Serial entrepreneur Carol Leaman knows the value of taking a risk. In 2011, when Google wanted to buy PostRank, her social media analytics company, she made the decision not to join the tech giant. Instead, Leaman opted to buy the code herself. That was the start of Waterloo-based Axonify, which develops productivity-enhancing software focused on communication and training for frontline workers. Leaman hasn’t looked back since.
Here, she shares her thoughts on how jobs have evolved over generations, how to foster staff loyalty and how to find balance in an always-on work environment.
Has the tight labour market affected how employers think about training?
Everybody is talking about career progression, career mobility and how to hire people effectively — and then how to keep them motivated and connected so they want to stay. Hiring is super competitive, and it’s in employers’ best interests to hold on to people who have knowledge about their business and customers for as long as they possibly can.
Why is it important for companies to put that thought and investment into their workforce?
It’s crystal clear: these people have a direct, daily impact on your bottom line. Their impact on expense-related items, revenue generation, even customer loyalty and customer satisfaction is huge. And the world is very competitive now, especially in markets like retail. So, if you don’t provide an in-store customer experience that is superlative, you’re not going to get people back. Whether we’re talking about a repair engineer out in the field, an associate working in a store or someone in a call centre, everything these individuals do during every moment of every shift can have a significant impact on your financial outcomes. If you don’t train people and don’t communicate well with them, millions of dollars can go away.
What kind of training did you get at your first job?
Pretty much non-existent. I’m a chartered accountant. Back then, your manager said, “Today, you’re going to go get these invoices.” There was very little explanation about why. Email was in its infancy; we didn’t have cell phones. You just had a manager who gave direction and provided information.
I recently saw a tweet that said, “How did jobs work before email… did you just get home from work and work was over?” Was that your experience? Because now, work feels like it never ends.
For me, a workday lasted 14 hours. You were expected to stay until your manager said you could go home. There was no, “Oh, I’ve got racquetball tonight.” Work-life balance was not a conversation. But because there weren’t cell phones or email at home, nobody could communicate with you after hours.
In some ways that culture of overwork isn’t vastly different from the culture of overwork that we see now.
I was as stressed then as I am now. It’s just different. I could disconnect before: when I got home at 8 or 9 p.m., no one could reach me. Whereas now, I might go home at five but I’ll have a hundred emails to answer.
One thing that does feel different is that people are pushing back against that expectation of overwork.
Yes. My leadership team grew up in that era of working as much as you need to work. But there’s a generation behind us, especially people in their 20s and 30s who aren’t yet in management, who have created better boundaries.
How do you get what you need from a workforce while still respecting your employees’ boundaries?
I remember how stressful it was having two young children and one would be sick and have to stay home from daycare. If you don’t have a forgiving employer, it exacerbates your stress. So now, I understand that situation. I know the work will get done, so I can say, “Take care of what you need to take care of.” Being able to do that for people engenders loyalty, too. It’s all about output and outcomes.
You’ve said you knew you wanted to be a CEO as a teenager. Where did that come from?
The things that interested me as a teenager were business-related, so I always had this idea that I would love to run a business. Honestly, my original desire was to be the Canadian Martha Stewart and have a multimedia company. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but she was a role model.
How do you mark milestones?
I’ve never been one to celebrate or reward myself. It is very much like, “Okay, onto the next milestone, onto the next thing I want to accomplish.”
It’s funny — for a long time, there’s been this idea that women are risk-averse. As a successful entrepreneur, what do you make of that?
When I look back, my whole life has been about taking risks and not being afraid. I was the only person in my family who went to university. Every job I’ve had, I’ve been like, “‘Should I do that? That sounds kind of scary, but it could also be good.”’
We have all experienced all kinds of crap in life. At the time, those things feel like they’re going to crush us, but they never do. Now I look back and I can barely remember them. You start to realize, “Actually, it’s okay if I make a bad choice, because I will figure it out and fix it.”
Photo credit: JD Clark Media