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Elena Donio speaks at Seattle University
Elena Donio speaks at Seattle University in Seattle on Wednesday night.

Elena Donio takes workplace culture seriously. During her 18 years at Concur, serving as the company’s president for the last two years, she helped shape an open, comfortable culture that she loved working in.

So taking another job was almost out of the question when she sat down to dinner with Mark Harris, CEO of New York-based digital legal services provider Axiom. Harris, though, had a plan.

“He had a little red folder in his bag, and he handed it to me as we were leaving the restaurant,” said Donio, who spoke Wednesday night at the Albers Executive Speaker Series at Seattle University, just a few hours after it was announced that she was leaving Concur to join Axiom as CEO. “And 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.'”

Mark Harris, CEO of Axiom, who will step down at the end of november. Photo: Axiom.
Mark Harris, CEO of Axiom, who will step up to become the company’s executive chairman at the end of november. Photo: Axiom.

Harris asked her to read them and help him recruit an exec that he thought would be a good fit for the company.

Donio put the folder aside and nearly forgot about it. A couple of days later, she found it in her home office and started leafing through the employee 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,” recalled Donio. “They were funny, they were embarrassing, they were heartwarming, they were these incredible set of stories about these life building and life affirming stories that happened at work.”

Donio was, of course, the exec he had in mind, and those emails were all it took.

Now, Donio is hoping to recreate some of the strong culture that she helped establish at Concur at her new job at Axiom. Of course, parachuting a culture into a 16-year-old company with more than 2,000 employees is a foolhardy task.

So, Donio is taking a collaborative and open approach.

“I got to meet 35 of the top leaders last week, and I started by talking about why I was there and having a conversation about why the work that they had done made it appealing for me to be there,” she said.

“And then I also made a slideshow about my family, because I felt like they should know what I’m doing when I’m not with them,” said Donio, who plans to initially commute to various Axiom locations during her first year on the job. “I had slides of my dog and some of our hobbies and of me fishing and woodworking and doing all of these crazy things.”

Donio said she hopes steps like these will help break down some of the early walls that can make high-level transitions difficult, and could result in an uncomfortable or closed off culture down the line.

She also offered words of wisdom for those who want to change or implement a culture at their workplace that makes them comfortable and productive.

The first step is to establish strong core values.

Donio described her early days at Concur, when the company missed earnings on their first report after their IPO. The company was in crisis mode.

“Instead of starting to write that next line of code, instead of starting to sharpen the pencils on the financial model, we sat in a room as a leadership team and started talking about values,” Donio said.

She said it seemed completely insane to a lot of people, but that this first step helped guide the company through a tough time and cemented the workplace culture that she and other Concur employees love about the company.

Donio said it was important to make the values they came up with authentic, not just poster slogans that people didn’t really feel genuine about. Passion, love, responsibility, trust, and transparency came up again and again in this conversation, she said.

Once a company has thought about their values and identity, it’s important to keep that momentum going, particularly when making decisions like hiring.

At Concur, Donio said she would ask candidates about moments they were proud of or when they struggled, and look for passion in their responses.

“What I was looking for was light. I was looking for a little fire in them,” she said.

On the flip side, when candidates are interviewing, they should openly ask about a company’s culture to make sure they are a good fit. “You can learn a lot about asking about culture, about values, about how decisions are made,” she said.

And finally, a company’s culture won’t stay the same over time.

“I don’t think culture has to be static. I think it gets to evolve as you grow,” Donio said. “The most important thing is to pay attention and put in the genuine effort to make sure people are excited and engaged with their workplace.”

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