May 22, 2023
Case Study

Biotechnology Marketing: As a marketer, it’s important to lead up, down, and side-to-side in companies — not just top-down (podcast episode #60)


On episode #60 of the How I Made It In Marketing podcast, I had an in-depth conversation with Karen Possemato, Chief Marketing Officer, Seer, about biotech startups, internal communication, and finding the opportunity in any situation.

Listen now to hear Possemato discuss return on marketing investment, customer relationship management, and authenticity.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

Biotechnology Marketing: As a marketer, it’s important to lead up, down, and side-to-side in companies — not just top-down (podcast episode #60)

The How I Made It In Marketing podcast is underwritten by MECLABS Institute, the parent organization of MarketingSherpa. To learn how MECLABS Services can help you get better business results from deeper customer understanding, visit

Given your role in the organization – maybe you’re a director, C-level, or even just a manager – you have certain positional authority. By virtue of your title, you can tell people to do things.

But if you only use your positional authority, how well will those things get done? Will they get done at all?

The best employees must perceive the value of what you want them to do, which is where our communication superpowers as a marketer are so helpful for business leadership as well.

And why I love one of the lessons from our next guest’s career, “As a marketer, it’s important to lead up, down, and side-to-side in companies — not just top-down.”

I talked to Karen Possemato, Chief Marketing Officer, Seer, on the latest episode of the How I Made It In Marketing podcast to hear the story behind that lesson, along with many more lesson-filled stories.

Possemato has grown her marketing team from four to 14 in two years (and it’s still growing).

Seer is a publicly traded company, listed on Nasdaq. The company achieved revenue of $15.5 million for the full year 2022. It grew revenue 134% and increased instruments shipped 129% year over year.

Listen to our conversation using this embedded player or click through to your preferred audio streaming service using the links below it.

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Google Podcasts

Stories (with lessons) about what she made in marketing

Some lessons from Possemato that emerged in our discussion:

As a marketer, it’s important to lead up, down, and side-to-side in companies — not just top-down.

When you are building a new brand, create a company-wide shared vision and make sure that you’re involving people across different departments. It’s important to bring people in. Don’t just sell upward to the CEO. When you build a brand, you are crafting an identity, an experience, and organizational behaviors. You need others to be excited about the vision, advocating for it, rather than pushing against the change. Aligning vision, culture and image is tantamount to a brand that is built to last.

One of the ways to connect with employees across the company is to emphasize the importance of the corporate mission and make it “personal.” At Illumina, Possemato’s team created conversations in the workplace to talk about the importance of genomics, in ways that mattered to people: through patient stories, employee stories, partner stories.

Marketing is a storytelling function – we are at the intersection of data and emotion, corporations and people, business and humanity. At Seer, when her team launches any big initiative at a company, they first help the company understand why they’re doing this project, get them engaged with the activity, tell stories about how it’s working, and show how each employee is integral to enhance and enable the initiative, and ultimately, why the mission matters.

No matter how big or small your company, it’s important to build a path to return on marketing investment (ROMI) from the get-go

In today’s world, management and the board are even more keen to see progress, contribution, and pay off (in terms of revenue impact) for marketing efforts. To start building this plan, Possemato learned these three steps are key:

  1. Critically assess what actions you’re taking and evaluate whether it’s worthwhile. Ask yourself: if I could only take on three tasks, would this action be in the top three?
  1. If you can't measure the impact of an action, consider its value and whether you should be taking this route. Is it strategic? Will you regret not having done it a year from now?
  2. Implementing a CRM early can help create, manage, and measure marketing efforts. At Seer, they are only in their second year of commercialization, and they’ve had to build an entire marketing organization from the ground up with a small team. Having the CRM in place early allowed them to gather data showing the direct impact marketing has on revenue, from interest to consideration to conversion.

Be authentic.

A lot of people, especially women, think they need to look or act a certain way to be a leader, but the best way is to be who you are, and bring that to work. People often think that to be an executive as a woman, you need to be stiff, uptight, sharp, cool – but that’s not who Possemato is. As CMO of Seer, she has made a point to be authentic, regardless of what people think a CMO is supposed to be.

She is a woman with a sense of humor, a friend who is empathetic, a mom, and she doesn’t turn these parts of her identity off when she walks into the office. She makes jokes and does funny things to get her coworkers to let down their guards; she emphasizes belonging and being a part of something. She brings that whole identity to work to make real connections, show that you can lead with authenticity and show her own vulnerability and humanity – so that others can see that it’s OK to do that.

Communication is key.

When Possemato was Chief of Staff at Illumina and needed to “wrangle” an executive team, she realized that she needed to build trust, communicate often, and provide meaningful structure. It was really a brilliant lesson for anyone in a busy team. People need to understand, track and internalize things to act on them.

Lessons (with stories) from people she collaborated with

Possemato also shared lessons she learned from the people she collaborated with.

Ask for forgiveness. Not for permission.

via Jay Flatley, the former CEO of Illumina

Early on in her career at Illumina, Possemato remembers one significant moment where she asked Flatley if he thought something was a good idea. Instead of answering her question, he told her, “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission.” She took that message to heart. At that time, Illumina was a young company with an unheard of mission: unlocking the power of the human genome.

When you are pursuing something bold, trying to do something unique, striving to build a company and achieve a vision, you can’t always ask for permission. Sometimes you just need to push the envelope. That’s how substantial change happens. Flatley was and is the king of knowing when to push the envelope and build something transformative, and she is lucky to have worked closely with him.

Dig deeper than the data to create a story that’s much more impactful and meaningful.

via Francis DeSouza, current CEO of Illumina

DeSouza taught Possemato to push past data points to find a story. He was always looking for more than just anecdotes and data points to show the validation and impact of Illumina’s technology, and this helped her learn how to more effectively communicate as an executive. Effective communication goes beyond the simple conveyance of info; dig deeper than the data to create a story that’s much more impactful and meaningful.

See the opportunity in any situation.

via Omid Farokhzad, CEO of Seer

Farohkzad taught Possemato to always see the opportunity in any situation. She remembers one time talking with him about optimism, and he told her, “When I look at a glass of water, I don’t see it as half full or half empty. I see the glass as full – half water and half air!” Instead of focusing on why he can’t do something, Farohkzad is an eternal optimist and driver who tirelessly works at finding a way to accomplish anything.

Related content mentioned in this episode

“Authenticity” vs. “Professionalism”: Should you be your authentic self in your brand’s content and marketing? Or must you adhere to certain strictures considered “professional” in your industry?

Customer-First Marketing: A conversation with Wharton, MarketingSherpa, and MECLABS Institute

The Hidden Upside of the COVID-19 Crisis for Brands and Marketers: 10 opportunities

About this podcast

This podcast is not about marketing – it is about the marketer. It draws its inspiration from the Flint McGlaughlin quote, “The key to transformative marketing is a transformed marketer” from the Become a Marketer-Philosopher: Create and optimize high-converting webpages free digital marketing course.

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Not ready for a listen yet? Interested in searching the conversation? No problem. Below is a rough transcript of our discussion.

Daniel Burstein: Given your role in the organization, maybe your director or C-level or even just a manager. You have certain positional afar by virtue of your title. You can tell people to do things pretty nice, huh? But if you only use your position authority, how well will those things really get done? Will they get done? And all the best employees must perceive the value of you want them to do of what you want them to do, which is where our communication superpowers as a marketer, they're so helpful for business leadership as well.

And why I love one of the lessons from our next guest career as a marketer, it's important to lead up down and side to side in companies, not just top down. Here to share the story behind that lesson, along with many more lesson filled stories is Karen Pace, the motto Chief marketing officer of Sphere. Thanks for joining us.

Karen Possemato: Karen Yeah, thanks for having me.

Daniel Burstein: Daniel All right. So let's take a quick look at your background, Bachelor's degree in biochemistry and cell biology, very, very smart. Lots more than me. I started you mentioned you started in the lab, wasn't right for you, and then you went on to be technical services specialist and technical writer working on product marketing for Thermo Fisher. Scientific grew in your career to senior product and market manager for High hygiene, VP of Corporate Marketing and Communications for Illumina and now you are the CMO at Seer.

At Seer, Karen has grown her team from 4 to 14 in the past two years and it is still growing and Seer is a publicly traded company listed on NASDAQ. The company achieved revenue of 15 and a half million dollars for the full year of 2022, and it grew revenue 134% and increase instrument shipped 129% year over year.

Congrats on that growth, Karen. Yeah, Can you give us a sense what is your day like as CMO at SEER?

Karen Possemato: Well, it's very busy. So Seer is an early stage company in the life sciences field, so we basically sell products to scientists around the world so that we can unlock, you know, what, what's going on with disease. So it's there's a lot going on. I could be spending time with customers, I could be spending time with my team, spending time as part of the executive team.

There's a lot of meetings and collaboration that go on, and I'm switching constantly, all day long from different topics. So I have to stay loaded up on my coffee and and stay flexible in my mindset.

Daniel Burstein: That monks have long live science.

Karen Possemato: Long live science got to love that.

Daniel Burstein: Nice. Okay, I want you to get along with marketing one next to it, though, so you can kind of go back and forth between the two. All right. Well, let's we'll see what we learn from your current role. But let's also unpack. We can learn from your career. The first half of the podcast, we talk about lessons we learned from the things you made, because that's something we get to do as marketers.

We get to make things. I've never been an auditor or podiatrist or something else, but I don't know if they leave work. At the end of the day, having made something, we make brands, we make campaigns, we make products. So your first lesson you mentioned as a marketer, it's important to lead up, down and side to side in companies, not just top down.

And I love that. I think one thing we overlook sometimes with marketers is we're so focused on communicating to an external customer, we forget that we should focus internally as well and communicate as well. So can you give us a sense of how you learned that lesson?

Karen Possemato: Yeah, well, you know, I have spent my career in high growth companies, so I'll start with that. Whether it was my first commercial role at in Trojan, which then became acquired later on by Thermo Fisher, or whether it was with Illumina, where I started the company was 300, 350 people. And when I when I left a few years ago, it was 10,000 people.

I mean, you having to bring people along I think has been an important theme in that journey. So, you know, whether you're advocating for a new product, whether you're building a brand or whether you're launching a campaign, you kind of you know, you're crafting an identity and experience, whether it's for the customer, the employee recruits, whoever it might be.

And, you know, it's it's really important to make sure that you're thinking in a multidimensional way in the organization, you know, really thinking to connect on all those levels, not just selling to executives, not just selling to customers, but selling to employees, partners, the community at large, you know, in in the field that I'm in, we're selling products that are going to actually cure cancer.

So try to understand what is going on inside of our biology that's driving those things. So connecting to that and selling across can really, I think, put put fuel in the engine, if you will, because then you have everybody leaning into what you're doing.

Daniel Burstein: Greg, can you give us an example You mentioned at Illumina you had to create conversations in the workplace around the importance of genomics. So I wouldn't even know how to do that. But can you give us a sense of like how you did that and what was a result and kind of what were you going after?

Karen Possemato: Yeah, you know, I think as we as we got larger at Illumina, it was about connecting employees across the company to the mission. So the mission was unlocking the power of the genome to improve human health. So Illumina is a company that's all about DNA and understanding the genome and how it impacts disease. So as we as we got larger, we had to think about how do I make that tangible to somebody in finance, for example, How do I make them feel like they're part of the brand experience, like they're part of creating this this mission and this vision at Illumina?

And so we did things like create community engagement programs that everybody could participate in, you know, making capes for kids at Ready Children's Hospital that brought them closer to a patient, bringing patient ambassadors in whose lives and treatment plan had been impacted by genomics to do presentations in the company, kind of connecting philanthropically with the Illumina Foundation and making that about some of these key themes that were related to the mission, like helping to help patients with rare disease find an answer.

So really making it tangible and real were some of the things that we did. And I think that's true no matter what kind of product you're selling people, people want to connect intellectually and emotional with the company and the brand that they worked for.

Daniel Burstein: Well, I think it would be especially hard when it's an intangible product like you have like so if you are making some phones or iPads or oh, here you go is a shoe, it makes sense. So I used to tell this joke for B2B marketing, but I think it's true for any complex product where, you know, you're at a dinner party or when you go back to Thanksgiving for, you know, your family and you're talking to the aunt or uncle who doesn't understand what you do, and you're like, Oh, I'm in marketing.

And they're like, Oh, great, I know ads. And, you know, what do you market shoes or clothes or, you know, I see as I see on TV and then you're trying to while B2B. So it's like, you know, you ever been in an elevator, it's like, yeah, it's like, okay, well, you know, the panel where you push the button, it's like, yeah, okay, well, you know, behind that panel, you know how it gets up, you know, goes up and downs like, yeah, okay, well, like there's software control and we sell software control platforms that we sell to the makers of the panels in elevators that help that they go to, then sell to elevator companies.

They make it go up and down. And then the person you're talking at the dinner party is like, okay, what do you do, Bob? Because that doesn't make any sense, right? So so when you're talking about something as intangible in a sense as genomics, it's not a shoe, it's not a phone. Okay. Oh, boy. This is a nice shirt we make.

Like, is there I like some of the tactics you've talked about already, but is there anything special to you have to do to go to that next level to get that understanding?

Karen Possemato: Yeah, I mean, I think so. At aluminum, it became easier over time because there were references of all companies using aluminum products like or 23 in May. So it became easier as people became aware of these types of products and genomics became more mainstream. So I'll use the example of SIA, the company that I work for today, is in the proteomics space.

So proteomics is kind of the next step down from genomics. It's about the active molecules in the body and how do we study those so that we can understand things. So I always like to use again stories. I think, you know, you mentioned marketers have this communication superpower. I think leaning into that is so, so powerful and storytelling is at the center of that.

So, you know, when I'm describing what we do it seer It's complex and intangible because there's no like mainstream companies that people know about that are using proteomics in that way yet. But most people understand the role of insulin in diabetes or the role of these plaques that you hear about in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's. And so those are proteins.

And so understanding how those work and the fact that there are millions of different forms of proteins in the body at any moment in time, how important that is to understand in biology, you know, so simplifying it using an example or a storyline to convey it and make it something that someone can relate to, I mean, in science.

So we get very caught up in the data, the technical details, you know. So one of the biggest bridges as a marketer is like, how do you make that relatable? Because even your customers, you know, some people have, you know, a grandmother with Alzheimer's or they themselves have diabetes. So that's what propels people to change their behavior, is connecting with something on a personal level, in addition to being inspired intellectually to cure cancer or whatever it might be in the case of our customers.

But I think making it relatable and making it simple, you know, like all that exploration, we have so much that we know about our products. We try to explain that sometimes, and we have to remember that communication superpower.

Daniel Burstein: Exactly. Yeah. Well, let me turn to another place, Margaret, struggle with communications. You talked about, you know, communicating all around the organization. I totally agree. But, you know, we've fielded benchmark reports in the past and every year when the economy was good or whether the economy is bad, the top challenge was always marketing budgets. Right. And so that's where it becomes so important to communicate, for lack of a better word, opposite to the CEO.

Is it to our investors? Is it to the public markets? And also another thing I like that you mentioned you specifically mentioned when you were talking about that communicating to the people in finance and making sure they understand their mission. The other thing we have to understand when we're communicating about the mission is the monetary the fiscal mission.

Well, I've had a guest before who said one of her lessons was make the CFO your best friend. So I want to ask you about this next lesson. I love it. No matter how big or small your company, it's important to build a path to return on marketing investment. Or am I from the get go? So you want to give us a sense of is that the current company or previous company?

How did you come in and do that from the get go? How has that affected those relationships and how has that affected that ability to get the budget to grow your team? Yeah.

Karen Possemato: First of all, I love the idea of making the CFO your best friend. I think that's a very good lesson and it's one it's one that I've followed or have learned over my career too. But you can't think of finance as sort of like an alien on another planet. They really are like your best friend in terms of being able to demonstrate how marketing impacts the growth of the company, because there's a lot of things that we do that are tangible.

We generate leads. You have to be able to track that in B to B, I think it's very difficult to do attribution like that. So that's a contentious place, but you can definitely show influence in a multitouch multidimensional sales process. You know, in our in our case, we're selling capital equipment with software and also reagents. So it's a complex sale.

It's it's multi hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's not something that you're going to convert online. So as B2B marketers, I think you have to be critical in assessing what you need to do and fund. I kind of use the rule of thumb. Think about in a year from now, am I going to regret not doing this or is it going to be like, thank goodness I didn't do that, You know?

So I think having a critical lens and then in today's digital driven, data driven world, I think you have to lay foundations early. So at SEER, we've implemented a CRM system, so we use Salesforce very early on so that we were able to track what was coming in from a lead standpoint from our website. And that has been absolutely critical in laying foundations with our CFO, with our CEO, and understanding how marketing touches sales and what can and can't be measured directly because there's a lot of indirect things when you think about, you know, sort of unique views that you're creating with media or if you're thinking about just overall SEO kind of effectiveness, you

can't tie that directly to revenue, but you can begin to educate executives early on about all of the the steps in that process. And I think that's that's really important. And, you know, you can't kick that part down the road. I think 20 years ago, we weren't being held as accountable to return on marketing investment. But now with these capabilities in the marketing stack, with digital playing just the majority role in most of the selling process and buying discovery process, now you can't get away from it, so don't don't kid yourself about that.

Daniel Burstein: And so I wonder you coming in to see your how you prioritize so you you were Illumina a much bigger company you come in you mentioned much smaller company team of four so you you know when you're at a bigger company like that sometimes in something is so established you've got I don't wanna say unlimited resources but certainly a lot more resources to get these things done.

You come in with a smaller team and you see like boom, there's a lot of things you could have done coming in, right? Branding, I don't know, content marketing ever. And but it sounds like you came in and you said, Here's where I want to start. We're going to implement a CRM. I'm going to set up a return on marketing investment so we can clearly, you know, track all this and report this up to where we have to report.

Is that about right? Is that what you did or.

Karen Possemato: Yeah, Yeah, I think so. So you know, first of all, reflect a little bit on the Illumina experience because I feel like I was very fortunate to join that company when they were small. I mean, we were like seven people in marketing and that grew to a marketing ecosystem of nearly 500 over the course of my time there.

And I had about a fourth of that and had to run through a marketing transformation program there. So there were so many learnings about just where we invested, where certain decisions that were made at different times ended up costing marketing more. How you have to really, you know, not be attached to your org structure as you scale or to the way of done things and be willing to reinvent marketing as the company scales, especially when you're growing quickly or in today's world when the macroeconomic environment is changing, you just have to constantly be willing to look in the mirror.

So the benefit of that experience over that time and over that scaling really gave me a level of scrutiny coming into a smaller company that was just getting going because when I joined CIHR, we had just started early commercial access to our product, so it was literally ground floor. And so I had that eye to say, okay, what, what are the things that if I don't do them now, I'm really going to be screwed a year from now and so I systematically went through and laid brand strategy in place because if you have to fix that two or three years down the road, you're not going to be happy and it's going to cost you

a lot of money. I put core digital infrastructure in place, so a CRM system, you know, marketing, data management. So with us we use Pardot, which is part of Salesforce, so that we could actually track what we were doing and understand who our customers are and manage their experience. And then I set about building a team of utility players is what I will call it in our field.

We we kind of have in my in my organization, our product management, product marketing, something called the Applications Lab and market development. And then I have the communications like web campaigns and corporate communications as part of it. But when you're Somalia for people, you need utility players that can move in and, you know, write a press release or deal with your social media channels or they know how to write product requirements, but they can also conduct a sales training.

So I think talent is also a really big part of that early stage. So to me it was like, get your brand in gear and have an eye on how that's going to scale. Get your infrastructure in place so you can actually measure and manage and then put the right people on the team for the early stage so that you're not crippled by a lack of skill sets.

Daniel Burstein: And so just for you in your career thinking like if another CMO is listening at a bigger, more established company, maybe they have this opportunity to go to a smaller startup. I mean, is that one of the benefits, Hey, I can build this more from the ground up. I've got more control over this because being at that big, bigger company, I mean, there's like I said, there's a lot of nice things about it, right?

You got a roster of agencies you trust, Probably. You've got a big media budget, a big brand, you got specialists, but have someone specifically focused on data science right there on your team. You can pick up the phone and call whatever you want versus, like we said, going in smaller company. But on the flip side, my gosh, you've got the tech stack and it's hardcoded and it's hard to make changes and there's all these different thing, right?

So so when you were looking through that just from your career decision, if you can share that, was that that sense of like, hey, wait, you know, I can kind of start from the ground and build this how I wanted to build it.

Karen Possemato: Now I totally I mean, I have a number of colleagues at Seer who have come from some of them from Illumina, some of them from other companies that were large. And we we talk and joke a little bit about how we can we can not make the mistakes of companies past like we've learned from sins of the past so we can bring the best of I mean, and to be fair to some of the companies like Illumina Thermo, these bigger companies, they've been around for a long time.

You incur a kind of debt in the company over the time as you build your marketing and it's hard to just go back. You can't just wipe the slate and go back. It's much harder and takes much more investment to make changes. But you know, at this day and age, starting in a company and having learned from these companies past and also with just the set of tools we have as marketers, just the digital landscape is so different.

You know, if you if you were in a company for 20 years, I mean, even ten years ago, the digital landscape wasn't like it is today. So you didn't have some of the options that you have today. And so, you know, being being smart about saying what didn't work before, and I'm definitely not going to do that again, like how can you know, how can we avoid some of those things?

So one of the one of the key lessons that I took to see or with our technical architecture is don't snowflake yourself into oblivion. Like don't highly customize everything. Chances are the out-of-box workflows are probably going to work because those choices make technical debt for you in the future. Same, same thing with brands campaigns. You can just learn from that and, you know, do do the right things.

Daniel Burstein: Oh man, I've learned that lesson in the last month. But if you want to if you want to go home grown too, if you want to a home grown five years from now, you won't be able to hire someone who knows that out of the box versus if you go with something off the shelf. So yeah, I love that.

Let's talk about now. I call this like a kind of a work life lesson, your next lesson. So we have this idea of work life balance, like our work in our life or separate try to balance it. But we also have this kind of work life. We're humans at work, too, where people at work too. And the lesson is pretty simple.

Be authentic, right? As simple as those two words are, it's not simple at all. So tell us from your experience, how you learned this lesson, why you want to pass it on.

Karen Possemato: Yeah, well, you know, I think it comes from a couple of different places. So early on in my career, I was in the lab, so I'd originally had a career trajectory to go to medical school. So I got into medical school and then having worked in practices, they were all all the doctors I worked with were saying, Don't do it.

So then I'm like thinking, okay, well, great. But now what do I do? I'm in a lab and I'm thinking, This is so not me. Like sitting around waiting for experiments to incubate. You know, a lot of a lot of people in science are more quiet and introverted. Not everyone, but and I am definitely not like that. So, you know, I.

I leaned into, I would say, my personality and ended up in a role as a technical support scientist. So what this is, is somebody who answers customer inbound calls and helps them troubleshoot their experiments using the products that the company sells. So I found in that sort of a piece of myself, I guess I would say, in terms of being a communicator and just having a natural and natural ability for that.

I'd always loved writing. I ended up writing a lot of the handbooks for in beta Gen at that stage. And then I found myself kind of gravitating to marketing from there, which I don't think is a stretch for most of us. I think we understand what that means and how multidimensional it is, how many people and functions across the company you get to work with.

And so I went from being on phones all the time, which the repetition of that also was not something that fit to being this multidimensional marketer and I just sort of found myself in that process. Okay, So that was kind of stage one is like really mapping to who I am and what gets me going every day to to architect my career.

And then I think the second piece of it came as an executive. So starting with Illumina, as that company grew, I think as a woman too, you kind of can take on veneers as an executive that you think you should have in order to fit in. And there were many, many times when I was the only woman around a table in an executive meeting or in a meeting in general.

And so you can have a tendency to dampen who you are as a person. And for me, I'm a very, I would say, empathetic. I care a lot about people and relationships. I like to have fun at work, even though, like, I might think, well, as a head of marketing, I should be more serious and be more matter of fact and, you know, be try to fit in with the boys club in this way, in that way.

And and I remember making an active decision not to do that because I thought about the women to follow me and how it would be really a crime to say you can't be yourself and be a leader. I mean, I'm a mom, daughter, sister. I bring all of those things to work, especially in a time when you know, your laptop, your phone, your work and life are so enmeshed together.

It's not like we have this clean compartmentalization that allows us to just turn on and off. So I found for me that that has worked, that being who I am, letting that show and bringing that to the boardroom as well as to the break room, you know, that that that has helped me and organizations to lead because it has engendered trust.

I feel like it has helped others who maybe would have felt like they had to mask themselves. And I think it's allowed me to create more of an impact because I'm sort of emotionally wired in to the way the company the way the company is, like who we are, culture building. So I kind of went on a little bit there, but I hope that gives you a good sense.

Daniel Burstein: While I love that lesson, I agree. I feel the same way. However, I feel like I feel like we got a challenge. We got to unpack that a lot. I got to take take the impossible side and kind of and I want to do it right and go girl. And so I wonder how you balance that authenticity with the necessarily professionalism that you need in the role.

And I'll give you an example that could kind of get you thinking. So we actually ran a test recently, like an AB test with our CEO who's actually up in Montana. Flint McLaughlin is on a mountain. He recorded a video and we're doing it for an ad and he's in a suit and traditional whatever. And there was something with the video or someone had to come back in and he just had me back.

But by the time he had to do it again, he was in his regular dress, which he looks like a cowboy. He dresses like a cowboy, right? He's up in Montana on a ranch. And so what happened? We actually ended up having these two videos and we're like, well, that would be a good test. And we test it in the challenge ad test and we thought and I wanted not only did we thought I was biased, I wanted the natural kind of authentic, for lack of a better word, one to win.

But the professional version actually won. And there's a lot of caveats. It's in the channel. So that's the first touch when they get deeper and know us. I mean, you know, I'm like this, you know, it's a little different. But but I thought it was surprising and just gotten into this idea of like how much we have to challenge this idea of be authentic.

And then the other thing I was thinking for you specifically in your industry, I saw in The Wall Street Journal maybe was this morning, maybe just remember Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos, she's going to jail. She's trying to stay out of jail. She's going to jail. Right. And if you know, but I'm sure most people are familiar with it. But she kind of brought that many things in many things she didn't do that were authentic in actually perhaps lying and being fraudulent about how her product worked.

But one of the things she brought was that kind of tech laid back feel to your industry wearing the turtlenecks, whatever. And so you know what I mean. Like I said, sometimes when people hear that, be authentic, they think, Oh, it's like tech. It's like, you know, I'll wear a hoodie and flip flops or whatever. And and sometimes it's in communication.

We look at these signifiers and it could be hard to say like, Oh, there was her. She was wearing a turtleneck, not a lab coat, not not a sport coat. And then look at that. She lied about a product. So I just want to unpack. Does a lot. There's a lot there to unpack, but but how do you balance that authenticity with professionalism and especially in your industry, where there's so much this feeling of like that the person needs to know this stuff, right?

They need to know their stuff, and we need to believe this just flat out scientifically works and whatever whatever value proposition we're setting up scientifically works. Have you have you had to juggle therapy? Have you found a way to balance that? Is there a.

Karen Possemato: Balance? Yeah. No, I think that I think that's a really great thing to unpack. I mean, I think when you say, look, you have to be authentic, it doesn't mean that all aspects of who you are are on 100%, you know, level ten all the time. I still think and this comes back to, you know, marketers having superpowers that we can leverage professionally, I think in ways that a lot of disciplines don't necessarily have that is, you know, part of part of communicating is understanding your audience.

So, you know, while you you want to not be a false person. So, you know, to use the Elizabeth Holmes example, so, you know, not artificially creating or misrepresenting in any way, like almost having a persona or veneer that's contrived. You know, you have to you have to be able to be credible and represent. And there might be environments.

There are certainly environments in my role where I'm with you know, top scientists from around the world on a call and sort of that bubbly or side of myself. It's not absent by any means, but I might dial it back because I'm reading the room. I mean, none of us is is in a bubble, right? We're where we're a person and a set of values and behaviors in a world of others.

And so part of that is having enough emotional intelligence to understand when to dial up and dial things down. But I think for me, the point of authenticity is not to hide yourself when you're in a professional realm, because not only do I feel like that creates friction for you as an individual, and eventually you'll burn out because it takes a lot of energy to pretend to be somebody that you're not.

But also because I think that you just have this ability to build trust and credibility because we all sense when people are really being real, like who someone is, you know, and again, like referring to my own, my own kind of strengths or personality, like I have found that even in a serious world like science, that sort of who I am has really helped me to build credibility and trust and for people to feel like they can ask me things they can't ask other executives or, you know, lean into things that I'm trying to lead because they know that I'm being authentic.

So it's a it's both an art and a science. I guess I would say, Danielle and you have to use emotional intelligence to kind of balance it in every situation. But I believe it's possible.

Daniel Burstein: I'm on board. I'm on board, and I love to read the room. That's one key thing I took away. You read the room. It's really understanding the context of each interaction and you can't show up as there are different facets to us, right? Where you're saying we are talking, there are many different facets to us and you can't show up the same way for each person in each situation.

So I really like that and I think it ties into your next lesson. You mentioned communication is key, which we've kind of talked about some, but you have a unique back I love you have that scientific background we talked about. You were also the chief of staff at Illumina for two different CEOs. Right. And during the CEO transition.

So what did you learn from that?

Karen Possemato: Yeah, that was amazing. So I would qualify it by first saying I had never been a chief of staff. And my then boss, Jay Flatley, who was CEO of Illumina at that time, had never had a chief of staff. So it was sort of one of those leaps of faith you take in your career, which I think is a big lesson in and of itself, is don't be afraid to take some leaps of faith that might give you a different lens on the company or the brand or whatever it might be.

But a chief of staff role is something and I and I actually talked to a lot of chiefs of staff in different industries as I was transitioning into that role. It's such an interesting it's such an interesting role because it's kind of do anything and everything that your your boss, you're the person your chief of staffing needs you to fill in for.

So it can be all different kinds of things. And I had the privilege of being chief of staff to Jay and then Francis D'Souza, who's the current CEO of Illumina during that whole period of the CEO transition. So I was kind of a joint chief of staff, not the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but a joint chief of staff and so many lessons.

Daniel But I really feel like, you know, from working so closely with both of those CEOs, you know, a lesson I had from Jay and this was early on, but actually before I was his chief of staff was was really around, ask for forgiveness, not for permission. I remember I was in a break room and I was saying to him, what do you think about this idea?

You know, it's an idea for something in marketing and said, ask for forgiveness, not for permission. You know, And I think that was such a great lesson because it's like you don't have to be looking to get consensus or looking to make sure everybody's okay with something that you're going to do, especially in a growing company. At the time, Illumina was was very young.

You know, you have to be bold, you have to vision and you have to champion things. I mean, I would say for every CEO that I've worked closely with, including my current CEO, made like they all have that right. That's why they are where they are. And as chief of staff, you get to see how they run the company, how they operate themselves, what's important to them.

So I really learned something from each of the CEOs that I worked with in particular, that chief of staff role really gives you an inside lens on what it means to be CEO and what it takes to be CEO.

Daniel Burstein: That's great. And one thing I really like they said to you, I've never been a chief of staff, but I've worked in an executive comms position. And when you're working with high level executive, I like how you said you need to do what needs to be done. You need to do it. You need to do to support them.

And many times executive comms, I was writing things for them. I mean, in an ideal world, executive comms, it's like, okay, what should we say? I will say that, well, we will move on. Many times it's you are far too busy. I will write something. Is this the thing to say? And that especially starting at first, just feeling that you can say that for someone is such a challenge.

I mean, people I mean thousands of people are report them around the globe. Obviously, I would just to be clear, anyone listening, I would never release anything until they were reviewed, of course. But stepping in for them and saying clearly, this is the help you need, like just having that confidence to do it. So one of the first half of the the episode, we talk about lessons from the things you made in marketing in the second half.

We're going to talk about lessons from the people you made them with, including some of the CEOs you work with. But before that, let me say that the How I made It in Marketing podcast is underwritten by McLeod's Institute, the parent organization of marketing Sherpa, and to learn how McLeod services can help you get better business results from deeper customer understanding, visit McLeod. slashed results that's m e c l ab s dot com slash results. Okay, let's look at some of those lessons from the people you meet with. Those who said the first person you mentioned, Jay Flatley, the former CEO of Illumina, you talked about, you said the lesson was ask for forgiveness, not for permission. So I want to ask you now, though, as a leader, how you use that lesson with your team.

So not only are you a leader, you are a leader in an industry I would assume has high compliance and regulatory standards that you have to deal with. Plus, you're a public company. So you know, and this is why I like to go here, is a lot of these lessons sound good and they are good and we should follow them.

Sometimes I've told people lesson they go off and do something that's like, Well, wait a minute, there's balance to everything. Like, why didn't you do that? You said this, There is balance to everything. So how do you balance? Ask for forgiveness, not for permission with compliance, public company, all these other factors you've got to deal with as a leader, not yourself.

Karen Possemato: Yeah. Yeah. I think you raise a really good point in that, you know, in sciences we're kind of pre-clinical, so we're, we're at that interface of highly regulated and sort of exploratory because research by definition is about asking provocative questions and trying to find meaningful answers. But I think that whole idea of asking for forgiveness not for permission I've used a ton of times like that was that was really and that was almost 20 years ago that he said that to me.

So it just it stuck with me. And so sometimes when I'm hesitant because my nature is to try to bring people along, then I remember that and I think to myself, okay, is this something again, you have to use your emotional intelligence and your business intelligence to say, okay, this is something I really see I need to do.

It might be to champion a new way. A lot of times, I think at the company that I'm at, there's a new process that needs to be put in place because we're just kind of not connecting or moving something forward. And so I ask myself, okay, this isn't necessarily my role, but should I be doing this? And is there anybody I need to look side to side and say, okay, does it make sense for me to just move Pulse do?

And then I get myself off of the T and go and and that has paid off over and over and over again. So you can't, like, blindly do it. Like, say I have this idea, therefore I'm just going to go and do it and don't worry about legal or regulatory or any of those things, but really in an agile way, identifying and solving problems in an organization when you're in the C-suite, I think is is one of the ways that I've used that.

And then I use it a ton just as a marketing leader, because I do feel very that marketing raises the flag that the company follows. I mean, everyone wants to be inspired both inside and outside of the company by a brand, a product, an industry, a vision for the future. In the case of life sciences, this idea of curing diseases, better treatments for diseases, etc..

So I think by definition as a marketing leader, you have to be out in front of the whole company and you're not going to do that if you're always looking to get permission from everybody to do things. So I use it both inside the company and then as a marketing leader.

Daniel Burstein: So I hear you and I agree with everything you said for you, but what about for the as as a leader yourself? You manage a team. What about for them? Like how do you balance that? Ask for forgiveness, not for progression with being in compliance, being regulatory, because you clearly are very experienced, you know, had deep emotional intelligence been in many situations.

I very much trust your judgment. And we have to trust the judgment that people were reporting that report to us as well. But I'd imagine you have a wide variability of how experienced they are, how much you've been in professional situations. So how do you balance that with staying in compliance regularly, trying, doing all the right things, but empowering them?

Karen Possemato: Yeah, I mean, I spend a lot of time with my direct reports. I have a pretty flat organization at this stage, you know, because it's a young company and I try to teach them the lessons that they don't have. So, you know, at my stage in career mentorship and sort of helping the next generation come up is pretty important to me.

And so helping them through like I encourage the ideas and the thinking out of box and then help them ask questions to help them evaluate, okay, can you just champion this or do you need to ask some questions? And so that's what I do to to kind of help them try to help them develop that in an accelerated way, that same level of both E Q and business IQ and the things that that then interface with, whether you go or you don't go nice.

Daniel Burstein: I like that, by the way. I like how you explained experimentation. I think we as marketing experimenters can use that as well, running a B test, trying to understand our customers better. It was like, be bold, be curious and all that.

Karen Possemato: Yeah, we'd be bold. Like, I don't know. What do they say? Yeah, I don't know. But yeah, you have to be, you have to be bold and you have to be curious and you have to think out of the box. I mean, you should always be challenging the status quo as a marketer.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah, I know. I love that. But it's not just for science. I think that's for marketing as well. We can. We can all do that no matter what industry we're in. Yeah, Yeah, absolutely. All right, here's another lesson. Dig deeper than the data to create a story that's much more impactful and meaningful. And you learned this from Francis De Souza, who is the current CEO of Illumina. I guess this is who it transitioned to when you were chief of staff.

Karen Possemato: Yeah, exactly. So Francis came from the tech industry into genomics, which is a challenging thing to do. And so he was always pushing to connect with the story. So I think, you know, as a marketer, I think storytelling is kind of innate. But I think working with him, I came to appreciate that even more, especially at the executive level.

I mean, you talked about like executive communications. I did a ton of that for him. I think that being able to reference like bring real data through to create impact, you know, how many patients is this going to affect? How many lives could this change? And then diving down into a real story of personal connection was something that was really important to him.

So it was just it just reinforced for me how that can bring things to life coming from, you know, the sort of the bulk of the company. I mean, really, you know, that that was that was really important. And then, you know, it also, I think, taught me that different leaders like to communicate differently because that was he was a little different than Jay.

He's different than Omid. And so and just understanding the sea level or the CEO seat in particular and how different that can be and how different companies can operate because of that vision was also a piece of that lesson. But yeah, it just kind of cemented that for me.

Daniel Burstein: Let me ask you, I wonder how if you have any tips on humanizing the data because you come we we talked about before you like complex products. It gets hard the data sometimes I was I interviewed on a Sirius XM show from Kathryn Hayes at work and one of the things she said that stuck with me is, you know, the word consumer, where we think of people as a unit that consumes like that's what they are.

And sometimes when we look in data, we lose the humanity with it. So when it comes to, you know, either being, you know, in science or just like a public company, if No, anyone listening has never been on an earnings call like Trigger going on an earnings call where you get beat up for having, you know, no sense of earnings per share at $0.12 and then trying to still bring you.

Mandy, two things, right? So so have you learned any tips on bringing Manning that data, not just looking at consumers as people who consume?

Karen Possemato: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, just resonating with what you were saying about the earnings call in B2B, you know, and often in building companies like SEER, you know, there's a journey that you have to take to get technology to be adopted. And there's a vision connected with that. And there's sometimes there's a space in between where that journey is and what that vision is.

And so I think you have to be convicted about what you're doing and why you exist and really sell that vision to your audiences while you're delivering from an execution standpoint. It's it can be tenuous sometimes and I think, you know, I learned a lot from Jay Flatley because he was really an arts art, very artful CEO at this.

He was an extremely good businessman, is and and a visionary. I mean, he's really a luminary in the space of genomics and being able to to bring people through that and kind of be pragmatic about data, but connect that to what it could look like over the next five years. Like I remember he used to do predictions, so he would say, you know, in ten years, every baby will be sequenced at birth in in five years, cancer will be treated as a chronic disease.

You know, So that's a way of taking where we are today, which, you know, is 40 years of the war against cancer. Yet mortality is still high to what it could look like in the future and connecting that vision with reality and numbers. So I learned from the best on that one.

Daniel Burstein: And I think that ties into the last lesson we have here. See the opportunity in any situation and you singular, you learned that from your current CEO, the CEO of SEER, Omid Farokhzad. So how'd you learn this from Omid? I think you mentioned him a few times before in the podcast.

Karen Possemato: Yeah, no, he Omid is great because he is, he is a, an M.D. by training an expert in nanomedicine and started a company based on nanotechnology to really do something different in proteomics, like I was mentioning earlier does and he is so he's so enthusiastic great charismatic person tells the story extremely well and he's he's like super positive around Hey KP, I only see the glass as half its full half air, half water instead of the glass is half empty or the glass is half full because, you know, you always hear people say the glass is half full.

And he's like, No, it's half buried tap water, it's all full. And I just thought that was such a great embodiment of that conviction you have to have when you're starting and growing a company. I mean, you cannot be distracted by the negative. You have to always flip it on its head and say, I'm seeing progress. Here's where we're going, here's how we're going to change the world. And I just love that about him.

Daniel Burstein: I love that all little bit. Let's battle tested for a second. Okay. So sure, we all just went through COVID 19, the pandemic, our world, you know, and I wrote a I wrote an article about the hidden upside where brands and marketers share ten opportunities from, you know, the COVID 19 pandemic. Obviously horrible, horrible situation. To your point, you know, there are upsides and everything we can see the opportunity they talked about adopting a new way of working deeper connections with customers, more gratitude they have.

So again, obviously COVID 19, I want to make light of it. It's very difficult, but were you able to see the opportunity in that situation, especially given the industry that you were going to be? There is. I don't know if in my life there's ever been a bigger focus in your industry. And when you saw something and I know this became political, but when we saw something which was a modern miracle of a vaccine being developed so quickly, and some of these things like I know, how were you able to, as a marketing leader, see the opportunity in that situation?

Karen Possemato: Well, for our industry, I think we were we were in a particularly strong position, Daniel, because if you could you couldn't imagine the COVID outbreak without genomics. I mean, the tracking of it, the variant understanding, vaccine development, all of that was enabled by what Illumina did in DNA sequencing. And so for me as a leader in a company that's bringing proteomics to bear, it was so inspiring because it's like we have to keep fighting this fight because we are going to make the same thing happen in proteomics.

Like there are studies that are going on to understand vaccine response with proteomics, and so imagine how that could change things for our next. Hopefully we don't have a next outbreak before our next outbreak, which, you know, hopefully we won't have. But so I think I was at a little bit of an advantage there because of the company and industry that I work in.

But there was a lot of opportunity in that because you could really see how science can impact things. I think as a communicator and as a marketer, kind of separating myself from the industry that I'm in, I think there were a lot of lessons that we learned about transparency, bringing people along, leading through crisis, leading remotely, and just how you actually had to overcommunicate during that time in order to keep people intact. You know, so I think that that was huge.

Daniel Burstein: Great. All right. Well, Karen, we've talked about so many different things about what it means to be a marketer from that transparency to just knowing your industry well, with which your background gave you the ability to do. In your opinion, what are the key qualities of an effective marketer?

Karen Possemato: So, you know, I've talked a lot about authenticity. So I do think you have to be able to connect with people and inspire them. And so I think you have to lead from where you sit. So if you if you are a passionate feeling, empathetic person, then you have to do that. But lead with authenticity is one. I think the second is something we also talked about.

So be bold and have a vision. You know, you have to push yourself out to the bleeding edge. If you're not doing that, if you're not personally uncomfortable, then you're probably not leading from that bleeding edge. And then I think the third thing is you really have to lead with that, like intelligence data driven. I almost feel like it's a cornerstone of your experiences.

Do the things that, you know, worked in other places, but don't bring the bad behaviors with you just because you're used to them. Having your data and your analytics together and then having your team together, kind of those foundations, you have to never like, maybe I would say it's come back to your foundations and make sure you have good marketing fundamentals in place and teach those fundamentals because we're always responsible for bringing up the next generation of marketers, and if they don't learn them from us, who do they learn from?

Daniel Burstein: I love that, and hopefully that's a benefit of everyone who listen to this episode. I know I learned stuff you taught me, so thank you so much for this conversation. Karen.

Karen Possemato: Thank you. It's been such a pleasure, Daniel. Thanks.

Daniel Burstein: And thanks to everyone for listening.

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