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Hillary Theakston: “One of the single most important traits is being prepared to take full responsibility”

Scarcity can be a gift. When I first joined, we were a small non-profit with limited resources. We had to hire people (often part time) who were willing to accept lower compensation than they were receiving in their corporate jobs, because they were personally committed our mission. We recruited passionate board members who volunteered their […]


Scarcity can be a gift. When I first joined, we were a small non-profit with limited resources. We had to hire people (often part time) who were willing to accept lower compensation than they were receiving in their corporate jobs, because they were personally committed our mission. We recruited passionate board members who volunteered their time and contributed to our growth. Attracting people who have a genuine connection with your mission is a habit that can be borne of financial necessity, but will always yield greater performance from your team, no matter the size of your organization. In addition, when resources (time, money) are scarce, you have to be especially strategic, mindful and creative about setting your priorities and identifying the most critical areas to invest in. That is a discipline that is valuable even when you have more resources to work with. We have grown to around a $2M annual budget, but we have maintained our rigor around constantly asking how we can do the greatest service in our mission and create the greatest return on our donors’ philanthropic investment.


As a part of our series about powerful female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hillary Theakston. Hillary is the Executive Director of The Clearity Foundation. Since its founding in 2008 by San Diego biotech entrepreneur and ovarian cancer survivor, Dr. Laura Shawver, Clearity has become a trusted, science-based partner for hundreds of women on the ovarian cancer journey. Clearity is an advocate for patients, a champion of personalized medicine, a promoter of science and a credible source of hope for the ovarian cancer community. Ms. Theakston began her career in the San Diego life science industry leading investor relations and public relations for Diversa Corporation, a genomic discovery company that went public in the biotech boom of 2000, raising more than $200M, which was the largest biotech IPO at the time. She then joined ResMed, an international medical device manufacturer, to direct their investor relations program and ultimately went on to lead communications for the Americas. She has also provided communications consulting to San Diego based healthcare companies. In 2011, Ms. Theakston joined The Clearity Foundation as Executive Director, fulfilling her passion for bringing cutting edge technology to underserved areas of oncology and women’s health. To date, Clearity has provided hundreds of tumor profiles to patients and families and has supported thousands of others with resources, personalized information and, most of all, hope.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My maternal grandparents died of cancer when they were relatively young. Like many families, we experienced the holes that cancer leaves in our hearts, our families and in our communities. I spent most of my career in biotech and life sciences companies because I was inspired by the opportunity to use science and technology to improve human health. I hoped that at some point I would be able to work in the oncology space in a non-profit capacity and the opportunity to join Clearity was an opportunity to connect with a mission that I was personally passionate about and used my professional experiences.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

The CEO is the keeper of the vision and the culture of the organization. Their ultimate responsibility across departments is vital to ensuring that the functions within the organization are coordinated and moving in the right direction. As a leader of other leaders, you are overseeing functions within the organization that are likely not areas of your expertise. Yet, it is important to be able to recognize high level patterns and issues that could materialize into strategic opportunities or potential problems in the future. Importantly, in both overt and subtle ways, the CEO establishes and reinforces the culture of the organization. It is important to be aware that your actions can inspire or discourage behaviors in your team.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Working with my team in creative and strategic ways.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

I think the phrase its lonely at the top summarizes it best. CEO’s are attending to the needs of their organizations and their teams. They don’t have as many opportunities to have confidants and sounding boards for their own worries and concerns.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I’m very lucky that one of the first CEOs that I worked with was a PhD scientist who didn’t set out to have the top job. As circumstances transpired at the company, he was promoted into the role from Chief Scientific Officer when the board removed the CEO. He came to the position with a sense of service to the company’s mission and a great deal of humility. He respected and trusted the members of his executive team who helped to round out the gaps in his business and finance background. He exhibited a sense of duty instead of an overcharged ego. I recall him saying that at a small company the CEO’s job is “to do whatever needs to be done, whether it’s raising the next round of financing or taking out the trash”. That quote really stuck with me, so I didn’t have an especially glamorous notion of what it means to be a CEO at a small organization.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

One of the single most important traits is being prepared to take full responsibility. As a CEO, you have to be willing to own it and own all of it. In my career, I’ve observed finger pointing and deflection and I don’t think there are many organizations that would stand for a CEO who doesn’t accept full accountability. If your motto is “own it… always” at any stage of your career, I believe you will have a greater likelihood of being entrusted with more responsibility as you advance. “Owning it” means you are prepared — a diligent, organized and a mindful planner. It also means you need to be a creative problem solver when things go wrong — humble and willing to solicit advice, resourceful, smart and an out of the box thinker.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Early in my career I was so fortunate to work for the first woman to become a Vice President at a “big 5” accounting firm. Karin Eastham was the Chief Financial Officer of Diversa Corporation, the first biotech company I worked for. She helped me in three important ways. First, she gave me a chance to take on a new area of responsibility, reporting to her in the investor relations capacity. Second, she invested in my professional development and nurtured my career growth. Third, she mentored me and provided excellent counsel and wisdom, even after we had both moved on from the company. Karin believed in mentoring women in the workplace because she had to work so hard in her male-dominated profession. She is a remarkable role model to me and to many other professional women in San Diego. She truly used her position to elevate other women in her field and blazed a trail for others.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

By working to help those who have been impacted by ovarian cancer by leading Clearity’s mission to provide better knowledge and better treatment plans for patients and families.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda

As with much timeless wisdom, there are undoubtedly many interpretations for this quote. For me, it is a call for mindfulness, full commitment and focus, which is important for a CEO managing competing priorities, but is also relevant timely in our over-committed, busy culture. It is so easy to assume a lengthy to-do list — an “I’ll try list” — and accept that perhaps not everything will get done. If a challenge arises with one project, it can be easier to move on to the next task on our seemingly endless list than to preserve and figure out how to overcome obstacles.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have lunch with President Obama. In addition to selfishly recharging my hope during this apocalyptic political climate, he should know about the work of The Clearity Foundation which is rewriting the story of ovarian cancer. President Obama lost his mother too young to this disease that claims more than 14,000 bright lights every year in this country alone. Today’s 10-year ovarian cancer survival rate of 36% is closer to the 10-year survival rate for all cancer types in 1975 (33%) than it is to the 10-year survival rate for all cancer types in 2015 (61%). Progress isn’t coming fast enough for the 24,000 of our mothers, sisters and partners who are diagnosed every year and feel left behind in the wave of progress that will, one day, bring us to a cure for all cancers.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.


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