As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Coker.
Kevin Coker is a company founder, CEO, board director, angel investor, and advisor. As Co-Founder and CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, a clinical research and regulatory agency for the emerging biotech and medical device industry, Mr. Coker works with inventors to bring the new class of rising stars in drugs, devices, diagnostics, and digital health from concept to market.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path? Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Who goes to law school with the intent of working in the medical industry? I hope not many. It’s not a defined track for sure. I do find that a lot of people in my industry did not necessarily intend to be here. They started out doing one thing and then sort of found themselves here. These are my people. My story can probably be summed up, more or less, during a three-month summer stent 20 years ago.
The summer of 2000, after my second year in law school, while most everyone was working at law firms, I traveled to Uganda on a “fellowship.” Fellowship makes it sound formal. Even competitive and well-planned. Essentially, I wrote to the law school and told them that I was going to use my legal training to help with international crisis law. I was the first JD/MPH candidate the school ever had. I applied for the fellowship and convinced people how smart I was, organized and diligent. I was anything but.
I flew to Uganda without having made one single contact with anyone in the country. Before I left, I had found a brochure at the law school from the International Law Institute (ILI). It was dark maroon with black text and appeared ominous and important. It discussed their involvement with several African Nations that, at that time, were suing pharmaceutical companies for access to antiretroviral drugs. AIDS was rampant and killing 1 in 4 Africans. I was deeply moved by the situation and, like a kid with a glass of water running straight at the wildfire, I went.
I dropped by the ILI and introduced myself. It actually took several “drop ins.” No one was there for days. Finally, I told the director that tried to get me to come back next week how smart, organized and motivated I was to help. I implied how lucky they were to have me. When I convinced them that they didn’t have to pay me anything or provide me with a computer, that seemed to seal the deal. So, in the mornings I did research and wrote research briefs and position papers that would ultimately become part of amicus briefs. Some might call this entrepreneurialism. I hope not. It was not that well thought out.
I lived in a small guest house on the University of Makerere Medical School Campus. My university had a significant presence there. After finishing my day job at ILI, I would clock-in at the TB clinic around 2 pm. I used the same strategy that I employed at ILI to work there. The clinic was attempting to surveil and identify HIV patients by proxy. At that time, and still today, there was a significant stigma attached to identifying as having HIV, so most people would claim they were suffering from TB to gain access to health care and medicine. After my second job at the TB clinic would end around 7 pm, I would eat and wander the campus. One evening I found myself walking around the north clinic grounds. I met a nun, Sister Ruth, who helped care for the patients at night. At that time there was no building large enough to care for the hundreds of patients that came to seek relief, so the clinic was essentially a large tent pitched on red earth. Patients laid like matchsticks in a box, all suffering from incredible pain. At night, you could hear the low groan from their combined suffering. Sister Ruth recruited me to help her, and the other nuns wash the patients’ feet. It was essentially the only distraction and relief they got. She reminded me of the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. She said, and I remember, “they will have no part with you, nor you with them unless you wash their feet.” I believe she was quoting Jesus and Peter’s conversation at the Passover Festival. It didn’t end to well for him, I recall.
It was mortifying. I only wanted to help from a safe distance. I even traveled with a camera with a very long lens, so I didn’t have to get too close. In a period of 15 seconds, I encountered the most significant “flight” response my nervous system had ever been presented to date. She could tell I was scared but showed me how they did it…in a safe way. Gently, to clean, disinfect, then massage. It was emotional. I cried myself to sleep the first night. Over the coming weeks and months, it was the job I looked forward to the most. We served as many patients as we could. Sometimes the nuns would force me to leave as they knew I had other work when the sun rose in a few hours. The purpose, humanity, and humility were raw. For the last 20 years, I’ve been trying to get that feeling back.
Although I practiced law for several years as an Asst. State Attorney General, I eventually found my way back to a hospital where I learned to run a Phase I Research Unit. From there, I took on a large oncology practice, then a national research program for US Oncology/McKesson. My company now researches the drugs, diagnostics, and medical devices for the new emerging stars of life science. Inventions of today to hopefully help tomorrow. It doesn’t go without notice that I am writing this 20 years later during a different pandemic. I have more than a glass of water this time. Everything I have done to get to where I am at today has been influenced by that summer spent in 2000.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Well, it wasn’t directly related to my company per se, but I was asked to be a business mentor and ultimately on the Board of Directors for a technology company setting out to manufacture a 3-D organ. That’s pretty been interesting to say the least. This company has the potential to be one of the most important companies in health care.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Previously, while I worked as the vice president of research for US Oncology, I was occasionally asked to summarize results at the beginning or end of a conference. I was on stage giving the results of several global Ph3 breast cancer trials, and I kept referring to those studies summarily as the “large breast” trials (100s of patients). I also subconsciously adopted the converse for a few Phase 1 and 2 trials (handfuls of patients) as small breast trials. There were maybe 700–1,000 in the audience. I had committed to coming in with a lot of energy that morning. I was red-faced with passion to discuss the data. After mentioning the results from big breast trials at the video screen for the fourth time, I could hear a man cracking in the audience. It sounded like a tree branch cracking. Then a small group of giggles. What the hell was going on? It suddenly hit me on stage. The court jester in front of polite royalty.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are several women. My mother for not taking me back to the hospital shortly after I was born. I was adopted. She was within the warranty/exchange period. Jimmy Lou Fisher, Arkansas State Treasurer (longest standing) and gubernatorial candidate. She gave me four breaks in my life: first job cleaning her vault for two weeks; first real job after summer; first job out of college; first job out of law school. Dana Gaddy Kurten, PhD. Dana was as close to a mentor as I ever had. She helped me become the best lab manager I could be. She should have fired me several times, but she taught me a lot about molecular biology and how to get people to do things. I think we call that “influence” colloquially today. Wendy Kelly, my boss at the Attorney General’s office. And then there is Larry Lawson. I’ve been fortunate enough to find a guy that believes in my vision to not only create a great company, but to change Houston into a life science hub.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Being a leader is all about gaining information to make decisions that align with your strategy and constantly creating momentum within the company. I believe the height to which you ascend is inversely proportional to the chance that you’ll have the right answer for a given topic. If I surrounded myself by people that looked like me and thought like me, I would be destined for failure. Not to mention it would be hilarious to see. Group think happens in sameness. Diversity challenges this at its core and is crucial to running a successful business.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Diversity is an incredibly important trait that someone brings to your company. Different life experiences, different viewpoints…it’s all an opportunity to learn, understand, and create better. I am proud of how diverse Proxima is across all levels of the company, and to be honest, it’s happened organically. Our junior staff continues to impress me, and we have promoted them as they grow. This strategy has worked for us, and in my opinion, is a better solution than recognizing you have an issue with diversity and trying to solve the problem with a hire, particularly at a higher level.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A lot of my job (especially at a growing company) is trying to opt out of decisions, work, discussions that I don’t need to be a part of. I remember a good friend of mine, Bryan Haardt, once asked me if I knew what my most important asset was. After I rambled on for five minutes, he interrupted me and said, “Time brother… time…. make good use of it.” So, a lot of my job is delegating. It’s a hard thing to do, especially when you start the business with one other person and hire organically.
Additionally, I’m the only one in my organization that has the top view. So, I’m the one that has to figure out how to maximize my vantage point for the good of the company, our clients, and the team. That often involves larger strategy. So, I spend less and less time on day-to-day activities and a significantly growing portion of my time on things that will build our future.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
First one is that you need an MBA. Most of the Fortune 100 CEOs have an MBA. I believe. I’ve known a lot of MBAs and have been part of a lot of those classes. There is very little that an MBA will help you with. I’m not saying it is an invaluable degree, quite the contrary, but I just know it won’t help you become a great CEO.
I think CEOs are credited with saying “No” a lot. I’m usually trying to find ways to say “yes” most of the time. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. My primary role as CEO is to set the vision for the organization, then empower my team with the tools and resources they need to make it happen. Not all decisions have to run through me. If I have done a good job of explaining our vision and what it takes to get there, many decisions can be made without my input. A common myth is that everything lies upon the shoulders of the CEO. Train your team well and they will grow your company in the right direction.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
If I hadn’t trained my leadership team well, I’d say this would be a lot of running around like a chicken with its head cut off. But since they know my vision for the company, and they have been alongside me as we built the culture, I would say the biggest difference is the security and enjoyment of not having to be the only one with ideas on how to grow, market, and communicate with our various audiences. This is where diversity really begins to shine. As each team member is allowed to bring their excellence to their job, the flow of business runs smoothly, and we’ve enjoyed tremendous growth because of this. I don’t have to be the only talking head or the only voice of the company. I have many experts I can lean on for a variety of expertise, and this allows me to continue to build a clear path for the vision we are creating.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean? That family?
Becoming a company leader is not for the faint of heart. When your results depend on the work of others, you need to like to work with people. You need to be able to influence your team without manipulation, micromanagement, and negativity. Executives are visionaries who are great influencers because they’re excited about the mission. If you just want to come in, do your work, keep your head down, and not engage with people, executive leadership is not for you. And that is fine. We need good workers at every level. Know your strengths and understand your weaknesses. Not everyone has the temperament to lead a team. Personal lives become a bit of your business when those lives cause disruption in the workflow. Great leaders understand the balance between their workload — their own personal lives — and those of their team. They need to be able to delegate as well as and understand who on the team can cover for another when they get called out of the office or are needed on another project. They need to be able to see the team as a whole and the sum of its parts. If you don’t have the patience for people, don’t get into management. Management is more about people and delivering the work than you likely consider when you’re simply salivating for the VP or C-Suite title.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
The key to our success, in my opinion, is one based on respect and opportunity. You have to respect the people you work with. You have to also give them opportunity. I strongly believe in giving “stretch assignments” — those that may be out of reach, or out of the norm, for this person’s skills, but that allows growth in ways they never knew they had in them. I also believe in prioritizing failures appropriately. Give your team the ability to fail without judgement, and they will bring their best to work each day. Use failures as learning opportunities and encourage conversation around failures — again, without judgement — to see which processes need to be improved to ensure great safety and success in the future. Growth doesn’t happen without this.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Well, I hope the research companies that I’ve been responsible for have brought better health care products to market and improved the lives of many. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed seeing others that I’ve worked with also attain success. At every company I’ve ever worked for, including when I was a lab tech in my twenties, I always invested a lot in the intern program. I believe in giving to get. Teach interns your own healthy business morals, and they will play a role in l creating a healthier business environment everywhere.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I wish someone would have told me that it you don’t have to be perfect at this job. You do want to be right more than you are wrong, to be sure, but making mistakes is a natural part of creating something. I’m thinking back to just last week. I could have managed my time better. In hindsight, I would have made a couple of decisions differently, had I thought about them longer.
I wish someone would have told me that it’s okay to own mistakes. Having come up through the ranks as an executive at a large company, I observed that those individuals that had the most, were often the ones that directed attention to others when things went wrong. There’s a great book called, Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. I bought it for my boss at a former company as a parting gift. I hope he read it.
I wish someone would have told me that decision-making and negotiation are things that you can improve on if you work at them. I came to this later in life like a lot of things. One of my employees, Joel Reid, bought me a book a couple of years ago, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Khaneman. It should be one of those required reading books to participate in the human race. I believe it’s helped me gut check my System 1 several times when I was clearly dealing with a System 2 problem. Some of you know what I’m talking about.
I wish someone would have told me to watch over personal relationships more. Being a CEO is a lonely thing, even with the best management team and employees. Working all the time is not healthy, and it breeds more isolation and a resentful culture that could make others feel they need to do the same to fit it. It comes at great sacrifice, mostly to things that you take for granted.
I wish someone would have taught me how to be better at self-promotion. It’s something that is anathema to me. I take my work seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously. Something I’ll have to continuously work on, I guess.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My father grew up on a farm. He was literally a son of a sharecropper. He has a very strong work ethic and is a natural problem solver. I did not come by this naturally, and I had to work at it. If I were capable enough to do anything, I’d sponsor internships where children and young adults didn’t learn a skill or a piece of technology, but rather worked fields and took care of livestock. They’d hopefully learn to work hard, be tired at the end of the day, and learn to depend on each other. Not to mention, they’d see influence in a whole new way. Those animals can teach you a thing or two.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” — Alex Touring
I think about this when I’m screening candidates and interviewing people for positions. When I worked at larger companies, we mainly recruited employees by the schools they attended, or the degrees behind their name. I knew it then, but certainly as I’ve started several businesses myself — this is a terrible way to find talent. You must scout people like a coach scouts an athlete. It’s the subtle things that often make the difference.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Umm… Oprah. But if she’s busy I wouldn’t mind hanging out with Eric Topol for a few hours. I enjoy his Op-Eds and almost met him through a mutual friend once, Dr. Dan von Hoff.