Elena Donio -- New CEO at Axiom

Posted by Joseph Phillips on Thursday, November 3, 2016 at 3:47 PM PDT

Elena Donio, recently appointed CEO of Axiom and prior to that serving as President of Concur, joined the Albers Executive Speaker Series on November 2nd, right at the time her new role was being announced.  The title of her presentation was “Creating a Culture that Encourages Employees to be who they really are.”  From her energy, authenticity, and passion, you could tell it was a topic she can speak to from the perspective of either Concur President or Axiom CEO!


Donio started at Concur in 1998 and took on a number of leadership roles before being named president in 2014.  Along the way, the company navigated a number of key changes, including moving from licensed software to cloud based services, from desktop to mobile, and from large customers to small and medium size clients.  They also were acquired by SAP in 2014, which gave them considerable independence in operations.


While Concur helps businesses manage business and travel expenses, her new organization, Axiom, is a provider of tech-enabled legal and contract services and she will be leading 1500 employees across multiple locations on three continents.  As became clear in her remarks, Axiom will be a great match for her skill set.


Donio began her talk saying that “work should feel like home,” meaning you should feel supported and comfortable and want to be there every day.  In that environment, people will be much more productive employees.  When they walk in the door they will give it their all.


She told the story of Concur being at a moment of crisis in 1998 (a missed quarterly earnings caused the stock price to plummet), when all of the company’s leaders gathered in a conference room to articulate the firm’s values.  Elements like “collaboration,” “trust,” “transparency,” and “passion” rose to the top.  From that day on they worked to intentionally create a culture built around those values and over time they were able to build a culture that is the envy of many other organizations.


Donio shared a story that illustrates a key element of the Concur culture.  A single male employee decided he wanted to raise children, so through the miracles of modern technology twins were born.  Instead of keeping the day to day details of raising babies to himself when at work, he was out there with all the details, from diapers to ear infections.  She, on the other hand, with her three kids, was taking the opposite approach and just trying to power through it all and keep it to herself.  The revelation to her was that she needed to be more out there about her family, and doing so would be more consistent with the Concur culture. That’s part of integrating work and home life.  They really cannot be separated for engaged employees.


Every organization will have a culture, the key is to understand what culture you want to have and get to work intentionally creating that culture.  It seems that too many leaders don’t get that – they are not intentional about creating a culture that will allow others to thrive, and instead inevitably end up with something less.  I have heard no less a business leader than Alan Mulally say that the most important job of the CEO is to establish the culture.  Lucky Axiom!


In the Q&A, Donio was asked about the culture in the new company, Axiom, and with culture such an important thing for her, was she worried about the culture in Axiom?  She said she had spent considerable effort doing due diligence on this before accepting the position.  The clincher was a series of stories from Axiom employees that could have been written by colleagues at Concur.


Another question came on the scarcity of women tech leaders and her advice on finding a leadership role in a male dominated arena.  She agreed that progress for women in technology had been too slow, and noted that when women like her had that opportunity, they have a responsibility to advocate and be visible, which she is definitely trying to do.  As for advice on how to build a leadership role, she said her suggestions applied to both men and women.  First, become the expert or go-to person on something.  Do not be satisfied being a generalist, but make yourself a critical resource.  Second, say “yes” a lot, especially early in your career.  Don’t be afraid of challenging assignments or roles that require working on the weekends.  The more you know and show you can do, the more essential you become to the organization. 


Her advice specifically for men – help hold other people up, including women.  Second, don’t be alone in the room with your gender making important decisions.  You need to make sure women are also at the table.  Women must be sure to get in there and talk and get themselves heard.


As for her ending up in the tech industry, she attributes that to her mom, who worked as an administrative assistant at Apple and would bring her daughters to work.  As a result, Donio was able to see many interesting things inside Apple and came to be comfortable with all things tech.

When asked about her advice for taking a new job in a new organization, which she is now doing, she said the easy part would be the skill and qualifications piece.  What one really needs to work on is getting to know the organization and its culture, people, and possibilities.


One student wondered if the public criticism of Yahoo CEO Melissa Meyer, and the Yahoo company culture as described in the press, made it harder for Donio to get her message across.  She responded that it is very difficult to be a CEO of a publicly traded company and that she did not know all the details about Yahoo, but it struck her as a very difficult ship to turn around for any leader. 


Another question focused on the SAP acquisition of Concur and why it seemed to be working.  Donio indicated that Concur was not planning to be acquired, in fact, the intent was to be independent.  The first six to 12 months of the acquisition were difficult, as there was much to do to get aligned with SAP.  But in the end, it worked because SAP gave Concur significant freedom to move forward and gave Concur greater access to resources to pursue key initiatives. 


Donio was then asked how someone on the job market could learn about company culture. She advised to look around and see if there are empty desks and if people really want to be there?  Interact with people at all levels and pay attention to how people greet you and treat each other.  Be ready with your questions for them, including how have the organization’s values been tested.


At Concur on Monday, joining Axiom on Tuesday, and at Seattle U on Wednesday!  A busy week for Elena Donio and we are so glad she was able to be on campus and share her wisdom with our students!  She is an amazing leader and a great role model for our students to learn from!