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Issue:
January 2019 - Carol Leaman

Awards, explosive growth at Axonify

Carol Leaman is the heart-beat of the Axonify success story

by Paul Knowles

It’s rather ironic – Carol Leaman has never been a fan of awards, and yet she, and her company, Axonify, have been raking in the honours in recent months. In October, Leaman was named Canadian HR Champion in the fifth annual Canadian HR Awards, chosen “for outstanding achievements and contribution to the HR sector and for championing HR best practices.”

In April, the Globe & Mail placed Axonify sixth on the list of “Best Workplaces in Canada” – up from tenth a year previously.

And then, Axonify was named the top “Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise” in Aon’s “Best Employers in Canada”.

Leaman told Exchange, “It took me a bit of a mind-shift to understand the value of these [awards].” She says she has come to recognize that these awards underscore the positive workplace culture at Axonify, and that has become increasingly important in recruiting and retaining top employees.

“The number one question I’m asked when I interview people is, ‘What’s it like to work here, what’s the culture like?’ Ten years ago, nobody asked about the culture. Now, culture is big!”

She adds that when potential staff are looking for an employer, “People look for companies on the ‘best employer’ list.” People apply to Axonify because of its reputation, which makes awards “hugely important for us from a talent attraction perspective… and it’s also a source of pride” for the Axonify team.

As for Leaman herself? “Now, I just roll with it.”

Growth off the charts

Carol Leaman doesn’t have a lot of time to savour honours and awards, however many may come her way. She’s a serial entrepreneur who seems to have found her long-term niche at Axonify.

Leaman, and business partner Christine Tutssel – Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Axonify – bought Axonify in 2011. Leaman says the company at that point included on customer, two employees, “and some source code.”

Axonify offers a unique way of training employees, using a trademarked “microlearning platform,” and by every possible measuring stick, their investment has been a gigantic success.

Their staff now numbers 175. In 2017, the company moved across a Waterloo parking lot from their 10,000 square foot home to a new, 30,000 square foot facility – and Leaman has retained both the lease on the original property, and an option to lease on more of the building, anticipating further growth.

Revenue growth is off the charts. In 2011, the company was doing $100,000 in revenue. A year later, the total hit $300,000. Today, Axonify records $26 million in recurring revenue, with an A-list of giant corporate clients, including Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, Manulife, Citizens’ Bank in the US, M&M Food Markets, Levis, Grab Taxi – the “Uber” of south east Asia, with millions of drivers – and the two biggest banks in Africa. Leaman says their customer roster currently numbers 180 (although several significant additional contracts were pending at the time of this interview). Thirty per cent of these clients are from outside North American, 20% are Canadian, and about 50% are American.

Not surprisingly, then, Leaman says “It’s been a big year. It’s just that we are on a surge right now, and we have great customer traction.”

“It’s been a journey”

Athough Axonify’s success seems relatively sudden, Leaman argues that it did not really come quickly, and certainly not easily. Axonify’s new approach to employee training was not an instant sell to HR departments entrenched in old patterns.

“It’s been a journey,” she says. “We’re disrupting the status quo, changing the mindset of well-entrenched executives who have always done it a certain way. It’s been a journey to convince people that there is a better way.”

Given this reluctance on the part of potential clients, how did Axonify go from $100,000 to $26 million in such a relatively short time? Leaman outlines “a three-part collision of factors that have resulted in us being in the right place at the right time.”

First, she says, the characteristics of employees – what they need, to be happy – “have changed over the last 10 to 15 years.”

Along with that, there is “the evolution of technology”, to the point where “there is a computer in the hands of every employee.”

“We have an amazing product. It works, and our customers are rabid believers.”

And key to the whole process is “what we have learned about how the brain works to remember things… the evolution of cognitive science.” That is not only the key to Axonify’s success – it’s the key to their product. Leaman says that Axonify’s service combines the best in current technology with the latest in cognitive science – and that they are getting better at that, all the time.

One Axonify team member holds a PhD with a speciality in “gameification” – he’s studied how video games keep players interested, and that gets applied to Axonify’s products, so employees stay interested in their own training.

Axonify also works with Toronto-based cognitive scientist Dr. Alice Kim, an expert in neurocognitive processes that lead to improved memory, who approached Axonify when she discovered the cognitive learning processes the company was using.

Leaman says that relationship is continuing, and she credits Kim with helping the Axonify team learn more about why what they were doing worked: “We started to understand the science even better.... We have amazing product,” she adds. “It works, and our customers are rabid believers.”

The corporate world has recognized the value of what Axonify has to offer. Leaman says, “There has been a shift in the last seven years… now they’re coming to us, saying, ‘Tell us about your microlearning platform’.” She explains that this is because companies – including her own – find it difficult to “attract and retain the best people.” In fact, Axonify’s remarkable success has led to a significant amount of recruiting of her own people – “we are being inundated with recruiters” – and retention levels have dropped slightly with the company. Ironically, though, several people have recently left, and then asked if they could return, most finding their positions had already been filled.

Leaman has no doubts about the quality of her team. “I’ve had a hand in hiring most people here. We have done a really good job in attracting top-drawer people.” Those people become part of the “Axonifam” – short-hand for “family”. She adds that even if employees do move on – mostly, for opportunities to take on leadership roles that can’t always be offered at Axonify – “I want them to look back at Axonify as the best place they have worked.”

“I don’t need power”

Leaman brings a very personal touch to her role. Her office is in sharp contrast to the stereotypical “corner office suite” of many successful executives – Leaman’s office is a glass-walled box smack in the middle of the Axonify building. Virtually every employee walks past her office on a regular basis. This, says Leaman, is deliberate. “I want them to have the opportunity to pop in and say, ‘We did this yesterday,’ to give me good news, to ask me a question. One of the keys to my success is, I am just a regular person who works here and has a job to do like everyone else. I enjoy being connected with everybody.”

She brings a unique sense to her job: “I am so, not powerful. I’m at the mercy of everybody else… and I love that. I don’t need power, I don’t need ego. I need for everybody around to feel good here, every day.” But she adds, “I feel the weight of 175 people on me – I feel responsible for their success in my company. They’re counting on me… but it’s not going to change who I am.”

Exchange asked Leaman if her gender makes her a different kind of leader. She believes it does. She says that the stereotype of woman as “nurturer” holds some truth, and “There is an element of that, that does come to the workplace.”

She suspects any gender differences arise more from “socialization” than genetics, but that doesn’t make it less real. “Men are socialized in a very different way… that the right thing to be is powerful, have a big ego, talk a big game.” Leaman’s 10-person executive team is split 50/50 – which she says is a coincidence, but a happy one.

Just this month, Axonify has launched a new program, empowering a research team to start exploring possibilities “outside the box… experimentation we’re doing on the side.” This team will develop and propose new ideas and products for Axonify. Some of them will move toward commercialization, all in a calculated effort “to stay ahead of the competition,” to offer even better product and service to customers, and to create “something new, for new markets.”

Leaman is excited: “We’ll test 10 ideas, prioritize, pick the top two, and put some effort behind that.”
Will these new ideas be successful? Given Carol Leaman’s track record, the best cognitive thinkers would never bet against it.

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