How I build an engaged team at Axonify

By: Carol Leaman, President and CEO of Axonify

Attracting talent is tough, but keeping them happy and highly engaged is even tougher. I’m now leading my fourth early-stage technology company here in Waterloo called Axonify and I’ve seen first hand how the talent market has evolved. As the city becomes more of a player in the technology market, it’s gotten more challenging over the years to attract and keep top talent — especially when more and more exciting startups (and former startups) are opening their doors in the city. One of those companies, Shopify, recently declared that they’re opening an office here and will be hiring 300 people. It’s a great win for Waterloo, but it also means the talent market just got more competitive.

It also reaffirms the importance of something I already keep at the top of my priority list: finding, keeping, and motivating the best people. Finding and nurturing talent is so critical no matter the size of your company. In fact, I spend half of my time on activities related to people that work at Axonify.

Culture is so important and our company, and its something I work on improving on a daily basis.

Here’s some of the important activities that I think are sometimes easy to overlook when it comes to engagement.

Select people who are right for an early stage company

Everyone talks about the importance of hiring right, and each organization will have its own unique characteristics that are important. That’s why as a leader, I stay involved in the hiring process. Not everyone will be a natural fit for a startup or early-stage company. It takes a special kind of person to really thrive in that environment. Employees working in startup or early stage companies must assume a level of risk that many people would find uncomfortable. They must find a way to channel that uncertainty into opportunity and reward.

There’s definitely a set of characteristics that make people deal better with the uncertainty and risk. For one, I find that people who are adaptable and find freedom in not being put in a box with a narrow set of responsibilities are a great fit for startups. These people are willing to think in a free form format and work best in a less structured environment. They are overachievers who don’t need to be told what to do. Their contributions go beyond their job description. They set big goals and demolish them.

That doesn’t mean you always get it right. Whenever you hire someone who doesn’t fit that description, you find that these folks self select out. It’s often not a reflection of their work ethic or capabilities, but the chaotic and fluctuating nature of a startup. While moving from a large corporation to an early stage company may be attractive to some, it’s not for everyone. Recognize that your organization isn’t right for everyone. Ensure you understand what it takes to do well at your organization and don’t be afraid to let qualified, talented people pass by if they’re not the right fit. This can be hard to resist, but it’s the first key to an engaged and motivated workforce.

Ensure you understand what it takes to do well at your organization and don’t be afraid to let qualified, talented people pass by if they’re not the right fit.

Trust is key

Going back to risk. Axonify is an early stage company so there’s some risk involved in joining the team, more than at an established business. As a result, I try to be as transparent as possible about every touch point related to our company. My employees know how much money we’re pulling in, how many customers we’ve signed, what our goals are, and most importantly, how all this relates to the work they do. You need to be completely open and honest with your staff about everything so they continue to believe and buy into the purpose and continue to be willing to take the risks working at an early stage company.

Not enough early stage CEOs are transparent. They have fear about disclosing too much to their employees. Where risk is involved, they tend to keep that information close to the chest. That’s a mistake. Keeping that information private ends up damaging your company’s culture, which is the backbone of startups and early-stage companies.

The reason why I’m not afraid to disclose the company’s most private information with my employees is because I trust them. I genuinely believe that they come into the office every morning intending to work hard, give it their all, do good things, and want to be recognized for it. They want to be successful. They want to win, too. So I treat them like partners, not like paid guns doing task work. They know what I know.

I treat them like partners, not like paid guns doing task work. They know what I know.

Focus on the individual

Before I started running my first company in 1998, I worked at KPMG for nine years in increasingly senior roles. It wasn’t until I left that I realized just how buried individual contributions are in large organizations.

As companies grow, it becomes far more complex for individuals to understand the impact they have on the overall goals of the organization. Not for any malicious reason other than sheer size, but it gets harder to see the big picture and so managers start to focus more on accomplishing their specific objectives. People lose visibility to what makes the company successful, so they spend more time thinking about what makes them as an individual successful. They adopt a “survival of the fittest” mentality and start looking out for themselves instead of focusing on the well-being of the company. Not because they’re bad people, or they’re not high-performers. It’s because they start to feel like they are a very small cog in a very big wheel so they focus on what they can control.

I don’t have that luxury and my managers don’t, either. It’s very obvious when someone on our team isn’t stepping in to do what needs to be done, even if it isn’t part of their job description. It’s all tied to trust because they know what I know, so they can make better decisions. It’s obvious who takes accountability for organizational results and who doesn’t.

Large companies will sometimes pay lip service to the importance of the individual but they don’t actually practice it. They don’t instill that sentiment in all layers of management. Accountability for the greater good of the company can get lost as an organization grows. As we’ve grown, I’ve tried very hard to ensure that the focus on individuals remains high. I try to lead by example here. I spend a great deal of time one on one with individual members of the team or in small groups. We organize social events and lunches. My office is always open. Everyone is encouraged to book a private lunch or dinner with me. Employee engagement is a never ending thought process and set of activities. I look at my role as a means of enabling the success of my employees. If we are all individually successful, we as a team will be hugely successful.

I look at my role as a means of enabling the success of my employees. If we are all individually successful, we as a team will be hugely successful.

Companies have gotten away with dismissing the importance of the individual for years, but now that we’re entering a multi-generational workforce, they are being forced to change. With the rate of turnover, the fact that people don’t stay in jobs anymore, companies have to think beyond the benefit package to keep employees engaged and motivated.

Create a high performance culture

There can be a big difference between the urgency around results that startups and early stage companies have and what big companies bring to the table. This isn’t always the case, but I find it to be true often. I’ve held leadership roles at both large and early-stage companies, so I’ve experienced the differences first-hand.

We were entertaining a partnership with a billion dollar company, a well established player in a market that’s of great interest to us. We ended up not pursuing it because the technology they built and were about to launch was three years old. It was dated. It took them three years just to re-architect a basic product they had and now it’s not relevant anymore and didn’t work well with our stuff. They knew what they had to do, but they allowed internal processes to slow things down too much. They were missing that accountability and urgency you need at an early stage company. The inability to innovate quickly, which is rooted in getting good ideas completed, is a big problem. It can kill.

The inability to innovate quickly, which is rooted in getting good ideas completed, is a big problem. It can kill.

Some people say it’s just inevitable: you lose your ability for innovation as you grow. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Google, who acquired a previous early-stage company I lead, for example, managed to maintained a culture of high performance while still focusing on the single contributions of every employee. Every company has an opportunity to innovate, but they just need to focus on performing and getting things done to realize the value.

Conclusion

I challenge myself to create the best culture possible so that I don’t have to worry about losing talent to competitors. I’m constantly thinking about how to draw in great talent and how to get them to stay with us long term. Picking the right people, delivering truthfulness and transparency, and striving for innovation is how my company will stay competitive.

Carol Leaman

Carol Leaman
Carol Leaman, President & CEO, Axonify
Carol has a 20-year history of building startups into multi-million dollar successes. She sold her previous company, PostRank, to Google in 2011. Prior to PostRank, she helmed RSS Solutions (enterprise class manufacturing software), and Fakespace (a high-end virtual reality company). She took Fakespace from $3 million to $30 million in revenue before orchestrating its acquisition in 2003, and sold RSS Solutions in 2006. Carol has won multiple awards, including the Waterloo Region Entrepreneur Hall of Fame Intrepid Award. She is currently the President & CEO of Axonify, the world’s first Employee Knowledge Platform.