Leadership Lessons from Exact Sciences' CEO Kevin Conroy

Kevin Conroy has been CEO and President of Exact Sciences since March of 2009. Prior to joining Exact Sciences, Conroy led Third Wave Technologies, another Madison, Wis. based biotechnology company, from 2005 through its acquisition by Hologic in 2008.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at the Forward Technology Conference as part of the Forward Technology Festival, an annual 10-day celebration here in Madison that organizers describe as a meeting of “fellow entrepreneurs, nerds, designers, geeks, hackers and creative professionals from the Midwest.” It was a dynamic audience and I truly enjoyed sharing some of the life and business lessons I have learned during my time here in Madison.

Mentors and friends who I have met along the way shared some of these bits of wisdom with me and others are lessons I had to learn the hard way.


Organization, plans and goals don’t accomplish much without great people. We have made attracting, motivating and retaining great people a critical priority for the leadership team at Exact Sciences. Our exceptional team members have made it possible for us to make incredible progress on the development of Cologuard, our non-invasive DNA based test for the early detection of colon cancer. 

The great people we have hired at Exact Sciences are not only smart and talented, but most importantly dedicated to the mission of our company and saving lives through screening.


Abiding by this caveat turned out to be one of the critical steps in Exact’s successful development of Cologuard.

When we “restarted” Exact in 2009 with a small team we wrote a long-term strategic plan and broke it down into years, each with three priorities. By focusing all of our effort on one major goal and not getting defocused by other products, we feel that we have been able to get more accomplished than if we had tried to do multiple things simultaneously.

Although we are working intently on developing pipeline products, we have not set timeline expectations with our board or shareholders. First things first: we need to make Cologuard successful. That success will help fuel the success of future products.


One of my favorite quotes comes from General Colin Powell: “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

Exact Sciences recently completed a more than 10,000 patient clinical study. When we launched the study we said we planned to enroll the patients over the course of 18 months. Many knowledgeable, experienced people thought this lofty goal was unattainable.

The Exact Sciences team knew it would be tough but we also knew we were up for the challenge. The power of an energetic, optimistic spirit is awesome. So is the power of negativity. This doesn’t mean not worrying in the face of failure and incompetence. Rather, it means creating a can-do environment where people can accomplish more than they believe is possible.

It was that can-do attitude and environment that has helped Exact Sciences achieve its many goals. We have faced some challenges but overcame each obstacle with optimism and teamwork. 


Tell the truth: to your investors, to your board, to your customers and above all to your team. We all have the chance to apply this rule every single day. People can smell dishonesty and phoniness a mile away.

Nothing kills a relationship or puts a company at risk faster than team members who shade the truth. Be upfront about challenges and you will create an atmosphere of trust.


We are fortunate to live in the great state of Wisconsin and the unique and vibrant city of Madison. At Exact, we feel that we ought to play an important role in making sure that we give back to our community.

Our work with the United Way demonstrates our employees’ commitment to ensuring that our entire community grows and prospers. The values of the United Way reflect the values of our company and our great people. 


I saved perhaps the most important point for last. Any success that we achieve professionally can’t compare to the importance of family. One of the things that I enjoy most here at Exact is the joy that people have for their kids, their parents and their friends. Their support and encouragement provide the fuel for our success at work.

For more updates from Kevin Conroy and the rest of the Exact Sciences team, sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo by Narayan Mahon

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Topics: Exact Sciences News

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