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North Star Leaders Podcast

Elena Donio

Season 2 Episode 7 4 Jun 2024

Transcript

Elena Donio:

It's very important to give the organization examples of how to manage through paradox, how to manage through a situation where pushing on one thing makes another thing explode or get worse, and how are we going to make decisions around how much to push in one given area at the expense of another.

Lindsay Pedersen:

The world needs what only your business can bring, and as a leader, it's your job to deliver. But where do you focus? Where do you direct your time, your team, your budget, and your emotional energy? We are learning this together on the North Star Leaders podcast. I'll be talking to purpose-driven leaders about the choices they make to create audacious economic value while also realizing their distinctive purpose. I'm Lindsay Peterson, brand strategist, author of Forging an Ironclad Brand and host of the North Star Leaders podcast. Let's get to it.

Today, I am really happy to be joined by Elena Donio. Elena has been CEO of Axiom, she was president at Concur, holding leadership roles at Concur from the early days through the IPO, and she now has been advisor and board member for companies like Twilio, Benchling, Databricks, Contentful, and Payscale. Elena, welcome to the show.

Elena Donio:

Thank you so much. Good to be here.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I'm so glad to have you. Okay, Elena, to start us off, what is your favorite thing about what you do?

Elena Donio:

Has to be making an impact on the next-generation of talent. I am so passionate about seeing young women particular, but young men also, growing up in our industry making an impact, finding their way in their careers, learning, growing, contributing. And that's at this stage in my life and career what I'm playing for, I just want to be of help and service to that generation of talent.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What was that born from, or have you always had a knack for an interest in mentoring people behind you?

Elena Donio:

I think there was this moment in my career, maybe midway through my career, where something really flipped in me, and it came from having spent the whole first half of my career just running 1 million miles an hour, trying to keep it all straight, chasing the things that needed to be chased for each individual company or project I was working on, the people I was working for, etc. And finally, at some point after I had my second child, I think I was really grappling with, what am I doing? Am I a good mom? Am I a good leader? Am I a good corporate citizen? Am I a good spouse? Am I a good community member, etc.? And kind of feeling like I was mediocre at all the things. And then I went through this moment where I checked out of the business world for a minute, I did some nonprofit work etc., and I was lucky enough to have worked for Raj Singh, who's also been a guest on your show. And he kind of pulled me back into the fold, into the corporate world where I really, really missed what I'd been doing.

I really missed the rewards of it, the gratification of accomplishment, and all of that, and I'm just doing the work in technology. So I came back in, and at that point, I realized that all the running I was doing, all of the work I was doing in trying to build my own career and make all of my own personal dots connect around all of this, like I just wasn't serving that next-generation of talent. Being a mom, being a leader, being an executive, I wasn't talking about those stories enough. And I think I became someone that was doing a job that looked probably pretty inaccessible in the same way that a lot of the women that I looked up to in the early days of my career were living lives that I didn't necessarily want, and I thought that's kind of what it took.

And so, here I am halfway through my career looking at this world where I was realizing, okay, there is a way to do this, there is a way to be a leader, and a technologist, and a product person, and a salesperson, and a customer facing person and all of that, but to also be an authentic leader that is really bringing my whole self to the table. And so, I started talking more about my kids, I started talking more about what it was like to have to try to live all of these parts of myself, all this dimensionality at the same time.

And I think when I started doing that, when I started being more vocal, and I started telling the story more, I feel like, at that time, the next-generation of talent, the younger talent started to attach to me in a way that was really special and really meaningful for me. I just started to hear their stories, I started to hear about the things they wanted, and a lot of the questions about, could they do it? When should they do it? How should they do it? And I just found that more gratifying than just about anything else I was working on.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Wow. I can just imagine having been there myself and also just empathizing with these people. The sense of relief when you start talking about your kids and you start showing sides of yourself that are not as polished as they once might have been, or these moments of your just humanness that gives permission to be that too, it's really moving how simple that was and how much power it gives others and you.

Elena Donio:

I think so too. I think it's all about a word we're using a lot these days, and that's vulnerability. Being willing to show up a couple of minutes late or when you're running out to a kid event, or in the case of my first son, I had to run out and breastfeed because he wouldn't take a bottle, and I was running out of these important meetings, not saying why, not saying where, not trying to hide at all. And it is so much more fulfilling when you can just surround yourself with people where you can say, "Yeah, I got a thing. I got a little bit of a crisis right now. Here's what it is, I'm going to tell you a little bit about it, and then I'm going to go deal with it, and I'm going to come back and you're going to get all of me when I'm inside these four walls, and you're going to get all of me after the kids go to bed at night too. But in the meantime, there's a bunch of stuff I got to deal with, and here's what it looks like."

And it was really a relief for me personally, but I do think it also had an impact on those around me that I hope was positive, I think was positive.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. Well, and what it makes me think of is the amount of psychic energy that gets locked up when you're hiding that you need to go and breastfeed. Like just the human capacity that is lost to everybody, including yourself, including people who you could be mentoring, including your employer who you're creating economic value for, it's just such a bummer for that to not come to bear. How simple of a reframe that is?

Elena Donio:

What if you were building a company where that wasn't possible, all the talent you miss out on, and I think a lot of people in a lot of different circumstances find themselves hiding parts of themselves at work. And I would just say it's incumbent upon all of us to welcome all these different types of people and dimensions of individuals to come in and be who they are because that's how we get the best results, how we get the best work.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yes. You have said in another context that when you met with Raj Singh, when you were coming back or considering coming back, you shared with Raj that in order for you to return to lead small business at Concur, that you needed a number of things in place, boundaries around travel, and work hours, and he chuckled and said to you, "You do know that it's you that you're telling this self to." And I just kind of got goosebumps in that moment that he reflected that back to you. What was so empowering about that observation from Raj?

Elena Donio:

Well, I think it was that what he was telling me is that I didn't need someone else's permission to do the role the way that I needed to do it. And it was incredibly empowering, and he was right, I was telling myself, but I needed him to know, I needed him to just nod, I needed him to say it's okay for right or wrong, that's what I needed from him in the moment. And I think he's the kind of leader that makes you feel like whatever you can give is enough. And I try to do that for other people as well, particularly incredible, thoughtful, ambitious, passionate talent, I'll take 80% of those people on any given day, I'll take 50% on a lot of days because that's enough.

And our careers are not happening in straight lines. There are years when I'm giving 130%, and there are years when I'm giving 85%, but overall, the journey is long and we've got to maintain our energy, we got to maintain our passion, we got to maintain our sense of self, which means having room for other creative outlets for family and things like that. And I think now I'm sitting at this point where my kids don't need me so much in the same way that they used to. They need me in ways that are emotionally big, but from a time perspective, not as much. And so, I got a lot to give right now at this point in my career.

Lindsay Pedersen:

When I think of that, the capacity meter, the 80%, 135%, 20% sometimes, 150% maybe for a very short period of time, it made me think of a conversation that you and I have separately had around how leadership is the art of navigating short-term and long-term trade-offs, and I mean, capacity is just one way that shows up, but it does not help your long-term self or your long-term employer to give 135% year after year after year, you just won't be there. You just can't be there. So how else does this short-term, long-term, continual dance, how does that show up for you as a leader, and maybe even also for leaders that you're mentoring that you've given guidance to?

Elena Donio:

Yeah. Yeah. I think we demand so much of each other in these very short time slices. I don't know what the average employee tenure is right now in my industry, but I think it's something south of three years, maybe a little bit north of two years. It's a very, very short period of time. And so, we are in this constant world of what have you delivered this week, this month, this quarter, etc. And that makes total sense, but I think it's incumbent upon the leaders that are making their strategic decisions and driving the strategic agenda for our companies to be able to say, "Okay, each of those short-term measurement periods are leading to something that's really important and special and discontinuous in the long-term, and not focusing so much on a deliverable that is three or four months in length at the expense of really thinking about how all these small things are leading to something big."

It's really hard in a world where we're measured externally on a quarterly basis as well, but I think with the right narrative, the right story, the right evidence points along the way, it is possible to run an organization for long-term good, it's just hard. It's just hard to figure out what track to lay in the short-term so that you afford yourself this space to work on the long-term. And we have to make those trade-offs every single day, something that might be a shortcut and show good value in the short-term may come around to bite us in the long-term. And that could happen everything from unstable code to customer commitments that we make good on despite our best intentions. And so, managing that conflict I think is really important, and sometimes it's more art than science.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I got this vision of an athlete, especially like a pro athlete, somebody who really, really counts on their discipline. That athletes rest between races, between matches, between games, not because they're lazy, but because it's part of being an athlete, because they need to have that for the long-term. And so, as a leader, use the word discontinuous, that there are bursts of 135%, but sometimes it's almost like you have to be very deliberate in telling yourself and your team, "We're not doing 135% this week, you get to do 80." Why? Because we don't need a tennis player who's injured as we go into Wimbledon. So there's just a flip it away from the constancy of the work is actually not good for the company, but you have to be really judicious and intentional about making sure that that actually happens because the momentum and the vortex will always ask you to stay on email a little longer.

Elena Donio:

Oh, yeah. Yeah, you can fill up your bag. I always say this like, "No matter what size handbag I'm carrying, I'm going to fill it up." And same thing with time, and so you have to be really disciplined about time. I feel like there's this whole thing in the productivity zeitgeist about getting up at 5:00 A.M. and like, "Oh, my gosh, you get so much done from 5:00 to 8:00 A.M." And Lindsay, if you get up at 5:00 A.M. I'm so sorry, I wish I could be like that, but I'm not, I feel like sleep is such an important reset condition. And I'm a good eight hours a night kind of girl, and otherwise I'm not good and I can work longer, but I'm not as creative, I'm not as smart, I'm not as just curious.

I feel like after many years of watching myself and when I'm good and when I'm not, it really does speak to this, like you've got to take care so that you can do those 130% weeks when you need to. And to me, that comes down to discipline about how you're spending time and discipline physically. I always think about like, "I need to be in good physical shape to do this job," and that means sleep and exercise.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. Take care of your animal body.

Elena Donio:

Yes.

Lindsay Pedersen:

... like take care of your organism, and it ain't going to serve you well if you don't. I mean, it's too bad that that's so counter-cultural to say because it doesn't seem like it ought to be.

Elena Donio:

No. Sometimes I'm like, "What is wrong with me that I need eight hours of sleep?" All these incredibly powerful and productive people I talk to that are like, "I sleep maybe four or five hours, it's all I need", I'm like, "Man, how did you get handed that DAC?" Because I wish that was the case for me, but it's just not.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, I kind of just don't believe it. I just don't believe it. At least those incremental couple of hours of wakefulness are actually helpful to anybody in a meaningful way. One of the things as this podcast is called the North Star Leaders podcast because the North Star, and this is some of the things that we've been talking about, the idea of articulating a statement, or a word, or a practice, or a promise, or a mission is such a useful tool for leaders. Is that something at Concur or at any of your roles actually throughout your career that you've leveraged, has there been an explicit mission promise, value tagline, whatever, that you have found disproportionately useful for some of the things that we've been talking about for growing while also being enduring and durable?

Elena Donio:

Yeah, and I think that's where a lot of what I think a good value system has in it is some paradox, but then some norms to help you work through paradox. Like if we're customer-obsessed, but we're also on a road to profitability, how do you reconcile the two things? And I think that's a daily practice while we reconcile it through the way we collaborate, through the way that we're transparent with one another, through the way that we create accountability in the organization. And so, yes to a North Star, but I don't think the North Star can be absent a discussion of values and norms. And so, at Concur, we might've been working toward helping our customers be efficient. Really that's what we were about in expense reporting and travel, it's about efficiency, and efficiency drives profitability for our customers. But that's not that exciting, a lot of what's exciting about it is how you do it, how customer-centric you are, and how you treat your people, and how you make decisions, and what the spirit of transparency and accountability looks like in the organization.

And so, I think we had a business goal and a mission that we were embarking on for our customers year in and year out. But I think what made the company so much fun and so magical was the how, not necessarily the what. And I've seen that play out again and again in my career. At Axiom, it's also an efficiency story, we're trying to put fantastic legal talent to work on some of the world's most interesting and novel legal problems while building legal technology as well. So, also a story about efficiency, but there, there's real tension in how are you handling the needs and wants of your legal talent with the needs and wants of your customer, and there's always tension in that. And I think a mistake that people make, which is something you and I talked about as well, is in thinking that the North Star is only one thing and should be operated against in a vacuum without having to navigate any kind of paradox, I think that's sort of a false choice.

Like if I was working in a marketplace company like Axiom and I said, "Well, legal talent is more important than the customer," it's like, no, both things have to be true, both things have to be operating really well. And I think it's very important to give the organization examples of how to manage through paradox, how to manage through a situation where pushing on one thing makes another thing explode or get worse, and how are we going to make decisions around how much to push in one given area at the expense of another.

Lindsay Pedersen:

A few things that I love, one is that the how alone can be a source of differentiation, there's the why, there's the how, and the what might be more fixed, well, actually the what probably isn't fixed either, but the how is what, even for a very functional, rational customer promise, can not only create competitive mode, but also be more fun to work for, like that's where the spirit is. I also think it's really interesting to think about because everything you do in leadership is a paradox in a lot of ways and how the values, the way that you think of your how can help you negotiate that paradox because you do have to negotiate it, like at one point, whether you're doing it explicitly, proactively, or passively, you are making a choice in the decisions that you make and the way that you lead.

So the how, the things that we deem the most important for how we come across, how we act, what we're like, that alone is a tool, that's scalable that the whole organization can embrace. Now that you're an advisor and you're a board director, and you work with leaders who are in the trenches, what's different for you? What surprised you now that you have a little bit of distance from yourself being in the trenches?

Elena Donio:

Yeah. I'm just beginning to have that distance now. I'm just wrapping up two years at Twilio where I came in as an operator after serving on the board for six years. And so, it's a little bit early on this early advisory and board journey, but I have done board work for a number of years, and I've always tried to have my hand in advising and mentoring, and things like that. The thing that's happening right now is I think we're in a particularly difficult season in the industry. I'm certainly involved with companies that are doing phenomenally well and are leaning into this period of explosive growth in AI and in data, and that's really, really exciting. And there are other places where the interest rate environment being what it is, and the investment environment on behalf of enterprise customers being what it is, it can be really hard out there.

And I think one of the things I'm spending a lot of time on is just helping people through this idea of how do we keep people connected to the mission during a time when there's a fear that the economic payoff might not be quite as exciting as it was leading up to and into the beginning stages, that pandemic. We talk a lot about how financial reward is one thing, and sometimes it can paper over a lot of other problems like, gosh, I'm willing to tolerate a lot if the bank account is growing substantively, but then when it's not, I feel like people are picking their heads up and saying, "Am I in the right place? Do I like this? Am I passionate about it? Is it exciting?" And so, I spent a lot of time talking with people about how to keep individuals engaged during a time when we might not have a lot, we can do economically or a lot more sort of outside the box thinking we can do economically.

And I think that comes down to there are ways to challenge and excite and engage people outside of compensation. We always say that, but I think we're really being tested right now, I think about working with people to come up with creative ideas. If a company is not growing in terms of headcount, it's hard for people to see the next job. It's hard for them to see like, "Okay, well, it used to be that five VP positions were created every other quarter, and that's not the case anymore because we're not growing, and yet we want to retain our people, and we want our people to grow intellectually, and we want them to grow professionally, but I don't have the next job to put them in."

And so, it's a really unique time along those lines, when these hyper growth companies in our industry are not so much hyper growth at the moment. And I think it's incumbent upon leaders to invent and create career moments, career opportunities that don't necessarily mean there's a new vacancy that that person has to get in. And so, what can we be doing to challenge people to put them in front of our biggest problems, to put them in front of our biggest customers, to put them in front of our biggest opportunities, regardless of whether that next chair that has the word manager on it or leader on it exists in the moment?

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh, my gosh, yes to all of that. It's so true that money hides all sorts of sin in a way, right? It's great and it prevents one from being creative sometimes, or it can allow one to rest on one's laurels with a different domain of their role. And so, I love thinking of the strange environment that the industry is in right now, being itself an opportunity for personal growth and leadership growth. Why? Because you have to. You don't have the luxury of throwing money at it, or throwing titles at it, or all of the things that come from money, and so it's actually a gift for a leader to lead during a time like this because they have to show up in a way that they haven't had to before. And then when times are good again, that's still, they're always have that asset, that skill, that competency.

Elena Donio:

Oh, for sure. I can reflect back on sitting in rooms with bankers and presenting my company or my product or whatever, and having them say, "Okay, well, how will you handle a downturn?" And me reflecting back on like, "Well, what I learned in 2008, 2007, 2008 was the following." Someday we're going to be reflecting back in those very similar realms, and we're going to say, "Well, in 2023, 2024, here's how we navigated this. Here's how we survived. Here's how we thrived. Here's what we learned." And so, those lessons are really, really valuable, but we have to sit in them and get creative around them, and not lose faith. If we really believe in the company and what we're after and the mission and the product, not lose faith, and take the lessons for what they are and know that that's really valuable. It might not be coming in the form of equity valuation expansion, it might be coming in the form of something that will be much more meaningful actually in the long-term.

Lindsay Pedersen:

That's so much, Elena. Okay. Are you ready for some rapid fire questions?

Elena Donio:

Let's do it. I have done no prep for your rapid fire questions, so this will be really from the hip.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. Ooh, okay. I won't take advantage of that, I promise. What is your favorite way to spend a Friday night?

Elena Donio:

Oh, having dinner with my husband and a nice glass of wine.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What was your last splurge purchase?

Elena Donio:

I bought a piece of art today from an artist in Rwanda that I met in-person last week when I was there.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh, my goodness. Today, just today?

Elena Donio:

Today. Today I just finished the wire wall right before we were talking. Yeah. I'm so excited about it. He's amazing.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What a great splurge purchase.

Elena Donio:

Yeah.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. What is the best flavor and brand of ice cream?

Elena Donio:

Swensen's Swiss Orange Chip.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Ooh.

Elena Donio:

Do you even know what that is? No, because it's from Swensen's. It was a San Francisco company.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Is this in San Francisco?

Elena Donio:

I think they still have one shop, but my first actual real job where I got a real paycheck was there, and they had this incredible chocolate orange flavor that nobody makes anything like it, it's delicious.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh, my God, that sounds so good. Is Swensen's still there?

Elena Donio:

I think there's still one in San Francisco.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. Yeah.

Elena Donio:

I'm going to check that out later.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, please let me know. Okay. A TV show that you're loving right now?

Elena Donio:

I'm watching The Wire. It's really old, but it is really good.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What is your favorite form of exercise?

Elena Donio:

It was SoulCycle, but ever since the pandemic, I've been not great at getting in there, so I'm doing a lot more strength training right now. Less because it's a favorite, but more because let's just say women of my age need to be really working on bone density.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yes. Right on. So you got to eat your vegetables sometimes. Oh, my gosh, this has been so wonderful. Thank you so much for joining the show.

Elena Donio:

You are more than welcome. I love the conversation, your questions are so thought-provoking and so relevant right now. Thank you so much, Lindsay.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Thank you.

Thanks for listening to this episode of North Star Leaders. Make sure you don't miss an episode by subscribing on your favorite podcast app. For show notes, transcripts, and newsletter signup, visit ironcladbrandstrategy.com. Please join us again for another episode of North Star Leaders.

Lindsay speaking

About Lindsay

Lindsay Pedersen is a bestselling author and brand strategist with a scientific, growth-oriented approach to brand building. She has advised companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Coinstar, and IMDb.

Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered in Lindsay a deep appreciation for the executive’s charge: increasing the company’s value. There, she led mature, billion-dollar businesses and newly-launched categories, from Clorox Bleach to Armor All to Brita. In each case, she was solely responsible for increasing the business’s value.

Thanks to this executive perspective, Lindsay demands that brands be hard-working, disciplined and rigorous in growing a business. Her brand strategies are tested in the crucible of her proprietary Ironclad Method. Lindsay arms leaders with an empowering understanding of brand, and an ironclad brand strategy to guide choices as they grow.