A Silicon Valley Icon Shares His Lessons for Team Building

by | Jan 1, 2017 | Education, Mentoring, Thought Leadership

You can’t do it alone. No one knows that better than Allan Will, who credits teamwork with much of his success. With a remarkable track record of founding, funding, running, building and selling medical device companies, Allan has spent the last 31 years of his career as CEO of various Bay-Area venture-backed startups and has co-founded 11 companies, including The Foundry, Ardian, Evalve and Concentric Medical.

During our recent educational seminar on Team and Organizational Development, he shared his insights on how to build successful teams, a privilege for our startups, graduates, interns and staff to hear from one of the most successful medical technology entrepreneurs and VCs in the industry and a mentor to many CEOs and senior executives. An inventor on over 30 patents, he currently serves as CEO of EBR Systems, chairman of the boards of Fractyl Labs and Setpoint Medical and sits on the board of directors of the Fogarty Institute.

His entrepreneurial passion began as CEO of a medical device startup, Devices for Vascular Intervention (DVI), joining when the company had 16 employees and growing it to more than 600 when he left eight years later. His roots with Dr. Fogarty go deep, with Dr. Fogarty serving on his board at DVI over that period of time. Allan then joined AneuRx, a company founded by Dr. Fogarty to develop stent grafts for aortic aneurysms. After selling AneuRx to Medtronic, Allan conceived and launched The Foundry, one of medtech’s most successful incubators. While CEO and chairman of The Foundry, he elected to move into venture capital to facilitate funding of Foundry companies. Allan joined St Paul Venture Capital and subsequently Split Rock Partners, a venture capital firm focused on medical devices.

Allan’s extensive experience in working in small and large companies as well as on the VC side made him a perfect candidate for our audience as they seek to learn the intricacies of building strong teams and successful companies.

Q. To what do you attribute your ability to develop leaders into CEOs?
A. There are two key factors: whom you attract and how you operate within the company. There were between 20 and 30 medical device CEOs who came out of AneuRx and DVI, and I believe it’s because these companies had such a positive work environment with a culture that attracted that kind of committed talent.

There are all kinds of leaders and cultures in businesses. You can be very directive and be successful. Alternatively, some companies are almost cult-like in how they grow and follow a charismatic leader. I happen to believe that a collaborative leadership style is a more powerful way to lead. No one has all the answers – the more you create a team that leads together, the better off you will be. Since I was early in my career when I was CEO at DVI, I recognized that I needed people around me who were very capable.

I am also a strong believer in giving and receiving feedback – frequently and effectively from the top down. I openly shared feedback I’d received on my management style with the entire company and discussed our future direction as well as how I was going to change. Being open and showing that vulnerability allows people to know who you are and builds their trust in you as a leader.

Q. What is your advice for early-stage companies — how do they develop that level of open conversation and communication to address tough topics?
A. It starts with who you are. People are most comfortable accepting feedback if they know it comes from a place of compassion, caring and desire to make them successful. The more confidence they have in that, the more receptive they are going to be because they will realize that the feedback is coming from the right place to improve their performance. In turn, that will make them better team members and ultimately lead to a more successful company.

Q. How do you manage growth from 16 to 600 employees?
A. Again, it goes back to the need to create a powerful culture. When DVI was acquired and became a larger company, the culture began changing, and I knew we needed to go back to focusing on the patient. When we were just a small company of 16 people, we knew the names of the patients we treated, which blood vessels we were working on, the day of the treatment and the results for each individual patient. It was very clear that every catheter was a patient and every patient had a family. We needed to bring back the experience of looking at every box that came off the manufacturing floor as representative of a patient whom we were helping and reinforcing that each employee had a role in the successful treatment of that patient.

We kicked off the process with a T-shirt design contest that had the theme, “Taking the patient to heart.” This reinforced to each employee that what they were doing was very important beyond building a successful company: Their success was based on the patients’ health, their lives and their families.

Q. How have things changed from when you were at DVI to now, as CEO of EBR?
A. Today, fundraising takes so much time that CEOs struggle to lead in a way that creates culture. Since I joined EBR as CEO, I have been so involved in fundraising that it has been more challenging to dedicate adequate focus on building the culture. I’ve been very lucky that there was a strong team in place prior to me joining the company.

One of the things that has been most rewarding in my career, besides creating the types of devices that we have developed, is that I’ve been so fortunate to have created cultures that foster careers by providing opportunities. There isn’t a better job on earth – bringing important healthcare products forward while simultaneously helping employees become the best they can be. I am looking forward to doing that at EBR.

Q. What are the most important priorities for newer CEOs to not only build their companies but also grow and develop personally?
A. You have to be true to yourself and consistent with your ethics, style and beliefs. Know yourself and your skills and think about how they can help you lead. You have to be open to improving, and the best way is to engage the people around you to help you grow. They can provide valuable feedback, but you have to create an environment where they know you are willing to hear it and act on it.

Q. What are some best practices for selecting talent? And how much of their success is innate and how much is coached?
A. Picking people is a big challenge, but it gets easier as your career progresses because you build a network. You can only go so far when you don’t know who the person is and that’s where your network comes in because you can reach out to those who have worked with the candidates before and can help assess them from experience.

On the question as to whether leaders are born or made – I think it’s both, a combination really. Everyone has a different leadership style, and there’s not one specific background that leads to being a successful CEO. While some of it might be about who you are and where you come from, a lot of it also comes by learning from others – both good and bad lessons.

Q. What do you wish you knew about VCs when you were first starting out?
A. I learned that VCs are not risk takers – their job is to make an investment and then eliminate as many risks as possible, which means they are going to focus on what could go wrong. The better you can be at addressing those concerns from the start, the better you will be at fundraising. It’s getting harder though, because now VCs, in general, know less about the industry than they used to, which makes it harder to raise money for products that require significant capital.

Q. How do you ultimately determine success?
A. Success comes from inside – who you are and what you care about. The most powerful measure of success in our industry is the patients we treat, the families we help and the career development we provide to our employees. When you make it all about the people – both the patients and your employees — revenue, profitability and success will follow.

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