The Plight of Brilliance
When Albert Einstein met Charlie Chaplin, Einstein said, “What I admire most about your art, is your universality. You don’t say a word yet the whole world understands you!” To which Chaplin replied, “It’s true. But your fame is even greater: the world admires you when nobody understands what you say.” Therein lies the plight of brilliance; you have the power to change the world, yet, so few can understand why or how you’re going to do so. Ultimately, navigating this Catch-22 is not the responsibility of the extraordinary, but rather it is the responsibility of those who have dedicated their lives to work for them.
An Unexpected Path
Dr Alice Jacobs’ father served under almost every president from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush. He was critical in exacting tremendous change and achievements for the United States, yet most people have never heard his name. Mr. Jacobs served on the National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament, the Defense Policy Board to advise the Secretary of Defense among others. Jacobs was also the chairman of the Jacobs Panel, which conducted a bottoms up review of counterintelligence policy. Similarly, Dr. Jacobs has already exacted significant impact and achievement in the health technology space. Yet, the wider public is not aware of who she is or what she has accomplished.
It is often said that necessity is the father of invention; however, when it comes to the medical field, the better expression may be ‘tragedy is the father of invention,’ something Alice can attest to firsthand. Initially, she had planned to study neuroscience, go to medical school and forge her career as a doctor, but that all changed when a patient she was overseeing came in for routine surgery and later died of an infection. This tragic event caused Alice to realise that there was technology out there that could decrease the turnaround time testing for infection, “but it was not being used in a clinical setting.” Thus, as a thirdyear student, Alice “went on a mission” to solve this problem. Her solution, a company that got eight products through the FDA, shipped multiple products to five different continents, and achieved thirty different clearances globally and effectively decreased the turnaround time for testing infections, saving countless lives worldwide.
A New Mission
After achieving tremendous success by going into great depth within the diagnostic space, Alice was eager for a greater breadth of knowledge. Alice took up residence at several venture funds including Third Ventures and GE and slowly migrated herself back to Los Angeles. Here, she met for lunch one day with one of her first mentors, Dr. David Baltimore, who asked her if she had spent any time at Caltech. The result of this lunch created an opportunity for Alice to become the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Caltech and the only medical doctor on campus. The time spent at Caltech with Nobel Laureates, National Academy members and some of the great living experts in data science “completely changed my view of the world and put me on my current path.”
The path which Alice was set on is “ to fundamentally change our collective approach to medicine to be proactive, not reactive.” The world has gone through a golden age of data, giving us access to information and insights that used to be unthinkable but now could allow us to proactively address healthcare from the point of knowledge. As such, Alice intends to utilise “knowledge and data-driven solutions to reroute the course of care for patients around the world.” Dr. Jacobs maintains, however, that “the most important aspect is not the data or the insights but whether you can utilise that to empower people to engage and take action.” Ultimately, this is where Alice and her company are focusing their efforts,“how can you leverage data and technology to establish a trusted relationship between consumers and businesses to drive effective engagement?”
The difference between changing the world and not changing the world lies in one’s ability to articulate a compelling story. Alice believes her company, Convergence Group, has such a story. The problem with a compelling story, though, is that it creates incredible amounts of inbound interest, which left Alice with a dilemma; how could she keep her eye on the future and achieve her vision for the company while simultaneously managing the present. Alice concluded that she needed someone who could help her manage all the inbound interest while at the same time amplifying her story and message. She needed a chief of staff.
Finding a chief of staff is not an easy task because it is paramount that the principal considers someone who understands and aligns with them professionally and personally. Then once you factor in that the principal, Alice, is one of the leading experts at the intersection of health and data and her peers consist of some of the most prominent global leaders and subject matter experts, the task becomes nearly impossible.
Fortunately, for Alice, during the interview process, there was one candidate who stood out as “having the power to understand the why and how of my mission and ability to amplify it,” that candidate was Cherie Kono. Speaking about the process, Cherie told us, “even after they had extended an offer to me, I requested further interviews because, to conduct this job exceptionally, I needed to know without a shadow of a doubt that we were aligned when it came to the mission.” Alignment on the mission is of utmost importance for a productive COS-principal relationship. A chief of staff’s singular function is to make their principal as efficient and effective as possible in accomplishing their mission. To do so requires a chief of staff to act as a thought partner for their principal and have the ability to have tough conversations with their direct reports and especially their principal.
In speaking with Cherie and Alice, the alignment of their professional and personal beliefs was palpable, with Alice even saying that as introverts, they can “see each other.” One idea they spoke of, which has led to success, is that Alice believes in “moving beyond constraints and just operating.” Cherie and Alice do not perceive that they have an uphill battle to succeed in the business world because they are women. Instead, they have wholly rid their minds of that notion because they do not want to “create mental obstacles to their success.” Alice has a sign above her desk that simply reads “Be It” to remind her that the only obstacle to achieving success is oneself.
Alice and Cherie’s relationship is the bedrock for their success and allows Cherie to have tough conversations with Alice when need be. Recalling one such conversation, Cherie described Alice as the type of manager who likes “to reward good work with more work”, and so early on in her tenure, she had to talk to Alice about creating a better process for load management, so none of their employees got burnt out. Alice [who was laughing as Cherie recalled the story] was highly pleased to have this insight from Cherie as “on her team self-care is a must because an empowered employee is an effective employee.”
However, the scope of Cherie’s job is much more than just having the occasional tough conversation with Alice. As chief of staff, Cherie sits at the centre of the bidirectional flow of information, acting as the single funnel for all the inputs and outputs of her principal. Because of this function, Cherie focuses on the importance of having a “three hundred sixty degrees perspective” so you can “identify blind spots and see around corners” for your principal. Ultimately, Cherie can manage the present which allows Alice to stay focused on her vision for the company’s future.
Transcribed and Edited by Baxter Potter, The Chief of Staff Association.