Cancer survivor Dave Fuehrer on leadership: Questions are the new answers
Tuesday, January 22, 2019
Dave Fuehrer had two separate diagnoses of testicular cancer, one in his 20s and the second just after he turned 30.
The experience led to GRYT Health. “GRYT really is the embodiment of what I wished I had,” said Fuehrer, the company’s co-founder and CEO.
First, GRYT is an app-based social media platform that connects cancer patients or caregivers to people with similar experiences, providing support and inspiration. Fuehrer said that’s resulted in more than 1 million interactions since GRYT launched in September 2017. That community of patients, survivors, medical professionals, researchers, and advocates is active in more than 100 nations.
Second, GRYT reports on new treatments and is a resource for credible information. Finally, it spreads news about FDA-approved advances.
“When you get FDA approval, zero percent of that patient population knows that these treatments are an option,” Fuehrer said. “It can take years to educate all of the physicians and medical teams. We’re helping to shorten that timeframe by providing people on our platform with information that’s relevant for their diagnosis.”
GRYT is based in Rochester, where Fuehrer grew up. He contracted with app-builder Fuzz in Brooklyn, and now is bringing development work Upstate, to Envative. He is also hiring, adding to the current staff of 12. This fall, GRYT will host the first Global Virtual Cancer Conference.
At age 42, Fuehrer said he is cancer free.
You came up with an innovation to reduce fear, loneliness, uncertainty, and the institutional sterility swirling around people with cancer. What’s your advice for leaders to spark innovation?
We hear an expression quite a bit in the startup world: Fall in love with the problem, not with your solution.
If we fall in love with what we create, that can be significantly different than what the problem is.
In 2018, I heard someone from the FDA say at a conference: What is bothering a physician and what is bothering a patient can be truly radically different things.
Think about how profound that statement is coming from the FDA.
So, back to your question: To me, innovation comes from listening to individuals. I'm not building a technology; I'm finding better ways to help people through challenges. Today, it may be a mobile platform. Next year, it may be something radically different.
If I stay focused on the experience that people with cancer face and what they're struggling with, if I keep trying to solve that, we stand a much better chance of innovating than if I just keep trying to make a mobile platform better.
Innovation is related to change. What’s your advice for someone leading change?
I’ll go back to what shaped me as a person and as a leader, a place that was very difficult.
So, when I was 30, I'm going through my second diagnosis. I had surgery and then had to start radiation therapy. I lived in Michigan at the time.
At the hospital where I was treated, the radiation room was in the basement. It’s a concrete and steel room with these massive radiation tubes. You'd go down into the basement, you'd get undressed, you'd put on a robe, you'd lay on this table, and the medical team would get you all situated. You’d have radiation tattoos so they know how to line up the machine on you, and they say: OK, don't move.
Then they walk to the edge of the room and pull this steel door closed. When it hit, that was the most alone and lonely moment in my life. There is a wall of concrete and steel keeping them safe from what you're going through.
In that moment, going through treatment, I knew I had lost my ability to be a father and that was something we were trying for at the time. I still didn't know if I was cancer free – a second diagnosis obviously is much more significant. Life-changing, life-shaking things were hitting me in the face.
I learned that everything I thought made life stable didn’t. The right job, the right house, the right car, all these things turned out to be not what makes them stable at all.
Change is the same way. The more we as leaders hold onto what we have, the harder it becomes to see that change can actually be a good thing.
I don't like that I went through cancer twice, and I don't like that I can't be a biological father, but I am a better human and a better leader because of what I learned. And so I'm grateful for that change because it makes me who I am and what we do now.
I don't believe I would have gotten to a place where I was so proud of this amazing team doing this kind of work, had I not gone through that.
So my advice is: Change is inherently scary, especially the bigger it is. But we can believe, we have to believe, that it can lead us to better places than where we are today.
Were you in leadership roles growing up?
I played sports and so I learned how to work with a team and to lead a team. I was in the Boy Scouts, and that is very much leadership training.
To me leadership is synonymous with character.
It's not something you do differently at work. It is who you are as a person. What's really sort of helped shape my leadership approach and style are the moments where people were open with me or vulnerable or said: You know what Dave, I don't know the answer, but we're going to figure it out.
Leadership is not about having all the answers. It's about having the courage to go figure them out.
I grew up in Webster, New York, and went to Bishop Kearney High School (Class of 1994) in Irondequoit. I started college at St. Bonaventure because they had a Division 1 baseball team. I thought my path in life was going to be a professional baseball player (catcher). I learned almost immediately that was not my chosen path – or, rather, not my talent path.
I came back to Rochester. I went to RIT for my undergrad in communication. Then I went on to RIT to do my MBA in technology management.
I was diagnosed with cancer the first time in my senior year in a communication program and a few months before I started an MBA in technology management. If you think about those three things – cancer, communication and technology – what I do with my life now is connect those three things to help others.
Tell me about early mentors or influences.
My family, of course, my parents (Craig and Jean). My dad was awarded the Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam. When we were growing up, his expression was: The difficult we do immediately; the impossible just takes us a little longer.
Both of my parents always believed in me and taught me that if I believe in myself, we can do impossible things.
The people that taught me at RIT weren’t just communicators. They cared deeply, they looked for meaning, and they had some of the most amazing advocacy backgrounds. One of the professors, Dr. Diane Hope, was a part of the women’s movement and equality movements. People like her taught me how to stand up for things. They taught me how to communicate. It’s not just talking. It’s listening, it’s really connecting with people around meaning. We see things differently, we talk differently, we look differently.
Diane Hope was a deeply influential person at that moment in my life. She actually passed from cancer a few years ago.
What’s your advice for effective leadership?
The most important thing to convey is: Questions are the new answers.
You have to ask questions and not look like you always have the answer.
I used to feel the pressure of making the right decision or knowing the right answer. The more complex and the more significant the things we work on, the harder it is to find the answers.
If I put that pressure on myself or limit who's involved in problem solving, we can never get to the right approach.
It is important to say to my team or to say to others we work with: I don't know right now.
Running a startup in a technology platform and working with healthcare companies is incredibly complex. When I come into work, I'm looking to see what problem we're trying to solve, and I'm the first one to say: Boy, this is something I haven't seen yet. I don't know what the answer is, but we are going to figure it out.
Then it’s bringing our team together or the right members of our team or the right members of our community to solve it together.
To me, everything comes back to authenticity. In my previous life, going through two cancer diagnoses, I would go into work every day in my suit and tie almost as my armor trying to pretend like I was unaffected.
What happened was I really created two Daves. I created that suit-and-tie Dave, who was a facade to deal with the pain I was going through. Then I would go home and be this cancer-patient Dave, and it was overwhelming and scary and lonely.
Over these last 10 years, I've been trying to bring myself together as one authentic person. So, my other leadership advice is: Don't feel like you have to build a persona or build some kind of leadership exterior.
People will respect you the most if they know that you're being who you are and making decisions based on what's important.
When you see a good leader and effective leadership, what qualities do you see?
There is a graphic that I see floating around Facebook and LinkedIn all the time. The top half says boss, and it's this person standing to the side yelling at a team to do something. The bottom half says leader, and it's the person in there with the team to help something happen.
That's what defines great leadership. Your team knows that you're alongside them, supporting them. They know that you trust them and that they trust you. They know you're all working toward the same goal.
Another quality is being genuine. I’ve bumped into people at different points in my career who want to come across as if they have all the answers. The problems that we are solving today are so complex, that can never be the case.
People that are genuine and courageous enough to be truthful have qualities I respect.
When you see ineffective leadership, the kind of boss you saw in that social-media image, what attributes do you see?
I had someone in a leadership role say to me once: I want to get to a steady state; we gotta get this to a steady state.
It really affected me because in healthcare, but in almost any area where you're leading people, it's a myth to think that things will be steady. Change and human dynamics and all these things come at us every day. This is the arena of life.
We can’t pretend that, oh, someday we're going to get to this steady place where we have it all figured out. That never happens when we're really trying to help and understand people. It is a constantly evolving dynamic situation. And I never tried to get myself comfortable enough to think we're going to figure it out completely. I respect people that try to figure it out each day, who learn from mistakes and the unexpected.
Things don't always work out, and we can't always be right. Defeat can seem crushing.
When we're strong enough to acknowledge or to admit that something didn't go right and use it as a lesson versus something to hide, that to me is the difference between poor and great leadership.
During my second cancer diagnosis, I was reading a ton and trying to find examples. I read Michael J. Fox’s book (Lucky Man: A Memoir). He wrote: Seeing what I've lost makes me realize how much I've gained.
I live that every day.
Working in cancer, we're going to have to face loss. It's hurtful, and it's hard. But I choose every day to focus on how much we're doing and how much we're moving forward. I want to keep finding new ways because people's lives depend on it. And I know how scary it is to be in that situation.
What do you think people want from their leaders?
People want the same things that they want from any relationship. If I think of my relationship with my wife, we want love and trust and commitment. I don't think that going to work should be different.
My team and I need those things to able to work confidently. I would never do something to betray their trust or treat them as anything other than amazing people who are doing amazing work.