What Verb Surgical's CEO and Other Medtech Execs Look for in Hiring

How does a medical device company—whether decades-old, a new venture, or a combined merger—create its own culture? These well-known executives think that company culture matters, especially when the device business gets tough.

Marie Thibault

Three highly-experience medical device executives from different areas of the industry all agree on one main tenet: company culture is important and can't be forced. Having a bond and shared beliefs with coworkers can make all the difference in a company's success, they said.

"I think it's when business get tough—and it will—and funding begins to dry up—and it does—it's the commonality of either your culture or the type of people that you've brought in that gets you through that hard time," said Rick Packer, who led ZOLL Medical for many years before becoming chairman last month.

Executives, including Scott Huennekens, president and CEO of Verb Surgical, and Daniel Moore, board chairman of LivaNova, discussed corporate culture last week at the 2016 Medical Device Manufacturers Association (MDMA) annual meeting in Washington, DC. The leaders have experience at small companies, large joint ventures, and merged companies, giving them a unique perspective on how corporate culture develops. 

A Blank Slate

Huennekens, formerly president and CEO of Volcano Corporation, which was acquired by Philips in 2015, now heads Verb Surgical, the new surgical robotics company started by Verily (Google Life Sciences) and Johnson & Johnson.

Even though he was the first employee at the new firm, he pointed out that he can't determine the culture alone. "You can't, as employee number one, CEO, come in and say, 'This is our culture,' and write it all down. I think people have to own the culture,"   Huennekens, who is also MDMA chairman.

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While Huennekens said the guiding philosophy at Verb Surgical is always the patient and innovation, just as it was at Volcano, the new venture is combining cultural elements from its well-known parents. "You've got this famous credo at JNJ, and you've got this famous culture of 'do no evil' and the ten things that Google believes in," he said. 

Still, the titles and positions of leaders from both companies don't have any sway, at least when it comes to Verb's culture, Huennekens said. He recounted that at the first leadership team meeting with representatives from both companies, he had everyone put their business card into a hat—"the Google guys didn't have business cards, so they had to write it down . . ." As soon as everyone had thrown in their card, he turned around the dumped the cards into the trash. "I said, 'We're just going to have to be one team if this is going to work. It doesn't matter what your business card says. We're in this one project together,'" Huennekens explained.

More Similarities Than Differences in a Merger

Moore was president and CEO of Cyberonics before becoming board chairman at LivaNova, which was created by the merger of Milan, Italy-based Sorin and Houston, TX-based Cyberonics in 2015. He told the MDMA audience that at the time of the merger, people asked him how an Italian company and a Texas company fit together. In reality, the two companies had many similarities, he said. 

"Really, when the two CEOs got together and started talking about our businesses and our philosophies, both of us . . . were investing in our core businesses, we were paying down debt, we were becoming profitable, and while doing all that we were still investing in other areas. So what appears to be an Italian company and a Texas company, I could argue were much more similar," Moore said. 

New Hires Matter

Packer recounted a time when sales of LifeVest, a ZOLL product, were increasing rapidly. That success attracted many candidates for salesperson positions, some of whom "had nothing in common with how we thought about the world at ZOLL," he said. That realization led the company to redefine its salesforce recruiting process. It no longer mattered to ZOLL if a candidate had prior experience in cardiology or had relationships with doctors. "All we do is hire for attitude now," Packer said. 

Huennekens reiterated this point. He noted that Verb Surgical uses Google's hiring process to put "ability over experience" and look for key attributes like teamwork and being mission-driven. 

There are now 65 employees at Verb Surgical, Huennekens said, and the company plans to hire many more people in the coming months. Setting the right tone among these early employees is key to future success, he said. "That's putting a lot of people together really fast. We are taking the time to focus a little more on culture than maybe we normally would just to make sure everybody is involved and part of creating what it is, defining it. We talk about it as 'our company,'" he said.

Of course, hires for different departments may bring in different subcultures—the R&D team can't be expected to see the world the same way as the sales force, Moore pointed out. But, there needs to be an overarching similarity. "The commonality was, people wanted to compete, they were passionate about what they did, they wanted to win," he explained. 

Medtech executives, take heed: If you're neglecting your corporate culture, "other people are going to define that culture for you, probably amid chaos," Moore said.

Marie Thibault is the associate editor at MD+DI. Reach her at marie.thibault@ubm.com and on Twitter@medtechmarie.

[Image courtesy of FRANKY242/FREEDIGITALPHOTOS.NET.]