Hidden in the stories of the false and fraud aspects of Theranos is this book that focuses a lot on culture. It focuses on the culture of Theranos, which was really toxic. And the company’s number two, Sunny Balwani, was really just making life miserable for people, and so many people would come in and out of that company. If you’re reading this book as a CEO, what do you take from reading this and what this book says about culture, and how a company can really have a toxic culture?
You’re totally right. I think it’s one of the most important dimensions of the book. I think it shows that culture, in some ways is that you can have a whip-smart leader with a really good idea and you can go on to hire many credentialed people like Theranos did, a lot of the people who worked at Theranos were really smart, and really well-trained and educated. But it can all go bad if your culture is terrible and if you run the place like a despot, and if you don’t listen when people tell you that something isn’t working or that something is impossible.
And you have to listen to employees to some extent and not treat them like slaves, which is virtually what Sunny did, you know? Employees were his minions, and he didn’t want to hear them push back about anything and he wanted to see them work really long hours and show up on weekends and it almost didn’t matter if the work was productive or not. What mattered was face time. And the conditions they created in this workplace made it impossible for her to achieve her goals. She was shooting herself in the foot by running the company that way.
What are some takeaways that CEOs and business leaders should take from this book?
I hope that one of the main takeaways is it’s important to have a moral compass, even in business, you know? That sure, all businesses except, you could argue non-profits, but even non-profits seek to make money and to maximize profits, but there are lines not to cross. And again, especially when you’re in the world of medicine and your product is going to affect people’s health and lives and is going to form really important health decisions.
It’s a book about a business that went bad and that morphed into a fraud, but it’s really a book about ethics. And it’s a book that shows what happens when your moral compass as a business man or woman goes completely askew.