical experts had been involved in the early stages of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes’ story could not have duped everyone, and she wouldn’t be facing jail time today.

So, when it’s time for your key marketing hire, it’s important to identify the right set of skills for the challenge at hand. It’s equally important to ensure that a candidate has the right leadership qualities, culture fit and depth of executive presence—a complex combination of traits not always discernible by CEOs or even human resource experts.

How can you prevent a mistake that could cost your company untold amounts of time and money? Realize when it’s time to call in the qualified power elite—professionals with decades of experience in marketing, executive leadership and the nuances of culture fit at the highest levels. Not every company possesses the internal resources to source and vet elite marketing talent. A conversation with the pros at MarketPro is the first step to writing your story’s happy ending.

Author: Rob Collins

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