Long-time tech-company leader Elena Donio, the chief executive officer of Axiom, is at the crossroads of the legal world and technology. Axiom provides companies in North America, Europe and Asia, including half of the Fortune 100 companies, with access to on-demand legal talent and services via a curated online platform.
Axiom is headquartered in New York, but Donio resides in the Seattle area and is actively involved with the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business as an MBA mentor. She previously served on the board of directors for the King County Boys and Girls Clubs as well as Seattle-based PayScale. Donio worked at Bellevue-based tech company Concur for 18 years, serving as its president for nearly two years after it was acquired by SAP in 2014 ― and prior to being hired away by Axiom in 2016.
She was on track to lead Axiom through an initial public offering, until those plans were amended late last year in the wake of the legal-services company receiving a major investment from private equity firm Permira Funds. Donio, who also served as a senior manager at Deloitte prior to her work at Concur, graduated from the University of California at San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in economics.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated? The most effective leaders in my life have been curious, hungry, disciplined, empathetic and loaded with conviction. It’s so much easier to follow someone that truly believes.
Overrated ― charisma; IQ without a balance of EQ [emotional intelligence] in order to connect with others; and analytical skills ― too much data, not enough instinct, equals too slow.
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader? Though we’ve made strides in higher education and creating a more even playing field in early career roles, there are still barriers to landing in the executive leader ranks. Some are societal and have to do with gender norms that we are still taught; some are due to bias that excludes women from getting a shot.
If I had to pick one thing that I think women can control and develop, it’s showing up with the confidence that they deserve the job, they are ready for the job and that they are destined to do the job well.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations? I hear a lot of advice that goes something along the lines of, “learn to say no.” It’s well intentioned and relates to not becoming consumed by the work.
But I’ve always lived by the mantra of “find ways to say yes.” Raise your hand. Find side projects or unsolved problems and get after them. As the work results pile up, take the extra time to get to know leaders around the company. Don’t rely on the obvious growth path. Sometimes the most exciting career moves are those that require a lateral move first.
What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you? One of my early mentors at Deloitte, Liz Fasciana, taught me to be more demanding of my peers and team. I was working on a project with high stakes and tight deadlines, shouldering a lot of the late nights myself. While we achieved fantastic outcomes, I wasn’t learning to scale because I was avoiding the conflict. She was hard on me, pushing me to push harder on the team.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?
- Get diversity in the room. Don’t make a single major decision without it.
- Place bets on unproven talent that you see a spark in.
- Always be a student.
- Tell your story.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts? For many years, I was so consumed by my immediate role and family, I neglected to form a network of any significance outside of Concur and our clients. It’s something I regret, but that I’m making up for now. Having a community is so important. It’s a vehicle for learning, finding great talent, unearthing new opportunity and giving back.
I’ve always thought about what would be most helpful to me and how I can be most helpful to others. Is it in local forums? Role-based forums? Philanthropic avenues? I’ve embraced all three at different times in my career.
What would you do differently in your career? Take an international assignment!
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon? It’s seasonal.
- Fall ― soccer sidelines.
- Winter ― ski slopes.
- Spring ― baseball sidelines.
- Summer ― reading by the pool.
What would be the title of your autobiography? My youngest son calls me fun and loud, which I see as a huge compliment, but I’m not sure it’s the best book title. How about: “Loud Optimism”?
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Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.