Axiom CEO Elena Donio: “Resilience is about accepting failure as part of any learning curve”

Resilience is like skiing: It’s easier learned young, when you can just go…without the prohibitive fear of getting hurt; when you can fall, and fall, and fall, and fall again, and pick yourself up and scale and descend the mountain anew.Resilience is about accepting failure as part of any learning curve. It was my parents […]

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Resilience is like skiing: It’s easier learned young, when you can just go…without the prohibitive fear of getting hurt; when you can fall, and fall, and fall, and fall again, and pick yourself up and scale and descend the mountain anew.

Resilience is about accepting failure as part of any learning curve. It was my parents who taught me it’s ok to lose the race, to lose the election, to not get the role…as long as you get back up and try again (and again, and again, and again). Because of them, I flexed that muscle early and often.

Resilience is having the confidence to fail. The fact that so many people lack that confidence is upsetting. The fact that so many of them are disproportionately women is tragic.

I had the pleasure to interview Elena Donio. Elena is Chief Executive Officer of Axiom, the global leader in high-caliber, on-demand legal talent. Serving over half the Fortune 100 globally, Axiom enables corporate legal departments to become more agile and efficient, and empowers lawyers to pursue more of the work they love.

Elena has over 20 years of experience in fast-paced technology companies. Prior to joining Axiom as CEO, she served as president of SAP Concur. Elena joined Concur in 1998 through the acquisition of 7Software, a Palo Alto start-up, and served in various leadership roles including the head of worldwide sales and marketing, head of product management, executive vice president and general manager of small and medium sized businesses. She helped lead the company through many transitions, including Concur’s acquisition by SAP in 2014; its transition from licensed, enterprise software to cloud-based solutions; from desktop computing to the mobile device; and from its dominant focus on large business clients to small and mid-market organizations.

Elena is a member of the Board of Directors at Twilio and PayScale. She earned her BA in Economics from the University of California, San Diego.

Thank you so much for joining us Elena! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

According to my Twitter bio, I’m a CEO, a wife, a mother, a mentor, a board member, a champion of workplace equality, and a lover of tech. That’s the abridged character count summary of me.

Here’s the longer story: After graduating college (UC San Diego), I started my career building or deploying technology, first on the road with what was then Andersen Consulting, followed by Deloitte. Then, I stepped off the consulting path to help launch a start-up — 7Software, which we sold to Portable, which would become Concur, which would become my home for the better part of the next decade.

The close of that sale marked an important new chapter in my life: New home (Seattle), and new personal story (I got married in 2000 and had three boys between 2003 and 2010).

At Concur, I learned how to lead through change: helping steer the company through its hard pivot to the cloud, launching the small and medium business (SMB) division, embracing mobility, and becoming a platform… all leading to the eventual acquisition and integration into SAP.

During that time, I learned how to be the kind of presence I wanted to be in the executive suite, while being the kind of wife and mom I wanted to be for my family. I also learned how to be the most authentic version of myself outside of both venues: teaching, travelling, exercising, volunteering, mentoring, etc., etc.

None of that learning happened overnight, without incident, or without a fair amount of mistakes. But, all of that informed my career to come: a career built on self-advocacy and self-determination.

And then came my personal pivot. In 2016, I was introduced to Axiom. I was intrigued by the idea of working to change an industry that was still operating in much the same way that it had been for a century; touched very little by technology and new ways of thinking about resourcing. I was intoxicated by the people that built the business and the spirit of a company that was pushing against the status quo. I was enticed by its growth to date, and its almost limitless opportunity to scale. And, I was taken by the potential to inject technology. Potential that I believed would become an imperative.

The rest — and best — of my story is, of course, still being written…

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that experience?

It was 2007. Concur had been my corporate home for 9 years….until it wasn’t. Until I (gradually) woke up and realized that I had built this other home with my husband and my sons and the divide between the two was breaking me — or, at least, it was no longer feeding my soul.

I had always been Elena the leader. It had been my personal brand. It had been my self-concept. I had — from my first working moments — forged a career path that was at times audacious and yet also grounded in convention.

But as much as I wanted it to fit, pretended it fit — it no longer did — at least not my full life, at least not then.

And so, I took time away from the conventional. It wasn’t to reimagine my life all at once. It was to hit reset. It was to relieve myself of the burden of the expected path — so that I had the time, the space, the freedom (and perhaps even the fear) to take stock of what mattered most.

I spent the next year consulting, travelling, exercising, volunteering, and spending time with my children. When a new business opportunity surfaced at Concur, it was then — with the clarity born from space and reflection — that I was finally able to reimagine my life: as executive, as mother, as traveler, as athlete, as mentor — all in one. Breaking from the more conventional model, crafting something different and better, grounded in experience, fueled by a vision of what could be.

The year I took off (and the years of change since then) have taught me three critical lessons that continue to allow me to refuel, repurpose, and reimagine. Regularly benchmarking myself against these lessons provides me with the certainty that I’m on the right path, and when I’m not, the agency to change it.

  1. Live a Big Life: Pursue passions on and off the clock that help open your mind and develop space for creativity. Live all the facets of you.
  2. Live an Authentic Life: Own those many facets, be present in them, and show up with them on display — without apology.
  3. Live a Collaborative Life: Work in, and build, environments that feel like home. Surround yourself with allies — those colleagues and friends who make you your best self.

(Bonus Lesson: Live a Rested Life: Sleep! None of this works without it.)

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am as grateful a mentee as I am passionate a mentor. Maybe that’s because I have had the good fortune to have some exceptional people in in my life and career who have helped guide me along the way. There are (almost) too many to name, so I’ll leave the list at two:

Rajeev Singh: Raj is the former President and Co-Founder of Concur and remains my most influential mentor. Learning from Raj was a daily gift. He pushed me to try new things, embrace big ideas, and to do it my way (on my, self-advocated, terms). He has a fantastic ability to embrace diversity of thinking and get the most out of everyone around him. He is confident enough to let others shine. He’s demanding, but fair; encouraging, but honest. He listens before he speaks (an overlooked and underused skill).

Kathleen Philips: Kathleen is the former Chief Financial Officer, Chief Legal Officer, and Chief Operating Officer of Zillow Group. She is a current Axiom board member, and someone to whom I have recently turned for guidance, particularly as we have navigated Axiom through a period of corporate restructuring, divestiture, and new private equity ownership. Kathleen has seen the highs, lows, and near-death moments of a transaction, and, as a result, has helped me focus on what truly matters in order to land in a place that’s best for Axiom’s shareholders, employees, and clients over the long-term. She’s taught me invaluable lessons about how to put decisions into perspective and right-size boxes.

What do you think makes Axiom? Can you share a story?

What makes Axiom Axiom? One red folder….

It was 2016. I was very happy at Concur. I wasn’t looking to leave.

Axiom co-founder at CEO Mark Harris had convinced me to turn a scheduled phone introduction into a breakfast meeting.

We’d had a wonderful meal and an equally wonderful exchange of ideas about culture, category creation, growth, scale, you name it. What there hadn’t been, however, was any meaningful conversation about me joining Axiom. I’d made it clear: I was happy at Concur; I wasn’t going anywhere.

As we were leaving he said, “I had a feeling that you would care about this, so I asked 25 people in the company to tell me why they work here,” and handed me this little red folder he’d kept in his bag all night. His ask was simple: If the contents of the folder moved me, I would agree to a second meeting.

I left breakfast, put the folder aside, and nearly forgot about it. A couple of days later, I found it in my home office and started leafing through the letters.

I read one email. And the next one, and the next one, and these 25 emails looked like they could have been written by people I know; by people I liked! They were funny, they were embarrassing, they were heartwarming, they were these incredible life-building and life-affirming stories that happened at work.

I was, it turned out, moved. The company excited me, the opportunity to transform an industry motivated me. But, those letters sold me.

Those letters are what makes Axiom Axiom. Those stories still serve as my north star as we navigate Axiom’s journey of scale. Axiom will grow, change, and evolve. What must never change is the priority we place on our culture and our (diverse, challenging, ambitious, smart, engaged, letter-writing) people.

We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience is like skiing: It’s easier learned young, when you can just go…without the prohibitive fear of getting hurt; when you can fall, and fall, and fall, and fall again, and pick yourself up and scale and descend the mountain anew.

Resilience is about accepting failure as part of any learning curve. It was my parents who taught me it’s ok to lose the race, to lose the election, to not get the role…as long as you get back up and try again (and again, and again, and again). Because of them, I flexed that muscle early and often.

Resilience is having the confidence to fail. The fact that so many people lack that confidence is upsetting. The fact that so many of them are disproportionately women is tragic.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

While resilience is a trait that may be easier developed when young, the truth is it can also be born from life lessons and struggles along that way. A friend and mentee of mine suffered a serious personal loss mid-way through her career, and from that, built — and flexed — her resilience muscle; turning from tragedy into the next chapter of her life, both professionally and personally.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

They said building the SMB business at Concur was impossible. The customer was too expensive to attract and serve. SMB would end up cannibalizing the enterprise business. It wouldn’t scale fast enough to meet the requirements of the business.

The opposite was true. We built a new muscle within Concur, created a whole new, important and still growing cohort of clients, and added hundreds of new jobs the business; cultivating the next generation of talent in the process.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

It’s my “reimagine” story. I referenced it earlier:

It’s 2007. I’d been with Concur through the dot-com boom and bust and held various roles from Product Manager to head of Sales and Marketing. I’d had my first two sons, each time taking maternity leave and each time struggling with reentry.

I was “balancing” my career, my husband’s career, and two boys under 4…and the truth is, I was overwhelmingly unbalanced. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know how to do what I was trying to do — be a mom and an executive. There were very few role models in my life. My peers were men that had partners at home.

So I took a break, electing to leave rather than take a less demanding role that did not give me a seat at the decision-making table. After a year of consulting, traveling, exercising, and time with my kids, Raj called with an offer to run Concur’s SMB division. The offer set off an intense period of self-reflection and career “reimagination.”

I met Raj for breakfast and said, “I will do this job, but I have a whole long list of conditions including limited travel and I am going to work from home whenever I want.” I may have also told him that he should be prepared that I wanted to have another kid. As I was listing these conditions he started laughing. I asked why, and he said, “You do know that you are talking to yourself now and not me, don’t you?”

When I returned to work, I committed to compete on what mattered, letting go of measures that didn’t matter like hours and air miles.

And then a male colleague, a new single parent, helped crystalize what had been missing for me — and many women — in seeking balance between professional success and family: acknowledgement of it all.

He parented so loudly. I had been downplaying family demands at work for years. And then here’s this dad who’s talking really loudly about how exhausting kids were.

His loud parenting made me realize I wasn’t doing it right: I needed to parent loudly too — not only for myself — but so that the next generation of talent, men and women, could see a leader willing to live a big, loud life, unapologetically.

I WANT executive roles to look, feel, BE accessible; for the next generation of talent to aspire to stay in because they know they can be fully expressed, authentic humans, true to their values.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

My stories of resiliency growing up mostly center around my dad, who is still a dramatic force in my life. He was constantly telling me I could go anywhere and do anything. He had high expectations — we were to work hard and excel in school. No excuses. Through every failure and rejection, through every victory, he was there with the same message, “I’m proud of you. You can do this.”

He still says this to me at least once a week. I don’t think I need it anymore, but it reminds me to share it with the young women around me. And I’m grateful for that.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Practice getting outside of your comfort zone: Do something scary; pick your thing and offer to do it whether it is giving a talk or leading a program or coordinating a philanthropic endeavor.
  2. Depend on your friends and family: Rely on your friends and family who make you feel awesome about yourself no matter what happens.
  3. Find your professional network: Find your network of people, both inside and outside the company, who help pick you up when things don’t go well. For me, these include people with whom I sit on boards, and people with whom I worked (or worked for): Jen Morgan and Raj Singh. They not only dispense wisdom but remind me of who I am and keep me grounded.
  4. Define your rules of mourning: Determine how long you will let yourself obsess over what didn’t work out. Choose which techniques for self-care will help you move on.
  5. Get in the habit of dreaming bigger: Take what you are doing today and play with boundaries to broaden what you are doing; Ask yourself “what if” questions to expand your thinking to push harder: “What would it mean if…”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I want more women to feel the calling do something big in the world.

I want more men to feel good about supporting someone else’s dreams; to take a backseat professionally and be the lead parent… and be okay with that, (as women have been doing for centuries).

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston.

I like “The Morning Show,” but I don’t like the lack of confident women in the series.

As I’m watching, I’m craving a powerful, self-actualized female character. Not only do I think that would be an accurate portrayal of the type of women who might climb to the top of the network news business, I also think it’s incumbent upon strong women to create compelling images of other strong women.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter @elenadonio


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